By Gordon Franz and Stephanie Hernandez
Raised in the ghettos of Budapest, Hungary, Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay has had an accomplished career in the archaeology of the Bible Lands. Barkay holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Hebrew University and a PhD from Tel Aviv University. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 1985, was on “Northern and Western Jerusalem at the End of the Iron Age.”
Gordon Franz: Thank you for doing this interview for us Goby. In which schools have you taught?
Gabriel “Goby” Barkay: I taught for 27 years at Tel Aviv University in their Institute of Archaeology. Since 1997, I have taught at different schools, mainly Bar-Ilan University, the Hebrew University Rothberg School for Overseas Studies, and for more than 30 years I’ve been teaching at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, better known today as the Jerusalem University College.
Gordon: Where have you excavated?
Goby: I started my excavations at Tel Arad in 1963. In 1964 I participated in a short excavation in Jerusalem on the road going up to Mount Zion, known as the Pope’s Road. In 1965, I participated in a dig as a student with Yigael Yadin at Megiddo. That same year I started for several seasons excavating in the Negev with Avraham Negev, including Beersheva and Tel Masos for eleven seasons. I also spent fifteen years at Lachish. Since the 1970’s I concentrated my efforts on Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity. For seven seasons, I directed the excavations at Ketef Hinnom below the St. Andrews Church of Scotland as well as several burial caves in the Hinnom Valley. To the west of Jerusalem I dug one of the tumuli and also a short season at Ramat Rachel. I dug for two seasons at Jezreel. I dug one season at Susa in Iran during the winter of 1969. In the last seven years I have been involved in a project in the Shephelah at Tel Zayit, digging with Professor Ron Tappy from the Pittsburg Theological Seminary.
Gordon: How did you become involved in the Temple Mount Sifting Project?
Gody: A violation of the law took place on the Temple Mount when a gigantic mosque was built inside Solomon’s Stables in 1996. In 1999 there was a removal of an enormous quantities of soil saturated with archaeological material from inside the Temple Mount. We were all enraged. I remember myself in December 1999 or January 2000, participating in a demonstration that took place near the piles of dirt removed from the Temple Mount and remember being interviewed by different television stations on the subject. I was very much enraged by the fact that the Temple Mount, being the most important archaeological site in the country, is a black hole in the archaeology of Jerusalem.
We actually know nothing about the Temple Mount archaeologically. We know it is more than twice the size of the City of David and is the center of activity in ancient times in Jerusalem and not a single sherd was published from the Temple Mount. Not one survey was carried out on the Temple Mount and that is something that is almost unthinkable.
In 2000, two of my former students, Zachi Zweig and Aran Yardeni showed up at this very place we are sitting right now. They were very upset and they emptied onto the dining room table here two plastic bags that included much mud, but also pot sherds of different periods that I could identify. They covered a wide range of the history of Jerusalem, starting with the Iron Age and ending with the Ottoman-Turkish period. Even earlier than that, I collected pieces of pottery on the piles removed from the Temple Mount which showed that the pile is embodied in it a potential of archaeological studies. The two students and their enthusiasm convinced me that something had to be done.
I negotiated in 2000 with different bodies in an attempt to organize a systematic sifting of the material, but the damage was done. The corpse of the destruction act of the Islamic Waqf was done, the body was already there. The question was now, how to get something positive out of this tragedy. In any case, I was encouraged by Zachi and eventually, after long deliberations, denials and negotiations, and even threats, we managed to get a license in the beginning in my name only and later in Zachi’s name as well. We managed to get a license for sifting through the material in 2004.
Gordon: Some archaeologists have suggested that the project is not real archaeology. What can we learn from the sifting project that will help in our knowledge of Jerusalem in general and the Temple Mount in particular?
Goby: I would prefer to have real archaeology on the Temple Mount, if it were possible. That would be great. Because of political and religious reasons, one can not dig on the Temple Mount. I do not see in the coming future any possibility of carrying out any normal pre-initiated excavations on the Temple Mount. We have to suffice with what we can do. It is always like that in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, you do not dig wherever you want to dig, but wherever it is possible. So this is in line with Jerusalem’s archaeology.
