Rust Family Foundation - Archaeology Grants Program

Near East


Long considered the ‘Cradle of Civilization,’ archaeology in the Near East has been essential to our understanding of human development, from the earliest settlements and domestication to some of the earliest cities and writing as well as the emergence of three of the most prominent world religions.  While early archaeological investigations in the Near East tended to focus on these major concerns—the earliest settlements, the earliest cities, or possible evidence for Biblical events—today archaeologists working in the region are focusing on more specific and varied questions of human development.   

Another major concern of archaeologists in the region is the preservation of archaeological sites and materials in a region that has seen several major conflicts in recent years and where worldwide markets for ancient goods combined with localized poverty (also often brought on by war) has brought about rampant and often devastating looting. 
During the 2015-16 granting cycle the Foundation also provided a grant to the Temple Mount Sifting Project.  In a region where it has been said, “all archaeology is political” the implications of this large multi-year project are particularly acute.  

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is sacred to three major religions: it is the most sacred site for Judaism, as the site of the First and Second Temples, and is also sacred for Christianity and was used by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, and since the Early Islamic period it has been the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest mosque in Islam, and also the site of the shrine of the Dome of the Rock.  Unbelievably, while the Temple Mount has played a central role in the history of Jerusalem, no systematic archaeological excavation has ever taken place there because of its political sensitivity. 

However, on various occasions in recent history construction and renovations were conducted at the site without any archaeological supervision or control, causing severe damage to ancient remains. The most damage occurred from 1999 to 2000, when the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel conducted large scale earthworks using heavy machinery in order to create an entrance to Solomon’s Stables (an ancient subterranean structure) which had been converted into a new mosque (the al-Marwani mosque). In addition, in an open area on the eastern side of the Temple Mount, the ground level was lowered with bulldozers in order to lay new pavement slabs. About 400 truckloads of soil saturated with archaeological artifacts from all periods in the history of Jerusalem, were removed and dumped in various locations, mainly in the nearby Kidron Valley. 

In 2005, on the western slopes of Mt. Scopus at Emek Tzurim National Park, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University established a project for sifting the earth debris that had been removed from the Temple Mount. Using visiting tourists as labor, the project has discovered many small artifacts  ranging from ostraca written in ancient Hebrew script, to coins from Herodian, Roman, and Byzantine periods (ca. 50 BC – AD 650);  colored tiles from the 2nd Temple period and Roman hypocaust or heating tiles; and bullae (seal rings).   The 2016 grant from the Rust Family Foundation was dedicated to fund a professional graphic artist to illustrate some of these important finds. 

The Rust Family Foundation grants reflect these new research concerns with grants supporting a variety of projects focusing on different time periods and issues in the Near East.  For instance, a grant to Max Price supported the initial investigation of the small mound of Khirbet Risqeh and its surroundings in the remote Wadi Rum protected area of Jordan.  Earlier excavations at the site by Diana Kirkbride in 1959 discovered a circular arrangement of stones carved to resemble human torsos that may be comparable to similar arrangements in the Arabian peninsula dated to the 5th millennium BC.  This and a lack of habitation remains on the site, as well as a thick ash layer have lead Price to surmise the site was a non-habitation center for ritual activity and his initial investigation found little cultural material to refute this hypothesis.  With funding from this grant, Price was able to thoroughly survey and map the site as well as obtain C-14 samples from the ash layer and we eagerly await the resulting dates to clarify when the site was created.

The Foundation’s other grant for investigation in Jordan was quite different.  This was to support the preparation of the final publication of excavations at the Roman Auxiliary Fort at al-Humayma. From 1986 to 2005 Prof. John Peter Oleson directed survey and excavations at the site of Humayma, ancient Hawara, in the Hisma Desert in Southern Jordan, halfway between Petra and Aqaba. The site flourished from the first century BC to the eighth century AD as a Nabataean, then Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic site.  Our grant to Professor Oleson is to support the final preparation of the third volume of publications from this investigations, which concerns the Roman Auxiliary Fort, the best preserved early Imperial period fort in the Near East, that is, forts constructed and manned during the first 150 years of the Roman empire


The final project funding by the Foundation in the region also includes concerns over politics and preservation in a region rife with conflict.  Some of the best known and most important archaeological sites and museums in the world (including many World Heritage Sites)—from the early Neolithic site of Jarmo to the ancient cities of Mesopotamia such as Ur, Nineveh and  Babylon to  Roman Palmyra and medieval Aleppo --are located in the countries, Iraq and Syria, countries which have over the last few years seen almost constant fighting.  Consequently, these are being damaged or destroyed at an alarming rate. In addition, large-scale looting has been organized specifically to provide artifacts that are sold to support ISIS and other terrorist groups. 

While dozens of non-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have responded to this crisis, various forces have made it difficult for these separate organizations to cooperate and share data and as a result there has been much duplication of effort.  Sharing data is essential to enable international communities to move more quickly to identify sites at risk, map sites that are damaged, and track the pattern of looters. This data is essential to establishing no-fly zones and educating troops and police about protecting culturally sensitive areas. The data is also vital to the process of repairing sites and restoring artifacts to their homes once stabilization comes to the region.   The very first grant allocated from the Archaeology Program of the Rust Family Foundation thus went to support a two-day cultural heritage invitational summit in Washington, DC on December 10-11, 2015. During the summit, representatives from the 12-16 primary organizations that collect data on the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq planned ways to cooperate and reduce duplication of effort across projects.  Results from this summit have already enabled a more cooperative international response to threats to archaeological sites in these two countries.





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