A friend in Mendocino has a cousin who has worked in the antiquities department of the Israel Museum for over 30 years. His speciality is art from the 3rd to 5th centuries (so ancient Rome to Byzantine). We met at the museum and he spent several hours taking us “behind the scenes”. It was amazing and I’m sharing some of what we saw.
True to its title of storeroom, these are shelves and shelves of ossuaries (bone boxes). When a person died in ancient Israel their body was laid in a family burial cave for one year and at the end of that year the bones were collected and placed into one of these boxes and still kept in the cave along with other family members.
Shelves to the ceiling contain all sorts of pieces, reconstructed and otherwise. On the bottom here is a huge urn that is more reconstruction than actual pieces of marble, likely a gift to Herod from a Roman general in Egypt.
We talk about archaeology in class and here you can see what the museum gets from the archaeologists that has to be studied and perhaps put back together. This is a close up of one of the boxes you’ll see in the next image.
Parts from a synagogue in northern Israel. We heard about many excavations taking place right now in small villages around the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.
Very grand are architectural elements like these columns about to be shipped back to Herodium, to be placed in a new section that has been restored. Herodium was a pleasure place built on the top of a hill by Herod sometime around 23 BCE.
A close up of the columns shows you how the drums were put back together as they likely were excavated in pieces.
Also from Herod’s time is this giant tub that looks like it was made from alabaster. We were told that Herod always used materials from the site, never bringing things from other places. This tub which was meant to be outdoors (with heated water- a hot tub without the jets) was carved from some local stone that has the appearance of marble.
Lead clamps on the side of the tub where it cracked. This object too is being made ready to return to the site.
They are working on an upcoming exhibition on 3rd to 4th century synagogues and in preparation they are collecting and restoring all kinds of objects. A restored synagogue wall was in the last blog post. These are pieces from a screen at the front of an ancient synagogue in Gaza. The museum has had these pieces since the 1960s and apparently there were many synagogues there in ancient times. This frame is clear so the back side can be traced and the elements that are missing can be added in some other material so that the viewer gets the sense of how it looked when it was in its full glory.
Mosaics are a huge part of any site from the 3rd to 5th centuries and beyond. We got to see several pieces that have recently been excavated and as you can see are in the process of restoration for the show. This one includes the name of the donor (nothing new here). What is new is the imagery of the menorah (not the Chanukah one, the seven branched one from the Temple) which shows the flames facing the same direction on each side towards the center taller one. You can see where the restorers have drawn in the pieces that are missing.
At first glance this looks like ordinary workers or perhaps the image of the Tower of Babel as the central figures look like they are fighting. What it is, is an image of building the first Temple in Jerusalem.
This fragments was so interesting especially since this is the portion of the Torah (Jewish bible) that is being read right now in synagogues across the world. The depiction is of the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians as they chased the Israelites. Oddly on the other side of the sea is a temple, not in the biblical text- artistic license I suppose. The chariots are collapsing and there is a giant fish.
Another fascinating synagogue that will be included in the exhibition has a mosaic floor that is already on display and has been in the museum’s collection for a long time. It is a large mosaic detailing the rules of Shmita (the biblical injunction that says the land must be left fallow every seventh year). We were in Israel during a shmita year and if you look back in the blog posts you’ll find quite a bit about this. This particular mosaic goes into extreme detail about what can and cannot be planted, harvested, and eaten during that year.
We often talk about how ancient writing is deciphered and here you can see it in action. The same synagogue that has the mosaic floor about shmita had frescoed walls of inscriptions (no imagery). Here you can see how they put the pieces of fresco back together and then figure out what it says.
One of the museum’s functions is to collect, display, and also to lend. Here you can see one of the drawers (there are many) of oil lamps which were used by all the different civilizations in the ancient world.
Here is a modest but very fine collection that was given to the museum by a private collector whose interest was Christian pilgrims. As they traveled they collected souvenirs (as people still do). The object you see in the foreground is a drinking flask with Christian symbols on it.
A beautiful glass jar which has a Christian arch on the front.
Most interesting was this amulet that shows a saint on the front made from some kind of earthen material that was claimed to have restorative properties so the pilgrim who purchased this could shave off a little, mix it with water when he or she was ill and be restored to health.
The museum is very excited to have been asked for some works to be lent to an Islamic Museum in Paris. This is a first for them both. Good will?
These are oil lamps that will be lent with glass vials that hold the oil hanging down through the holes you see.
A demonstration of the lamps. Imagine the beautiful blue glow that would result.
Several years ago there was a large exhibition about Hadrian, the Roman emperor who traveled and conquered widely and was quite accomplished in many ways. One of the controversies in this part of the world is that he changed the name from Canaan to Palestina. As you can see he was quite a confident and handsome man. The first emperor to grow a beard. The next several followed suit.
In preparation for that exhibition one of the curators who thought the hairstyle wrong for that time period created a plaster bust with a different “doo”. The rest of the face stayed exactly the same. Isn’t it remarkable how different they look.
Here is one of the only bronze busts of Hadrian in the world. The mystery is that this was transported with troops from one place to another and this one was somehow left behind when the garrison moved on. Who knows why so they are planning to excavate in the area to see if they can solve the puzzle. This one was found by a local person who was using one of those metal detectors looking for ancient coins!
Another mystery from the same area is this very large fragment of inscribed marble touting Hadrian’s importance found in the same area. The pieces are as big as those found in the Pantheon in Rome. Why and why here?
As we moved from the storeroom to the galleries of the museum for a few tidbits of a private tour we saw works from Beit Shean. An amazing huge site in northern Israel that I blogged about last summer. As you can see some things, especially delicate works that would not survive outside stay in the museum.
This Aphrodite was excavated at Beith Shean in 2001. She is remarkable because she still has some of the paint pigment on her. We see sculptures from this time and assume they were pure white marble when in fact they were fully painted with vivid colors. Once buried much of this disappears if not all so this is an exceptional work.
Before departing from our amazing tour we were treated to two more mosaics, this one of King David playing his lute. This is from the synagogue at Hamam near the Sea of Galilee. The dating of these mosaics is currently a controversy as it has been dated from the 3rd to 4th centuries though some say in is 5th to 6th centuries. Stay tuned if this interests you.
Samson (the giant) attacking the Philistines. This one also found at Hamam. This is a site I had not heard about before but definitely want on my list for future trips.