Of course, it is much easier to stand on Mount Olympus, dig some site in Greece or in Turkey, or in Hazor or Megiddo, or any other place and criticize people working in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is under totally different conditions than any other sites. And in Jerusalem, the archaeology and politics: what can we do? It goes hand in hand. It goes together and there is much influence to the archaeological activities in Jerusalem by all kinds of political and other interventions.
If I am interested to know about the Temple Mount, then I am directed by my interests, my motivations. I am interested in the Temple Mount and so is the scholarly world in general. Everyone does what everyone can. This is how I can learn something about the Temple Mount. Of course, I would prefer to have normal excavations on the Temple Mount, but that is impossible, so we have to go in the possible way and not criticize the conditions, but get the advantages of what we can do.
Eventually at the end of this sifting project, or even before the end, we are going to have a kind of a graph showing the intensiveness of human activity upon the Temple Mount in different periods, the statistics of pottery found on the Temple Mount from each and every one of the archaeological periods. The pottery and the amounts of pottery will eventually show the history of occupation upon the Temple Mount. I am well aware of the fact that we work with material which does not have any context. It does not come from the floors, it does not come from stratigraphy, and it does not come from the ideal conditions that an archaeologist would prefer.
Our project is comparable to a surface survey. If you go to a site which was not yet studied, the first thing you do is collect the pottery from the surface, assuming that upon the surface there is a proper representation of all periods and all the civilizations that once were active on the site. The activity throughout the years brought up to the surface from the activity on that certain site. The archaeological survey is a legitimate and common archaeological activity. That is also without any context to the finds. You collect the pottery and draw conclusions without having any floors, any architecture, any stratigraphy, and so forth. Nevertheless, you come to historical, geographical conclusions. So our work is comparable to a surface survey of any archaeological site. When we know nothing, it is better to know little than to despair and give it all up.
Gordon: You have studies what has been sifted so far. Is there any aspect of our understanding of the history of Jerusalem, and specifically the Temple Mount, that the sifting project would change?
Goby: The answer is yes, very much so. We have already some preliminary results which changed the history of Jerusalem on the whole and even the Temple Mount. For example, we have a group of flint implements from the prehistoric Epi-paleolithic period, approximately 15,000 years before our time. This was a period previously unknown in Jerusalem. We have some implements and nice arrowheads of the Neolithic period which is hardly known in Jerusalem. So, this is by itself a very important contribution. We have some Bronze Age pottery and it is hard to tell if the Temple Mount was part of human activity in Jerusalem in the 4th, 3rd, 2nd millennia BC. But nevertheless, we have some Chalcolithic pottery, Bronze Age pottery, 2nd millennium pottery from the time of the Canaanites. We have scarabs of the general Egyptian times, one of which is probably from the Middle Bronze Age and the other from the Late Bronze Age, which is a welcomed addition to the scarce knowledge we have of Jerusalem in the second millennium BC.
Concerning the Iron Age, it is very interesting we do not have any pottery that we can clearly say is part of the Iron Age I. On the other hand, Iron Age 2A, from the 10th century BC, is where we have some material, not of quantitative value, but still we have some pieces that can be clearly dated, and burnished pieces which are of the 10th century BC.
Concerning the later periods, we have a large number of coins and that is one specialty of the sifting project. We have many thousands of coins and we have for example, one Yehud coin of the Persian Period in the 4th century BC. This type of coin has been rare and is important to have. We have several coins of the early Hellenistic period from the rule of the Ptolemy’s, the late 4th and 3rd centuries BC. We have some coins from the Seleucid rule in Jerusalem, and that period is quite enigmatic in the archaeology of Jerusalem, since we do not have many finds in other digs from that time. So we can draw a nice picture of the history of Jerusalem from the coins.
