Sifting through Ancient Garbage

Last week, some of us visited the Sifting Project in the Tzurim Valley National Park below Mount Scopus. Under the direction of Bar Ilan University archaeologists, Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig, volunteers have been sifting through hundreds of truckloads of earth and debris that was dumped from the Temple Mount by direction of the Islamic Waqf who administers the Temple Mount and its Muslim sites. Over a 48-hour period in October 1999, workers used heavy machinery to dig deep into the Temple Mount in order to create a staircase to access a mosque with a 10,000-person capacity in what is known as “Solomon’s Stables”–a massive arched area that Herod built to support his expansion of the Temple Mount platform when he renovated the Second Jerusalem Temple in 20 BCE.  More than 200 trucks worked day and night to empty the refuse mainly into the Kidron Valley. Archaeologists have not previously had any access to the Temple Mount; in this refuse, they have found artifacts and significant materials dating from Iron Age I–the 10th century BCE onward. Here is an Israeli television interview that shows some of the archaeological findings.

The site confounds the narrative taught to many Muslims that the Jewish Temples are fictions invented to support Israeli territorial claims to Jerusalem. Thousands of years of Jewish pilgrimage and worship, the First Jerusalem Temple, Persian, Hellenisitc, Roman (the Second Temple), Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Malmuk, Turkish, and modern periods are documented in the debris. The professionalism of the project, the expertise and open-mindedness of the archaeologists on site, and the material evidence are incontrovertible. They use a technique not dissimilar to the contemporary garbage harvest, sorting metal, semi and precious stone, architectural stone, glass, bone, and pottery from the dirt. One of the people in our group found a beautiful carnelian bead–a semi-precious gem. The staff duly marked it with Courtney’s name and packaged it to be sent to the lab for dating and analysis. Kader and I found a fine sharp flint stone.

The project contributes difficult layers and controversy to the meaning of “garbage” in Jerusalem, and among us. In what we discard, we encode our personal and societal biographies, historical and current. Unfortunately, disrespectful treatment of important material–as if it is refuse–has destroyed the datable stratification of historic layers and caused more work. The organizers estimate that 10 more years of sifting remain. We also need to sift through our experience together and interpret its meaning to our joint creative work on garbage.

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