Archaeology in Israel

Left to right: First Temple and earlier—up to 6,000 years old; Second Temple; Roman and Byzantine; Early Muslim; Medieval and Mamaluke; Mediaeval earthenware; and late Muslim and Ottoman.

Left to right: First Temple and earlier—up to 6,000 years old; Second Temple; Roman and Byzantine; Early Muslim; Medieval and Mamaluke; Mediaeval earthenware; and late Muslim and Ottoman.

From 1996 to 1999, the Muslim Waqf illegally constructed the subterranean el-Marwani Prayer Hall as an extension of the al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The construction took place in the South Eastern corner of the Mount, an area formerly home to the Royal Colonnade of the Second Temple, built by King Herod the Great. The project was an archeological nightmare: it recklessly endangered artifacts on the Temple Mount, likely the single-most-contested piece of land in the world. The Mount was first the site of an ancient pagan hilltop stronghold, until the conquest of Jerusalem by the Israelites and the construction of the First Temple and a small platform surrounding it by King Solomon in 832 BC. The Babylonians destroyed this temple in roughly 586 BC, and the area lay empty until Herod built the Second Temple and extended the compound in 20 BC. This Temple lasted until 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed it and replaced it with their own pagan shrine. Byzantines latter built a basilica on the site, until this was torn down by Muslim armies who believed the site to be the place where Mohammed ascended to Heaven, primarily because it was the site of the Jewish temples. They built a tiled building with a gold dome (the Dome of the Rock) over the site of the temples, and the al-Aqsa mosque over Herod’s Royal Colonnade. This mosque later became the headquarters of the Knights Templar, who believed it to be the remains of Solomon’s Temple, until it was retaken by the Muslims. It is currently the site of much controversy, as only Muslims are allowed to pray on the Mount. Others may visit during select hours of some days, though Jews who ascend are so virulently accosted that Israeli police and Waqf guards must provide a heavy escort.

So what, then, happened to all of the excavated dirt from the building of the prayer hall? The Waqf dumped it in the valley below, where it sat for years. In 2005, Israeli archaeologists undertook to sift through the tons of dirt, looking for any and all artifacts from the Temple Mount’s storied history. Ten years later, they are almost half-way done and have found myriad significant items from every group and time period imaginable. A few days ago I began a two week long volunteering stint with these archaeologists, the second quarter of my two month stay in Israel.

Arriving at the sifting site, I had no idea what to expect. Movies portray archeology in a Romantic, rugged manner, while academia seems to suggest it is a sterile, clinical affair. The site was composed of a sort of Quonset hut with many small shacks surrounding a dusty compound. In the corner of this compound sat a large pile of dirt covered in dirty plastic sheets which the team had transported from the dump site. With no introductions or explanations, the site manager told me to fill buckets with dirt from the pile. I thought he might hand me a trowel, something small and methodical, possibly accompanied by a demanding series of processes designed to protect potential finds. Instead, he threw me a large rusty hoe and told me to have at it. Next, he directed me to empty the buckets of dusty earth into a crude wire frame and roughly sift out the dry dirt and remove the large rocks. I mixed the remaining debris with water, and brought it into the hut where others hosed it down over finer grates. They then sorted any finds into six categories: pottery, glass, metal, organic, and stone. While I was dry sifting, I made my first (and only) interesting discovery: a small metal coin.

Later on the archaeologist invited me to help him process the finds. He was sorting through a bucket of pottery which was the result of one month of sifting. He told me that while they had actually discovered almost three times the amount in the bucket, most of it had already been discarded as insignificant, which greatly surprised me, considering these items came from such an important site. My job was simply to label each piece he handed me with a location code, an easy task. I soon realized that he was yet again discarding much of the material, including tiles and pottery dating back almost 1000 years. When I asked him about it, he told me that they simply lacked the resources to analyze it all, and that it was illegal to sell it. Instead, they re-bury it in hidden locations. As I became more comfortable with the process, I began to guess the time period of pieces he handed me. To my surprise I was able to guess correctly around half of the time, thanks to the excellent teaching of Professor George Trumbull of the history department. He soon began to teach me the many signs that allowed him to almost instantly categorize each piece. By the time it came to sort all of the pieces to be kept, I was able to categorize them with relative accuracy. He latter informed me that while he was employed as an archaeologist, he never actually graduated college. Instead, he learned though experience, becoming an expert in the pottery of the region.

To date, I have found items ranging from a seven-inch Roman nail to an authentic, late Islamic cigarette butt. I have handled objects worthy of any museum in the United States, learned the basics of pottery identification, and even contributed my own knowledge of militaria to help identify a few items, including a MK1 British Brodie helmet. For those students who are interested in history but believe it to be too dry or inapplicable, I urge you to give it a chance. With a desire to learn, you can go anywhere in the world and be part of history, through archaeology, research, or volunteering.