Recently, I had the privilege of holding in my hand one of the most precious treasures ever unearthed. I was standing in a small laboratory in a nondescript Jerusalem office building holding an actual fragment of the Second Temple. It was a tiny piece of highly decorated white limestone that still bore the burn marks from when the Romans set fire to the Temple in 70 CE (see photo). I’ve been to the Western Wall countless times and am always deeply moved by the experience. But the Kotel is the outer retaining wall that held up the platform on which the outer courtyard of the Second Temple was built. Now I was holding an actual piece of the Temple itself, uncovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
It all started back in 1999 when the Waqf, the Islamic Trust that administers the Temple Mount, sent bulldozers to clear out a subterranean area adjacent to the El-Aksa Mosque. During a period of 1.5 days they brutally ripped out 9,000 tons of archaeological remains dating back over 3,000 years. Until the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), what the Waqf did was the greatest archaeological crime of all time. In preparation for this outrage, the Waqf sent their own Muslim archaeologist on vacation! Thinking they had successfully pulled off the caper, they brought in 400 dump trucks to quietly dispose of the evidence in the nearby Kidron Valley. Little did they know, the dump trucks were being followed by a scruffy young Israeli archaeologist named Zachi Dvira.
Through Dvira’s tireless efforts, the dirt dumped in the Kidron Valley has become the focus of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. The archaeological remains illegally removed by the Waqf have all been mixed together and need to be painstakingly sifted through one bucket at a time. The work is done by volunteers from Israel and abroad who, under the close supervision of trained archaeologists, wash away the fine powder of millennia, revealing everything from a bronze arrowhead from the time of King Solomon to paving stones from the courtyard of the Herodian Temple. When Dvira began the project, he thought it would involve a handful of university students working for a few months. Now sixteen years later, he is only half-way done with over 150,000 volunteers having taken part. This unprecedented number of participants in an archaeological excavation has even earned the Temple Mount Sifting Project a place in the Guinness Book of World Records!
When I interviewed Dvira at his lab in Jerusalem, he told me, “This was very exciting, because this was the first time that archaeologists had access to the hidden treasures, the buried treasures, [of] the Temple Mount.” Dvira showed me a small sampling of the countless artifacts uncovered by the project. The most compelling to me was an ancient Hebrew seal impression bearing the fragmentary inscription “Belonging to… -yahu the Son of Immer” (see photo). The name refers to the priestly family of Immer who administered the Temple treasury (Jeremiah 20:1-3; 1 Chronicles 24:14). The back of the seal impression shows it was attached to a cloth bag, possibly containing silver or gold housed in the Temple treasury itself. According to Dvira, “this is the first ever direct evidence [from] the First Temple.” The seal impression was burned when the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project is currently trying to raise funds to continue their important work. Dvira pointed out to me that what his project is doing echoes the Bible verse, “Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its dust” (Psalms 102:15). The way I see it, this is the most important archaeological enterprise of all time. There has never been any other systematic scientific exploration of remains from the Temple Mount.
The Sifting Project can be supported through their “Half Shekel” website, a name that evokes the ancient practice of every Jew donating a half-shekel to the Temple in order to be counted as part of the Congregation of Israel (Exodus 30:13). I believe every Jew, and every non-Jew who loves Israel, should stand up today and be counted by helping to preserve these precious remains of the ancient Jerusalem Temple.
Next time you are in Jerusalem, make sure to get your hands dusty in the archaeology of the ancient Jerusalem Temple by volunteering for the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
My full interview with Zachi Dvira is published as part of my Hebrew Voices Podcast series.