Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Archaeologists find link to 1st temple in controversial J'lem dig

Israeli archaeologists overseeing a contested dig at Jerusalem's holiest site for Muslims and Jews stumbled upon a sealed archaeological level dating back to the era of the first biblical Jewish temple, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Sunday.

Islamic authorities responsible for the Old City compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, said the dig was part of infrastructure work at the site to replace 40-year-old electrical cables. But the Islamic Trust denied that any discovery was made, or that any Israeli archaeologists were supervising the work.

On Sunday, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that it had discovered fragments of ceramic table wares and animal bones dating back to the first Jewish temple - from the 6th to the 10th centuries B.C.

The finds also included fragments of bowl rims, bases and body sherds, the base and handle of a small jug and the rim of a storage jar, the agency said in a statement.

The site represents the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It houses both the Al Aqsa Mosque and the gold-capped Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest shrine, built over the ruins of both biblical Jewish temples. Archaeological digs for a renovation project earlier this year by Israeli authorities next to the holy site sparked protests by Muslims.

Jon Seligman, Jerusalem regional archaeologist for the Antiquities Authority, said the find was significant since it could help scholars in reconstructing the dimensions and boundaries of the Temple Mount during the first temple period.

"The layer is a closed, sealed archaeological layer that has been undisturbed since the 8th century B.C.," he said.

But the Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a group of Israeli archaeologists, downplayed the findings, saying the dig was conducted in an unprofessional manner without proper documentation. The group previously condemned the maintenance works, which included using a tractor to dig a trench, charging that digging at such a sensitive site could damage Bible-era relics and erase evidence of the presence of the biblical structures.

"I think it is a smoke screen for the ruining of antiquities," said Eilat Mazar, a member of the committee.

Seligman said the maintenance work was necessary to accommodate the thousands of worshippers who flock daily to the site. He said no damage was caused to the site and added that the discovery was merely a pleasant surprise.

By Nadav Shragai, Haaretz Correspondent

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