Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A “King David Era” Seal and the Temple Mount Sifting Project

Strains of David: Entrance to the City of David National Park, Jerusalem
(photo by Daniel; some rights reserved)

The Temple Mount Sifting Project is in the news again. This time, with a story related to David: a rare seal said to be from his time was found, and is claimed to have implications for our understanding of the history of the Israelite kingdom. The announcement predictably received lots of attention – but is it warranted? Is this a significant find? In short, the answer is no. Despite the claims made for it, the seal is not rare; it cannot be narrowed down to the “King David era”; and it tells us nothing new about administration or political organization in Jerusalem. Here I will try to provide an overview of what the seal is and what it means, before turning to its broader context in the media and the current political situation.

Background: The Temple Mount Sifting Project
In the late 1990s the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf – the organization that oversees the Haram esh-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary; the Muslim name for what Jews and Christians know as the Temple Mount) – devised a plan to renovate the underground area known as the Marwani Musalla (prayer hall) or Solomon’s Stables at the southeast corner of the Haram, just east of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and use it as a prayer space again. The Waqf received permits to renovate and to construct an emergency exit. But a massive amount of dirt was removed – an estimated 400 truckloads, much more than anticipated – and dumped in piles in the Kidron Valley to the east of the Temple Mount. It is also disputed whether the work was carried out with archaeological supervision: the Waqf claims yes in a Haaretz article from 2004, but in an earlier Jerusalem Post article the Waqf’s chief archaeologist is quoted as saying that the dirt was merely inspected “either before or after” the operations.[1]

In 2004, archaeologists Gabi Barkay and Zachi Dvira (Zweig) of Bar-Ilan University received a permit to transfer the piles of dirt from the Kidron to the nearby Emek Tzurim National Park and begin sifting them. The sifting itself is carried out by visitors who pay an entrance fee. One of these tourists, a 10-year-old Russian boy, discovered the seal “sometime in the past half year”.

The Seal
The high-quality photographs and description provided by the Temple Mount Sifting Project make identification of the seal clear. It is a cone-shape stamp seal made of limestone, 1.6 cm (0.6 in) high. The base is circular; the design on the base shows two quadrupeds (perhaps a lion hunting a caprid or gazelle). The top has a hole pierced through in order to be suspended from a string. Seals such as this were used to stamp clay seals for documents and to impress jar handles.

The Date of the Seal
Cone-shaped stone seals of this general type, especially depicting quadrupeds, have been considered common for the Iron Age I (12th-11th centuries BCE) and Iron Age IIA (10th-9th centuries).[2] More recently, Othmar Keel and Ami Mazar, in their work on an important set of 20 such seals from Tel Rehov, have concluded that they date between Iron IB and Iron IIA (11th-9th centuries), though almost all are found in Iron IIA contexts.[3] Keel and Mazar further attempted to distinguish between a “crude style” and a “mature style”, with the crude style found in 11th-10th century contexts and the mature style in 10th-9th century contexts; but as they note, the dataset is very small and this conclusion is very tentative. So, we would do best to say the seal dates between the 11th and 9th centuries, possibly 11th-10th. Barkay’s 11th-10th century date cited in the article is thus a reasonable summary of scholarly conclusions. However, it is impossible to narrow the range any further (for example, to conclude it belongs to the time of King David, which would be the first half of the 10th century).

The Seal’s Significance
As suggested above, cone shaped stamp seals with quadrupeds are common in 11th-9th century Israel and Judah (over a dozen at Rehov); this seems implicitly acknowledged by Barkay when he cites parallels from Rehov and elsewhere. This particular design of two quadrupeds is more unusual, but certainly still known. Nor is the seal a unique find for Jerusalem, as Barkay suggests. Yigal Shiloh’s excavations in the City of David (1978-1985) yielded a cone-shaped stone seal of this general type.[4] Eilat Mazar’s excavations in the City of David (2005-2008) found an Iron I pyramidal seal, two Iron IIA scaraboid seals, and an Iron IIA bulla (seal impression).[5] Thus, we already had at least 4 seals and a seal impression of various types from Jerusalem from the same date range as the Temple Mount Sifting Project seal.

