Hershel Shanks Urges Megiddo Expedition to Try Wet-Sifting

Method that revealed Jerusalem’s oldest writing could be used on Megiddo’s excavation dumps

Temple Mount Sifting Project staff and volunteers carefully sift through truckloads of dirt from the Temple Mount. Thanks to the success of the project, wet-sifting is also being used to check for small finds in dirt from other excavations. This led to the discovery of Jerusalem’s oldest writing, a 14th-century cuneiform fragment. Hershel Shanks argues the Megiddo expedition could benefit from wet-sifting the site’s old excavation dumps. (Photo courtesy Todd Bolen/

The oldest writing ever found in Jerusalem almost got missed. The recently discovered fragment of cuneiform text dates to the 14th century B.C., which makes it Jerusalem’s oldest writing. It is so small that the archaeologists working at Eilat Mazar’s excavation just south of the Temple Mount didn’t see it when was dug out of the ground. In the March/April 2013 issue of BAR, editor Hershel Shanks explains how this scrap of Jerusalem’s oldest writing was saved:

I have in mind the Muslim Waqf’s illegal excavation on the Temple Mount to accommodate a new, larger entrance to the underground Marwani mosque. Truckloads of dirt were dug without regard to archaeological method and then unceremoniously dumped into the Kidron Valley.

When archaeology student Zachi Dvira (Zweig) started rummaging around in the dump, the Israel Antiquities Authority had him arrested for digging without a permit. Zachi’s teacher, prominent Jerusalem archaeologist Gaby Barkay, obtained a permit, and the two of them initiated their famous ‘sifting project.’ With the help of tens of thousands of volunteers, they have been wet-sifting the archaeologically rich dirt—and have discovered thousands of objects from ancient times, including finds from the First and Second Temple periods … this led to the thought that the dirt from professionally excavated sites should also be wet-sifted. Important small objects, like seals or seal impressions (bullae) or other inscriptions, might well be missed even in a careful, archaeologically supervised excavation.

And that’s how wet-sifting uncovered Jerusalem’s oldest writing in Eilat Mazar’s dig.


In our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries, learn the fascinating stories and insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

Hershel Shanks argues that the success of the Temple Mount Sifting Project should encourage Megiddo expedition excavators to try wet sifting these Megiddo dumps, which have already produced important finds that were missed in the earlier 1930s dig. (Photo courtesy Todd Bolen/

Hershel Shanks goes on to say that the success of wet-sifting should now be turned toward the Megiddo expedition. The current Megiddo expedition has been excavating since 1994. But large excavation dumps, mounds of excavated soil from an earlier Megiddo expedition in the 1920s and 1930s, stand adjacent to the tell. If these old excavation dumps were wet-sifted, Hershel Shanks believes they may reveal numerous small artifacts that were missed by the first Megiddo expedition.

One of the most significant finds that prompted archaeologists David Ussishkin and Israel Finkelstein to restart the Megiddo expedition in 1994 was the discovery of a Late Bronze Age (15th-13th centuries B.C.) tablet containing the famous Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. It was found in the Megiddo dumps. Hershel Shanks suggests that “Perhaps part of that cuneiform archive may still be buried in the Megiddo dump waiting to be wet-sifted.”

The Early Bronze Age Great Temple at Megiddo is “the most monumental single edifice so far uncovered in the EB I Levant and ranks among the largest structures of its time in the Near East.” Discover what the temple and Megiddo teach us about the birth of cities in the Levant.

BAS Library Members: For more about how wet-sifting revealed Jerusalem’s oldest writing and why Hershel Shanks thinks it might benefit the Tel Megiddo expedition, read Hershel Shanks, “Wet-Sift the Megiddo Dumps!” as it appears in the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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