Living History: Recent artifact discoveries on the Temple Mount

Holy Jerusalem, to those who love her, is the center of the universe. Continually occupied for more than five millennia, it has been home to diverse peoples: Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, even Ottoman Turks. The long years, though, have not been easy.

Mt of Olives.jpgAt the hand of nature, Jerusalem has suffered fire and earthquake. In the name of religion it’s has suffered siege, plunder, desecration, and destruction.

Over the centuries too, Jerusalem’s inhabitants routinely requisitioned ancient building blocks to build new edifices, and razed and re-routed the cities narrow walkways and carved waterways, reservoirs and the tunnels into her bedrock.

Time and again, as one culture followed another, one layer of civilization replaced the last; occupants altered not only the face of Jerusalem, but also its substructure. Unwittingly, by building on the foundations of those who came before them, they blurred the footprints of history. There has been constant change. Nothing in Jerusalem has remained static.

Despite some 200 years of sporadic archeological exploration, treasures are still surfacing throughout Jerusalem. peek Temple Mount.jpgExcavations along the Western Wall, the sole remaining remnant of the Second Temple, are still exposing numerous columns and arches, stores, Roman roads, and stones of the Herodian Period.

In addition, routine road and building construction sometimes reveal Christian-Byzantine burial caves, ritual baths, or dwelling places. They also unearth scores of artifacts, the kind that might cause even a casual collector to quiver with excitement. Imagine, a wealth of coins, oil lamps, pottery, and glass, dating back to Biblical times.

Due to natural and man-made upheavals, artifacts from different archeological periods have frequently been consigned to common graves. The excavation for an apartment complex foundation, for example, might yield a handful of Greek coins, tile shards stamped with the Roman Tenth Legion seal, and a cross-shaped pendant from the Crusader Period. Though all these items were unearthed together, these unlikely companions clearly do not lie in their original resting places. They were found out of context.

The Temple Mount, a man-made plaza located just beyond Jerusalem’s Western Wall, holds great religious and historical significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Beneath its great expanse lies Mount Moriah, where, according to the Bible, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. 100_0355.jpgIt is here that the First Temple of Solomon, and then the Second Temple stood. It is from here, the third holiest site in all Islam, that Mohammad, it is said, rose to Heaven.

The Temple Mount, the site of the latest important archeological finds.

The Temple Mount is also a focus of ongoing political tensions. Although the Israeli government is responsible for its security, the Mount, home to Islam’s gold-capped Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, remain under strict Muslim control. The Muslim religious administrative authority, called the Wakf, has never allowed the Israeli Antiquities Authority to conduct excavations within its holy gates. The Wakf itself, however, unheeding of Israeli archeological sensibilities, periodically utilizes heavy earth moving equipment for routine maintenance, like replacing utility lines and repairing buildings.

Temple Pic 3.JPGWhile Israel customarily authorizes Temple Mount maintenance, it demands that its Antiquities Authority inspectors monitor all progress. In other words, when any digging is done on the Mount, Israeli archeologists are on hand to protect and salvage anything of archeological value that may come to light.

In the past, Antiquity Inspectors, while sifting through discarded Temple Mount building rubble, have rescued glass fragments, pottery shards, and stone objects from a variety of archeological periods. When these Inspectors attended a routine Temple Mount maintenance job not long ago, they had no inkling of the drama that was about to unfold.

Temple pic 4.JPGA small tractor, to replace a 40-year-old electrical cable, had been gouging out a narrow strip several feet deep on the southeastern side of the Mount. A trio of Antiquity Inspectors, attentive as each scoopful of dirt was lifted out and put aside, suddenly caught sight of a soft, white layer of limestone.

As it was upturned, they spied a handful of reddish pottery shards, each about two-inches square. They immediately stopped the excavation. So as not to cause any damage, the inspectors exchanged the tractor’s heavy forklift for more delicate and appropriate tools: They began sifting through the dirt themselves.

The limestone strata proved to be a treasure chest. In addition to the pottery shards, archeologists discovered fragments of whitewashed clay figurines, like those that were once used in pagan worship of Astarte and Baal. Temple pic 2.JPGThey also found fragments of small jugs, used, perhaps, for pouring libations of oil or wine. It was the bowl shards, however, that told the most exciting tale of all.

Shards of bone and pottery, possibly dated to the time of King Solomon himself.

Seasoned archeologists rarely break into happy dances or cries of "Eureka!" when they discover unusual artifacts – especially on the Temple Mount, where they not only oversee, but are themselves overseen – but these bowl shards were especially striking.

rimmed bowl.JPGFashioned on potter’s wheels, they are rimmed with shiny, bright red burnished lines, decorative accents characteristic of the period of Solomon’s Temple. Beside them lay an array of ancient bones, apparently those of lambs and goats.

These, the Inspectors surmised, were indications either of extremely satisfying meals or sacrificial rites common during the First Temple Period.

Jerusalem Regional Archeologist Yuval Baruch, who was present that day, recalls feeling great excitement, as well as a great sense of responsibility. Had they actually found relics from Solomon’s Temple?

Temple 5.JPGArcheological discoveries like these mean little in themselves, explains Baruch. Artifacts from the First Temple Period, after all, have turned up all over Jerusalem. This particular cache, however, was discovered at the traditional site of Solomon’s Temple itself, in a strata of limestone, in pristine condition.

Its contents were neither damaged, nor did they contain building rubble, which would have indicated subsequent earthquakes or earthworks. These artifacts, then, had evidently been sealed away, left undisturbed, from the day that they were abandoned until the day the Wakf’s tractor uncovered them.

To add to the excitement, scientific tests later proved that all the finds date to the same era, approximately eight centuries BC, to the reigns of Kings Hezekiah and his son Menashe.

This is a first.

Artifacts dating back to the time of Solomon’s Temple were found on the traditional site of Solomon’s Temple, meaning that the Temple really did exist. The find offers important historical proof to adherents of a trio of the world’s major religions. Once more, too, the historical and archeological accuracy of a specific site in the Bible has been confirmed.