What do these seals tell us? They indicate merely that activities like sealing documents occurred – therefore, some administrative activity. But the City of David seals already showed us that such activity was going on in Jerusalem. And in fact we did not need any seals to conclude this. Any city or town in the region at this time had such activity; seals have been found in many of them. And we knew from Jerusalem’s size and public architecture that such activity must have taken place. So they do not indicate that Jerusalem was a large city at this time, or that it was a capital city, and they tell us nothing about the nature of the political entity it belonged to: whether a large empire, a smaller kingdom, or a city-state.

But does our seal’s association with the Temple Mount have any significance? Here, too, the answer is negative. Experts on the archaeology and history of the Temple Mount are in general agreement that the dirt removed by the Waqf consists of a dump or fill material deposited some time in the Islamic periods – somewhere around two millennia after the time of the seal.[6] In other words, the seal was not found in a use context; it had been discarded long before it ended up in this fill. Even if we were not confident in this conclusion, we have no idea of the seal’s exact archaeological context and must treat it as if it had been in a dump.  And in fact, this means that the seal (as well as the other objects in this deposit) does not even need to have come originally from the Temple Mount at all: dirt could have been brought from anywhere near the Temple Mount in order to fill this area in during the Islamic periods. In addition, since the Waqf removed the dirt to the Kidron Valley, we must consider that it could have been contaminated there, that is, mixed with dirt from the Kidron itself. All we can say, then, is that the seal was in use in the 11th, 10th, or maybe 9th century somewhere in Jerusalem.

In short, there is nothing newsworthy here. The seal’s archaeological or historical value is virtually nonexistent.

The Seal’s Modern Context
All of this raises an obvious question: Why is there so much attention for a pretty unremarkable find?[7] The discovery of the seal was first announced in a press release from the Temple Mount Sifting Project, and later published in a series of stories in most of the major Israeli papers and news sites (Ynet, Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva, etc..; I could not find a story from Haaretz) and picked up internationally. It is worth comparing the press release and the news stories to trace the process of how archaeology stories are presented to the public (as I have discussed elsewhere).

The press release announces in its headline: “Rare 3,000-Year-Old Seal Discovered within Earth Discarded from Temple Mount”. The headline does not convey the lack of precision we have for the dates of such seals, but that would perhaps be too much to expect from a headline. Within the press release, the reasonable range of 11th-10th centuries is cited. However, Gabi Barkay is quoted trying to historicize the period in question by tying it directly to the biblical narrative of Samuel and Kings: thus an 11th-10th century date becomes “the historical period of the Jebusites and the conquest of Jerusalem by King David, as well as the construction of the Temple and the royal official compound by his son, King Solomon.” The biblical account is accepted without question as historical. The press release then relates the seal to the controversy over the interpretation of the biblical account of the United Monarchy, of the 10th century – even though the seal might date to the 11th century and be completely irrelevant. Finally, the caption for the photograph of the seal removes the 11th century altogether, describing the seal simply as “dating to the 10th century BCE – the time of the Biblical kings, David & Solomon.”

Nor are these the only problems with the press release. For instance, it is incorrect in its claim that the Temple Mount has never been excavated: staff of the Mandate Department of Antiquities carried out limited excavations in the Al-Aqsa Mosque during major reconstruction work in 1938-1942 – as Barkay and Dvira are aware, since they have published material uncovered during these activities.[8]

The news reports are drawn largely from the press release, essentially serving as PR for the Sifting Project. An exception is the Times of Israel piece, which provides a dissenting opinion about the significance of the seal. But that voice is not an academic but an antiquities collector, meaning that, in professional terms, the weight of the voices of the archaeologists Barkay and Dvira is not balanced. And there is no challenge to the claims for the rarity of the seal or its definite attribution to the Temple Mount.

