Sifting Antiquity on the Temple Mount Sifting Project

Temple Mount Sifting Project investigates Temple Mount soil


Aerial view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Andrew Shiva’s photo is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is today a contested site. Archaeological excavations are not allowed here, though one project—the Temple Mount Sifting Project—has been analyzing soil that came from the Temple Mount since 2004. In “Relics in Rubble: The Temple Mount Sifting Project” in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Temple Mount Sifting Project codirectors Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira detail where the soil came from, how their partnership began and what ancient finds have come to light from this holy site.

Preserved as a nearly rectangular man-made platform, the Temple Mount stretches 36 acres—equivalent to about 28 football fields. Located in the current Old City of Jerusalem, the site was where King Solomon built the First Temple in the 10th century B.C.E., where the Second Temple was erected in 516 B.C.E., and where King Herod rebuilt the Temple and expanded the Temple Mount in 19 B.C.E. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism.

The Temple Mount has been a Christian pilgrimage site since at least the fourth century C.E., when the Pilgrim of Bordeaux chronicled his journey through the Holy Land. The Jerusalem Temple is referenced several time in the New Testament—it is where Jesus drove out merchants and overturned the money-changers’ tables to cleanse the Temple (Mark 11:15–19; Matthew 21:12–17; Luke 19:45–48).

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.


A diagram of the Temple Mount highlighting the origin of the soil studied by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Image: Temple Mount Sifting Project.

At the southern end of the Temple Mount (Arabic: Haram al-Sharif, or “Noble Sanctuary”) sits al-Aqsa Mosque (“the farthest mosque”)—the third holiest site in Islam—where in Islamic tradition the prophet Muhammad was transported from Mecca on the Night Journey, and at the center of the Temple Mount is the Dome of the Rock, a gold-domed shrine commemorating the site where Muhammad ascended to heaven (Sura 17:1).

In the late 1990s, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the trust that manages the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount, conducted a construction project without archaeological supervision—violating the State of Israel’s antiquities laws and the understanding between Israel and the Waqf that no excavation take place on the Temple Mount. The Waqf had bulldozed a section in the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount to create a stairway down to an underground vaulted structure known as Solomon’s Stables as part of the conversion of the space to Al-Marwani Mosque. Hundreds of truckloads of archaeologically rich soil were dumped into the Kidron Valley just east of the Temple Mount.


A volunteer on the Temple Mount Sifting Project wet-sifts material that originally came from the Temple Mount. Photo: Temple Mount Sifting Project.

This debris became the subject of study for the Temple Mount Sifting Project. After the Temple Mount soil had been dumped, archaeologist Zachi Dvira and his then-professor at Bar-Ilan University, prominent scholar Gabriel Barkay, began the project to systematically study the soil that had been disturbed from its original context.

Experimenting with different methods of sifting the soil, Barkay and Dvira gradually developed a technique that worked for them. Dirt is first dry-sifted over wire screens into buckets, and then the buckets of debris are brought to a greenhouse and filled with water. The soaking buckets loosen the dirt from stones and artifacts, which are then wet-sifted over screens using spray taps. Volunteers examine the wet-sifted material under the supervision of Temple Mount Sifting Project staff and sort artifacts into six main categories: pottery, glass, bones, stone tesserae (mosaic cubes), metal and special stones.

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This sifting method has proven successful for the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which has found such artifacts as stone vessel fragments, opus sectile stone tiles believed to be from the Herodian expansion of the Temple Mount, more than 6,000 coins (ancient and modern) and jewelry made of semiprecious stones. The finds range in chronology from the Middle Bronze Age II (1950–1550 B.C.E.) to the present day, but most date from the 10th century B.C.E. onward.


Second Temple Period coins. Photo: Left and Center: Temple Mount Sifting Project; Right: Zev Radovan/Courtesy Temple Mount Sifting Project.

“To date, about 70 percent of the debris has been sifted,” write Barkay and Dvira. “More than half a million artifacts have been saved and stored. From the beginning, the work has been done by volunteers, and close to 200,000 of them have participated in the sifting.”

Jewelry found by the Temple Mount Sifting Project dating to different periods. Photo: Zev Radovan/Courtesy Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Jewelry found by the Temple Mount Sifting Project dating to different periods. Photo: Zev Radovan/Courtesy Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Learn more about how Barkay and Dvira overcame obstacles to form the Temple Mount Sifting Project, and get an in-depth look at how the artifacts discovered connect us to Biblical history, by reading the full article “Relics in Rubble: The Temple Mount Sifting Project” in the November/December 2016 issue of BAR.


BAS Library members: Read the full article “Relics in Rubble: The Temple Mount Sifting Project” by Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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More on Temple Mount Sifting Project Discoveries in Bible History Daily:

What the Temple Mount Floor Looked Like
by Frankie Snyder, Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira
As published in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2016

Tenth-Century B.C. Stone Seal Discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project

Amulet with Cartouche of Thutmose III Discovered in Jerusalem

How Ancient Taxes Were Collected Under King Manasseh


More on Temple Mount history in Bible History Daily:

Searching for the Temple of King Solomon
The Stones of Herod’s Temple Reveal Temple Mount History
What Did Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem Look Like?
The Temple Mount in the Herodian Period (37 BC–70 A.D.) by Leen Ritmeyer
Contested Temple Mount History?
Herod’s Temple Mount Revealed in Al-Aqsa Mosque Restoration
Ancient Chisel Unearthed at the Western Wall
Study Investigates Western Wall Erosion

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 20, 2016.


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