Dec. 16, 2011
A glimpse into history
The Rockefeller Archeological Museum, a white limestone fortress-like edifice located opposite the walled Old City, overlooks the bustling commercial centre of East Jerusalem. Instead of Hebrew, Arabic is ubiquitous – among men hunched over games of backgammon, hawkers calling out their wares and chattering children en route to school.
The Rockefeller boasts thousands of artifacts that American and English archeologists unearthed in and around Jericho, Megiddo, Samaria, Ashkelon, Acre, the Galilee and Jerusalem during the early 20th century. Visitors, in the course of an hour or so, can stroll through one and a half million years of human history. Yet few do. Some cite the Rockefeller’s small size or its old-fashioned displays, which have remained unchanged since its establishment in 1938. Others are reluctant to brave its East Jerusalem location.
The museum is served by public Israeli buses, yet locals and tourists usually prefer to arrive via direct, secure shuttles. These are arranged by the Israel Museum, located in West Jerusalem, which, together with the Israel Antiquities Authority, has managed the Rockefeller since 1967. Formerly, the museum was supervised by an international board of trustees and, then, briefly, by the Kingdom of Jordan.
The Rockefeller, like Israel itself, embodies elements of both Eastern and Western cultures. Its exhibition halls, which are illuminated by high windows, evoke a cathedral, while its rectangular, glassed display cases and heavy walnut doors suggest those of European galleries. On the other hand, its domed, vaulted ceilings and central courtyard, which features a reflecting pool and an Islamic-style blue-tiled niche, mirrors its Middle Eastern origins.
The courtyard also bears 10 stone bas-reliefs, each representing one of the cultures that has influenced this region – Canaan, Egypt, Judea, Phoenicia, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Islam and the Crusades. Around the pool stand ancient architectural elements, statuary and other large objects. An oversized clay “bathtub,” really a sarcophagus, lies beside several carved stone coffins. A marble foot, forever severed from its towering body, recalls the Roman conquest of nearby Ashkelon.
The museum’s central exhibition halls, which are arranged chronologically from the Stone Age through the 18th century, flank the courtyard. Its collections are eclectic and often surprising. Along with pottery, tools and household implements, visitors will discover two of the earliest finds of the region, Galilee Man and Mount Carmel Man, who were both related to Neanderthals.
The Rockefeller also features a vast assortment of terracotta pieces from different periods. These include a Canaanite cult stand of unknown use, an ossuary with “mouth” agape, jugs and jars bearing two-tone fish-and-bird motifs, and Islamic vessels adorned with geometric designs. Its three-dimensional terracotta horsemen and dog-like figures, each about the length of a hand span, may have been used in child’s play, martial rites or as augurs to assure bravery in battle.
Many Rockefeller Roman glass vessels shimmer with characteristic patinas, which are indicative of their age, wear and the condition in which they were preserved. Some, like bowls, amphorae and flasks for water, oil or wine, were found in every household. Others, like slender, high-necked bottles that protected perfumes from evaporation, while slowly dispensing drop by expensive drop, were favored by the upper classes.
Late Bronze Age artisans were known for the fine pieces they carved from hippopotamus tusks imported from Egypt. A magnificent palace complex unearthed at Megiddo, for example, has yielded a cache of hundreds of their creations, including shallow bowls, ointment spoons, cosmetic boxes, decorative plaques and combs.
This cache also held two gaming boards, both part of the Rockefeller’s collection. One is a mysterious viol-shaped ivory panel. Although its provenance remains unknown, the gold-leaf studs found by its side may have capped pegs that once tallied players’ scores along its 58 cribbage-like holes.
The second gaming board is a 20-squared stone slab, found near a set of massive dice and triangular gemstone playing pawns. It resembles Senet, a game of chance that originated in Egypt and is still enjoyed today.
If the contents of ancient tombs are any indication, women, at least those of the upper classes, wore far more pieces of jewelry than they do today. The Rockefeller features many assortments of gold pins and earrings, as well as necklaces fashioned from bone, vari-colored stones or carnelian, known as the “blood of the goddess Isis.” Also on display is a handful of delicate, golden, pointed toggle pins, part of a treasure trove unearthed at an archeological site near Gaza, and a pair of gold bracelets that were hurriedly hidden beneath a floor as its owners fled three millennia ago.
The Rockefeller Archeological Museum displays special acquisitions in smaller galleries. One of these features decorative stucco architectural elements from the bathhouse of the Umayyad caliph Hisham’s palace, which lay outside ancient Jericho. Although this building was abandoned after a massive eighth-century earthquake, today a bevy of brightly colored quails strut beneath an Arabesque window and a party of three-dimensional, sensuous figures still frolic as of old.
The Rockefeller’s galleries also display local Islamic and Christian treasures, like carved cedar doors and panels from the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and a lintel from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that dates back to the time of the Crusaders.
A sixth-century mosaic floor, discovered in an ancient synagogue in biblical Ein Gedi, an oasis near the Dead Sea known for its unique balsam perfume industry, graces the talmudic period gallery. It features a prominent warning pieced in Judeo-Aramaic, the language of the day: “Anyone who neglects his family, provokes conflict, steals property, slanders his friends or reveals the secret of Ein Gedi’s balsam industry is cursed.”
Seldom are burial caves and graves discovered while excavating the foundation of an archeological museum. However, in Jerusalem, where, from biblical days, the dead were buried outside its walls, it is not surprising. Today, some of the finest examples of Jerusalem’s funerary Roman and Byzantine pottery, coins and jewelry are displayed just above where they were found – in the Rockefeller Archeological Museum.
Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer living in Israel, with an interest in history, genealogy and collectibles. She is the author of Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov and the forthcoming Jewish Lives: Britain 1750-1950 (Pen and Sword 2013). Her website is amselbird.tripod.com.