Not surprisingly, the news outlets ran with the biblical connection. The 10th century date is highlighted throughout these articles, with the 11th century almost forgotten. The headlines from the conservative and nationalist outlets (Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Arutz Sheva) all read “King David era” – narrowing even more, to the first half of the 10th century, and strongly implying a connection between the seal and the biblical narrative. Ynet, which is generally considered more centrist and less nationalistic, does not associate it with David and in fact minimizes the biblical references – but emphasizes the claim that it is the “first of its kind ever found in Jerusalem”.

While problems like this push to associate the seal with David are magnified by the news stories, they can be traced back ultimately to the press release. Why does it characterize the seal in this way and exaggerate its significance? Partly this must be about justifying the existence of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. After all, as we have seen, the material being sifted is most likely dump material or fill from the Islamic periods, and in any case must be treated as without archaeological context. Barkay has justified the project by comparing it to surface survey. But instead of surface survey it is more like sifting an excavation dump. Dumps can occasionally produce remarkable finds – note as an example the fragment of a stele of the Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonq from Megiddo – but decontextualized finds have lost most of their informational value. (We have no idea in what stratum the Sheshonq stele was set up, and therefore it is useless for dating purposes.) The amount of time, effort, and money necessary to produce a few notable finds is enormous; and even worse, there is the issue of contamination. In short, the value of the sifting project for the pre-Islamic periods in general is minimal.

There is a greater possibility that the project could illuminate the architectural history of the Haram in the Islamic periods, since this is when it appears to have been deposited – though, again, the problem of possible contamination cannot be ignored. [9] If the project focused on these periods, then, there might be more scholarly justification. But that is not what is going on. Dvira emphasizes that the project staff gives equal attention to all periods in the history of the Temple Mount. But in fact their press releases focus almost exclusively on finds from the Iron Age to Early Roman period – that is, the time of the First and Second Temples. This is to some extent understandable (if not scientifically justifiable), since these are the periods that Israelis tend to care about the most: for Israeli Jews, this is their past on the land. More than that, it is when they had political control of their land. And David is an ideal symbol of that control: a king who (in the Bible) united the Israelite tribes and ruled over a large empire from Jerusalem.[10] That power is visible in the landscape of Jerusalem, where symbols of David appear to be increasing.

In this context, it is worth remembering that The Temple Mount Sifting Project is funded by the Ir David Foundation (aka Elad), whose explicit goal is the Judaization of East Jerusalem. Its activities include replacing Arab residents in the neighborhood of Silwan (the City of David) with Jewish by buying (or claiming to buy) Arab homes and renting them to Jews. These activities cannot be separated from Elad’s archaeological endeavors: funding of excavations in the City of David and control of the City of David park – a unique arrangement for a private organization, through agreement with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The Temple Mount Sifting Project might be a way for Elad to extend its influence, to stake a claim to the holiest site in Judaism. At the very least, such sponsorship represents a major conflict of interest for a scholarly project.

Our seal seems to have landed in the center of a much larger controversy. After all, the last few weeks have seen greatly heightened tensions over the Temple Mount – a contested space between Muslims and Jews – as Jews, including those whose goal is to destroy the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to build the Third Temple, assert their claim to pray on the Temple Mount in stronger terms. And in some quarters we see the announcement of the seal exploited for political purposes: CAMERA uses the seal as part of its efforts to equate the Waqf and other Palestinian groups with ISIS. Jonathan S. Tobin in Commentary (“Seal Refutes Jewish History Deniers”) exaggerates the seal’s importance even more than the press release or the Israeli news reports, in order to suggest that the Waqf’s destruction of antiquities – “the greatest act of archaeological vandalism in history” – is even worse than the destructive activities of ISIS or the Taliban. (Last year, Barkay himself compared the Waqf’s actions to the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.) And Tobin ends by using this specter of the evil Waqf to argue for a change in Muslim control of the Temple Mount and the status quo arrangements over its administration. This is an exceptional amount of mileage for a find of virtually no archaeological significance.