Concerning other periods, such as the Byzantine period, the Christian period, we do not have too many good sources of the Temple Mount. In the account of pilgrims coming to the Holy City of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount is entirely ignored. It does not play any important role in the early Christian period. In the written sources one can surmise the Temple Mount was either empty, not active, or was a garbage heap at the time. The results of the sifting project show a totally different picture. It shows much activity. We have a large number of objects dating back to the early Christian period, drawing a totally different picture than what was known before. We have a large number of coins from the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries of the Common Era. We have a large number of weights from weighing gold, showing that there was economic activity on the Temple Mount.
We have a large amount of pottery of the Byzantine period: oil lamps, household ware, as well as course ware of different kinds and types. In addition, we have architectural fragments of Corinthian capitals, which evidentially belong to ecclesiastical structures. I think that the whole role of the Temple mount in the early Christian period should be reevaluated, which means that in a densely built up city, which Christian Jerusalem was in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, I can not imagine a large, vast area of 145,000 square meters in the heart of the city being totally abandoned and totally unused, while the vicinity of the city, just outside Jaffa Gate, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, on the hills surrounding the city on the north up to St. Etienne on the north and even further than that, there was much activity. There was an overflow of human activity on the outskirts of Jerusalem. So why did the inside of Jerusalem remain empty, such a vast area left unused? That does not make sense on the one hand and on the other hand we have an abundance of material.
Among the material we have are a large number of pieces of jewelry, which at the moment are understudied, but typologically, they could be related to the early Christian period. Among the finds we have about ten or so cruciform C-shaped pendants which were left by the pilgrims or Christians who were active on the Temple Mount. We have from sources perhaps an existence of a nunnery, maybe even an ecclesiastical building; a pinnacle church. So all this hints to a possibility that we will have in the future the ability to change what is known about the Temple Mount in the history books.
Now, another period which is interesting is the Early Roman period. The Temple Mount was destroyed by Titus. We know about the Temple Mount only seventy years later, when Hadrian rebuilt the city of Aelia-Capitaline. The question is what happened between. What happened towards the end of the 1st century AD and the 2nd century AD? I believe that our finds will enable us to draw a picture of the Temple Mount history of that enigmatic period of time.
Gordon: What do you think are the most important objects found during the sifting project so far, and why are they important?
Goby: First of all, the most important discovery we have is not the finds. I discovered that people are more important than finds. We work with a very, very fine team of people who are very sensitive, very helpful, very good natured people and I’ve witnessed the arrival of 40,000 volunteers who participated in this project. The greatest discovery is the immense interest of the people in archaeology and also from circles who would not come to any other archaeological project but who are drawn by a connection to the Temple Mount. In any case, very devote Christian evangelists, the Jewish ultra-orthodox and Orthodox circle come and participate and sift. They are thrilled to have their hands upon the objects that were in the immediate vicinity or area of the Temple Mount itself and were part of the worship of the Temple. So watching the people, watching their excitement, watching their emotional involvement in our project is one of the greatest discoveries.
We collect in the project everything that was either made by man or used by man or testifies about man’s environment. So we collect seashells and we have them in abundance. We collect animal bones and we have them in abundance and eventually those parts of a general assemblage of materials will be of great importance. Among the bones we have several pig bones, several foxes, and we have all kinds and types of wild animals as well as household animals. We have a large number of burnt bones, especially of sheep and goats. Eventually, in the future, we are not only going to identify the bones but also date them with advanced techniques, such as C-14 data. We are going to have some knowledge about the sacrificial activity upon the Temple Mount.
We have much information about the Islamic periods on the Temple Mount and I would like to stress that. We deal with all the periods of the Temple Mount, from the earliest involvement of mankind in the past of the country and until our own days. We have rich finds from the Arabic period, from the time of the Umayyad Dynasty, the time of the Abbasid Dynasty, the time of the Fatimid Dynasty, time of the Crusaders. We have an abundance and rich collection of Crusader coins minted in Jerusalem and we ought not to forget that the headquarters of the Knights Templar were in the southern quadrant of the Temple Mount where the soil was removed. We have a rich collection of Mamluk and Turkish-Ottoman finds including art objects, gaming pieces, glass objects, coins, jewelry, and an abundance of all kinds of types and finds.
