New York Daily News

Monday, June 6th, 2005

City students explore history at Israeli site

Students from the Ramaz School, on the upper East Side, washed and sifted the dirt, removing pieces of ancient pottery, metal, glass, mosaic and bone. On one recent day, Baruch Shemtov, 17, found what appeared to be a dirt-encrusted dime in a pile of stones.

As his classmates crowded around, archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University identified it as a 2,000-year-old coin dating from the Jewish revolt against the Romans.

"It's very exciting to be digging up history," said Baruch. "It's an honor that we can do this. It's important that they recover all this. We can learn so much from it."

The mounds of dirt, with the remains of Solomon's Temple, were excavated from the Temple Mount. The site is holy to Jews as well as Muslims, who built their Al Aqsa Mosque atop the sacred plateau.

Archeologists have never been able to examine the site beneath the mosque because of the struggle between Jews and Muslims. But a controversial excavation by Islamic authorities - to construct an emergency exit and renovate a shrine - changed all that.

The soil dug from the plateau was dumped in spots around the city.

"It was a barbaric and illicit dig on the Temple Mount," Barkay said, angered by the carelessness of the excavation. "Scientifically, [studying the debris now] is like treating a dead body. This material was brutally killed. We don't know where it came from, exactly, and there is no way to resuscitate the material."

For more than half a year, archeologists, with the help of volunteers like the students from New York, have painstakingly sifted through the dirt, hoping to recover history.

Also discovered were arrowheads, possibly from the army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon - who invaded Jerusalem about 600 B.C. - gold coins, jewelry and pottery from before the time of King David.

"But even if we lose 80% of the value, we still are left with 20%, which is much more than zero," Barkay said.

For the Ramaz students, helping save what they can has filled them with pride.

"This is really digging up my history and digging up stuff from ancient times," said Elisheva Bellin, 18. "You feel the temple here in my hands. It's very exciting to do that."