Of course, Barkay and Dvira cannot be held directly responsible for the Commentary or CAMERA pieces. But neither can the Temple Mount Sifting Project be divorced from its political context. We often see claims by archaeologists that it is the media or politicians or funders of excavations who distort the supposedly objective science of archaeology. Here, however, we have a clear case where the interests of archaeologists, media, and sponsors all coincide to produce a highly misleading narrative about an unimportant seal. And yet again the public loses.

Update October 3: Laura Wright, completing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University on LB and Iron Age seals from Israel, writes: "As far as sealing and administration, I have been more cautious. Seals classified as limestone have a range of friability. Some are too friable to be impressed repeatedly into clay while others may have been. Some look worn but their pattern of wear is from handling & holding it while on a string or strand of some sort. It is not always clear to me that these limestone seals are worn on the base because they were used for sealing. If they were amulets of some sort worn around the body during both life & then many years later in death, they would have been worn merely by handling. I am cautious in using limestone seals to conclude complex administration in the Iron IIA or Iron I." In other words, this seal may tell us even less about Iron Age Jerusalem than I originally suggested.

[1] Abraham Rabinovich, “The Other Side of the Mount,” Jerusalem Post, July 7, 2000.

[2] See Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (trans. Thomas H. Trapp; Minneapolis: Fortress; Edinburgh:T&T Clark, 1998), chapters 5-6.

[3] Othmar Keel and Amihai Mazar, Iron Age Seals and Seal Impressions from Tel Reḥov, Eretz-Israel 29 (2009): 57*-62*. (pdf)

[4] Baruch Brandl, Scarabs, Scaraboids, Other Stamp Seals, and Seal Impressions, in Excavations at the City of David 1978–1985, Directed by Yigal Shiloh, Vol. VIIB, Area E: The Finds, by Alon de Groot and Hannah Bernick-Greenberg (Qedem 54; Jerusalem: Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012), p. 382. This specific seal is damaged but the preserved portion of the base has a scorpion (not a quadruped) within a ladder design. Brandl dates this type to the 10th-9th centuries on the basis of parallel examples. It may be, then, that the Temple Mount Sifting Project seal is slightly older than Shiloh’s seal, but it is really impossible to say this on the evidence. All we can really say is that the two seals are from about the same time.

[5] Ariel Winderbaum, The Iconic Seals and Bullae of the Iron Age, in The Summit of the City of David: Excavations 2005–2008, Final Reports Volume I, Area G, by Eilat Mazar (Jerusalem: Shoham Academic Research and Publication, 2015), pp. 363-419: numbers 1, 4, 6, and 15.

[6] Art historian Beatrice St. Laurent and Isam Awwad, former chief architect and conservator of the Haram, suggest it was filled in after the Abbasid period, when the Marwani prayer space went out of use: St. Laurent and Awwad, The Marwani Musalla in Jerusalem: New Findings, Jerusalem Quarterly 54 (Summer 2013): 7-30. (pdfDan Bahat, director of excavations in the Western Wall Tunnels, has called this material “late medieval landfill”: William A. Orme, Jr., “Jerusalem Journal; Bulldozer Hits a Nerve, and the Old City Jumps,” New York Times, December 21, 1999. Meir Ben-Dov, field director of the 1968-1978 excavations along the southern wall of the Temple Mount, suggested that almost all the material is from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods: Danny Rubinstein, “Remnants of the Temple? Not in This Garbage,” Haaretz, September 12, 2004. According to Marwan Abu Khalaf, an archaeologist at Al-Quds University who is an expert on the Islamic history of the Haram, this is Ottoman period dump material, used by Suleiman the Magnificent in sealing off the Golden Gate: Ilan Ben Zion, “Temple Mount Archaeological Project Yields Treasure, Unearths Conflict,” Times of Israel, June 6, 2014. That at least part of the material is from an Ottoman dump is also acknowledged by Dvira and Barkay.  