If we go to the most touching piece that we have I would say that I was very much touched by a small piece, about 10 cm in size, of stone which is sculpted in the Herodian style. It has a remnant of a floral or vegetal design, very beautifully and artistically carved out of hard limestone. The piece itself got exfoliated or unpeeled from a building as a result of conflagration at a high temperature. The piece is in the style of the Jewish art of the Herodian Dynasty’s time and is close in style to the facades of sculpted burial caves, and in the style of the decorated ceilings of the Huldah Gate passages underneath the present day Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is beyond any doubt belonging to the time of Herod the Great. At the edge of the object there is a remnant of black soot from the conflagration. Actually, this is a piece which enable us to visualize the great fire in which the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. So this is in touch with the destruction of the Temple. I can even suggest that the stone could have come from the Temple itself.
Another piece which is very touching is a piece dating back to the First Temple period, to the time of the Prophet Jeremiah. It is a bulla, a tiny lump of clay which has on the back side of it an imprint of some fabric. It probably was the imprint of a satchel that was tied with a string and upon the knot they put a sealing in order to ensure the contents of the satchel which included silver scraps, the hoard of silver of somebody. The other face of the bulla has the impression of the seal of the owner. The bulla itself was made in the negative, and the impression is made in the positive. Eventually someone opened the satchel and the seal got broken. Nevertheless we have two lines of writing upon it. It says the name “[Ga’]alyahu” and in the second line, which is well-preserved, we have the name “[son of] Immer”. The Immer priestly family and another son of the family by the name Pashchur, son of Imer, is mentioned in the book of Jeremiah, chapter twenty, being the man in charge of the Temple. He was the chief clerk in the Temple. He is the man who arrested and tortured the Prophet Jeremiah. The Immer family continues to exist in Jerusalem and we find them in the Post-Exilic period in the Book of Nehemiah (7:40; Ezra 2:37). So through this tiny bulla we have direct regards from the First Temple, from Solomon’s Temple. This is of great importance.
Some other finds which made me especially enthusiastic were some of the coins from the First Revolt against the Romans. Some of the coins of the late First Revolt are found burned, twisted and defaced from the fire, from the conflagration. On the first coin that we found we had the slogan of the Zealots and the people who fought the Romans: “for the freedom of Zion.” It is very touching to see after 2,000 years. Actually, each and every one of the objects that we find: beads, a piece of early Arabic period, or a piece from Turkish-Ottoman decoration that surrounded the Dome of the Rock, the glazed tiles that we have pieces of, a bead remnant that that were left by Christian pilgrims in the past, or some Bronze Age or Iron Age pottery, all is very significant for the history of the Temple Mount.
Gordon: You mentioned earlier that you found some bones from foxes. What is the significant of that?
Goby: The Prophet Micah prophesized that the Temple Mount would be destroyed (3:12), and that was in the 8th century BC. In the 8th century there was a corruption of the priesthood that calls the prophet to have a prophecy, and he prophesized that the Temple Mount would he desolate and that foxes would walk upon it. In the book of Lamentation we have also the fact of foxes upon the Temple Mount (5:18). This of course symbolizes the fact that human activity was not there anymore and the place was desolate. In Talmudic literature we have a semi-legendary story of Rabbi Akiva, one of the most influential people in Judaism in general (Tractate Makkoth 24b). Akiva, the son of Joseph, one of the greatest among the sages, is said to have visited Jerusalem after its destruction. He lived in the 2nd century of the Common Era and was executed by the Romans in Caesarea. He is said to have visited the Temple and it said that there he watched a fox come out of the place where the Holy of Holies stood. Of course, he regarded it as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah and maybe the fox we have is the very one he had seen when he came there in the 2nd century.
Gordon: Thank you very much Goby.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Bible and Spade. Vol. 22, no. 1, pages 3-8.