Monday, January 2, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israeli archaeologists, screening tons of rubble scooped out of this ancient city’s sacred Temple Mount, have discovered hundreds of artifacts and coins, as well as jewelry, some with biblical links dating back more than three millennia.

Most of the stones and earth originally were taken to an organic garbage dump in nearby Bethany, the New Testament town known in Arabic as Al-Azariya, and could not be retrieved. But a substantial portion was diverted to the Valley of Kidron, mentioned in the Old Testament and located just outside the Old City’s massive walls.

This ambitious archaeological project, known as the Temple Mount Antiquities Operation, was started in November 2004, when Muslims excavated the sector north of Solomon’s Stables to build the massive underground Marwani Mosque. Its second season, now under way, will last until February.

The Waqf, or Muslim officials who administer the site — known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — helped the Israelis arrange the transfer.

Among the unusual finds extracted by Bar-Ilan University’s Gabriel Barkai and his team of students and volunteers is a “bulla,” or seal impression, thought to be used to close cloth sacks of silver.

“It bears the name Gedalyahu Ben Immer Ha-Cohen, suggesting that the owner may have been a brother of Pashur Ben Immer, described in the Bible [Jeremiah 20:1] as a priest and temple official,” Mr. Barkai said.

That verse says: “Pashur, the son of Immer the priest, who was also chief governor in the House of the Lord, heard that Jeremiah prophesied these things.”

The team’s discoveries span 10,000 years “and belong to all the historical periods that transpired in Jerusalem,” Mr. Barkai said.

One of the finds is a stone weight equivalent to four shekels (an ancient Hebrew measure, about 2 ounces), marked with words written in the ancient Hebrew alphabet.

The site is not considered an archaeological dig. The workers use a technique called “wet sifting,” similar to the way prospectors pan for gold.

Mr. Barkai’s team examines every particle, using large wire filters to rinse each one with cold water while looking for valuable objects.

Some finds reflect the Temple Mount’s unique and dramatic history. An example of this is an iron arrowhead with a shaft used by the Roman legions during the siege of the Second Hebrew Temple 2,000 years ago.

Presumably belonging to the 10th Legion, Mr. Barkai said, “it was launched from catapults exclusive to the Roman army.” He told of “scores of coins, many of them Jewish and minted by the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasty.” This find might help explain why Jesus Christ drove the money-changers out of the Temple, as described in the New Testament.

“There also are beautiful objects that belong to the Crusader period,” Mr. Barkai said, noting the many Byzantine coins, which testify to large attendance at the Temple Mount during the Christian conquest and rule during the 11th to 15th centuries.

Many of the more-recent coins date from the 17th century, and the research team even found a gold coin issued by the French Empire under Napoleon III.

A bronze pendant several hundred years old depicts the Holy Grail.

The team works in a large plastic tent pitched on a spur of the Mount of Olives. It overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, which is highlighted by the golden Dome of the Rock, a mosque built between 687 and 691 by the ninth Muslim caliph, Abd al-Malik.

Because of the quantity, time and patience required to rinse the objects, this archaeological project likely will take several years to complete.

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