[7] As it happens, this is not the first time that Barkay and Dvira have given outsized publicity to a find of dubious importance. In September 2005, the project discovered a bulla (seal impression) from the Iron Age II (First Temple Period) with part of a name; Barkay announced it the same day at an archaeological conference on the City of David. By comparison, as Meir Ben-Dov noted at the time, Shiloh’s excavations of the City of David yielded 70 such bullae. (See Shahar Ilan, “Gems in the Dirt,” Haaretz, October 12, 2005.Any find from Iron Age Jerusalem with writing is of some significance, however small. But the comparison between 70 impressions from a controlled excavation and one fragment from a probable Islamic period dump whose provenance must be treated as uncertain is very telling: Barkay’s impression adds next to nothing to our knowledge of Jerusalem or Iron Age Judah.

[8] Gabriel Barkay and Yitzhak Zweig, A Roman Period Centaur Relief from the Temple Mount, New Studies on Jerusalem 15 (2009): 213-217 (Hebrew). On the Mandate-era activities, see R.W. Hamilton, The Structural History of the Aqsa Mosque: A Record of Archaeological Gleanings from the Repairs of 1938-1942 (London: Oxford University Press, 1949).

[9] St. Laurent has in fact been involved with the sifting project for this purpose: St. Laurent and Awwad, “The Marwani Musalla,” p. 23.

[10] For a vivid example of this mindset, consider the book Living with the Bible (1978) by famed Israeli general (and antiquities collector and looter) Moshe Dayan. (The book, according to Martin Bright in the Observer, “is recognised as a classic of amateur research and was a great commercial success.”) In it, Dayan presents us with two parallel narrative strands that echo each other: the history of ancient Israel and the history of the modern state. The ancient story ends with – culminates in – the reign of King David. In fact, for Dayan each timeframe has a larger-than-life Davidic figure: King David, and David Ben-Gurion.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding us to not let the past destroy the future. History is always interesting as long as we can share it in love for one another.

Zachi Dvira said...

From your other posts and academic background I understand that you are able to read Hebrew articles. How come you haven't read the three preliminary reports of the Sifting Project before writing your critic? These reports answer many of your questions.
You got so many things wrong since you based your conclusions mainly on media publications. Also you haven’t read the relevant posts on the project website that deal with the question of the archaeological value of out-of-context finds.

It seems like you were very much motivated to discredit the Sifting Project, otherwise it is difficult to explain why you’ve put such an effort in finding every bit of information that can be manipulated in order to so.

Zachi Dvira

Michael said...

Dear Dr. Dvira,

Thank you for the interest in my essay. I have been looking over the three preliminary reports but have yet to find anything that changes my conclusions.
Meanwhile, I'm wondering why you have not commented on the fact that you have been repeating several clearly incorrect claims in promotional materials for your project. Just today I was looking at your project's crowd funding post on, which states the following:

"The Temple Mount Sifting Project is as close as anyone has ever come to excavating the Temple Mount itself. The finds discovered over the past ten years represent the first ever archaeological data originating from within the Temple Mount soil."

As you well know, this is demonstrably false, since limited archaeological excavation has indeed taken place, and in fact you've published archaeological data from Temple Mount soil recovered in the Mandate period. It is not manipulation to observe that such claims are false.

Zachi Dvira said...

First, let me correct you. I'm not a Dr. yet, I'm still working on my PhD.
I don't have time right now to reply in detail to all of your claims, and maybe I'll do it later, but I'll answer you last question.
The Temple Mount has never been systematically excavated before. No archaeological artifacts were published from Temple Mount. I wrote extensively about Hamilton's excavation, which was more an examination of the Al-Aqsa floors than an excavation. It was very limited, but his information is very important for understanding the constructural history of the Al-Aqsa mosque, since it is better than nothing. He also documented very important remnants that were revealed during Awaqf renovations in those days. Hamiltons' contribution to the research of the Temple Mount is in discovering unknown architectural remnants but none of his conclusions could be examined by scholars since he hasn't published any artifacts such as pottery or coins. I wrote about his work extensively. See:

In our preliminary reports we did mention Hamilton's work, but in a popular text there is no need to get into these details.

Another short comment regarding the 10th century seal: We did mention that the parallels are also dated to the 11th century BCE. We date this seal to the 10th century BCE and not to the 11th on the basis of probability, since our 11th century finds in the sifting are very scarce. The significant amount of finds of the Sifting Project begin from the Iron Age IIA till modern times. This fits well with the historical sources. Now, 15 years ago some minimalists scholars tried to claim that the Temple Mount was only added to the city in the 9th or 8th century. So this is the significance of these finds. notice that we didn't go out to the media just with the seal but with mentioning also other finds from the Iron Age IIA. We never claimed that the seal proves king David or any another King. We just mention that it is from that time, since the layman reader is not familiar with terms such as Iron Age IIA or 10th century BCE.
You are right that this is not the first of its kind found in Jerusalem. We were not aware of the few others. We also consulted Keel about this seal, and he didn't mention the others as well. But that's a less significant issue. the more significant is that we have evidence of occupation of the Temple Mount, The Ophel and the City of David hill since the 10th century BCE.

Michael said...

Dear Mr. Dvira, thank you for the correction of your title. I am well aware that the Temple Mount has not been systematically excavated. Thank you for confirming everything I wrote about the Mandate period activities in my original essay. The point, then, is that "The Temple Mount has never been systematically excavated" (a correct statement) is not the same as "The Temple Mount Sifting Project is as close as anyone has ever come to excavating the Temple Mount itself" (a clearly incorrect statement); and the fact that the artifacts found during excavation and renovation work were not published (also a correct statement, I believe) is not the same as "The finds discovered over the past ten years represent the first ever archaeological data originating from within the Temple Mount soil" (another clearly incorrect statement). I am wondering, then, why your project continues to make statements you know to be incorrect in its publicity.

Michael said...

As for the seal: I stand by all of my comments in the essay, as there is still no evidence that warrants changing them. I will make one specific comment here: if "the more significant [issue] is that we have evidence of occupation of the Temple Mount, The Ophel and the City of David hill since the 10th century BCE," and you "didn't go out to the media just with the seal," then why does your press release run with the headline "Rare 3,000-Year-Old Seal Discovered"? Why is this all that the news stories have focused on, and why have you not corrected this? Even if I were to agree with your other claims about the seal and its context, this is clearly misleading.

Zachi Dvira said...

You state in your article that we already knew that Jerusalem was a city with administrative activity. This is not true. Some doubted that it was a city during the Iron Age IIA and that the Temple Mount was part of it. They claimed that the Temple Mount was added to the city only in the 8th century BCE.

Zachi Dvira said...

Regarding the style of our press release, and the headline. It was written by PR people, not us. I just copied it to our weblog. Your attempt to prove that our project is politically oriented is completely wrong. Right at the beginning of your article you show your initial attitude towards it, but saying “The Temple Mount Sifting Project is in the news again”.
The project is funded by the Ir-David foundation, National Parks Authority, The Israel Exploration Society and the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The Ir-David foundation has not effect on our research and do not interfere with it. Its main interest is the tourism and educational aspect of this project. This is why the research and publication of the finds process is funded by other organizations.

Now, please tell me what was the ideal actions that archaeologist should have taken after the 1999 archaeological destructible dig on the Temple Mount and the dumping of the debris outside. Would you prefer that this debris would have been neglected forever and washed away in the rains?

zachi dvira said...

again, I've posted a long comment (before the one from 3:31am and it doesn't appear. the comment from 3:31am is just one paragraph from it. I've giving up from this discussion. just read our 3rd preliminary report which addressed most of your questioning of the value of the finds from this debris.