Canaan’s Earliest Corbelled Vault

COURTESY EYECON / TEL SHIMRON EXCAVATION

Archaeologists excavating at Tel Shimron in northern Israel were astonished to discover a corbel-vaulted passage-way dating to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE). This construction technique, in which layered bricks are stacked in an inward-stepped fashion to create a gradually narrowing ceiling, is well known from sites in Mesopotamia, but Shimron’s corbelled passageway is the earliest example of such architecture ever discovered in the Levant.

“A fully preserved mudbrick-built passageway with this type of corbelled vault is without parallel,” said excavation co-director Mario Martin. “Such structures almost never survive.”

Impressive monumental architecture abounds at Tel Shimron, which was the center of a prominent Middle Bronze Age kingdom known as Sham-anu. But this new discovery holds special significance. The vaulted passage “fills an important gap in the history of architecture in this region,” said excavation co-director Daniel Master, who identified it as an extraordinary example of Mesopotamian mudbrick technology.

5 Questions: Why the University of Chicago’s Museum Changed Its Name

Kiersten Neumann

The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (ISAC) Museum at the University of Chicago, known until last year as the Oriental Institute Museum, houses one of the foremost collections of West Asian and North African antiquities in North America, with more than 350,000 artifacts. Kiersten Neumann, Curator of the ISAC Museum, offers some insights on the name change, the continuing appeal and relevance of the institute and its work, and her experience as its curator.

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Why was the ISAC Museum originally called the Oriental Institute Museum?

NEUMANN: The Oriental Institute was founded by James Henry Breasted more than a hundred years ago, in 1919. His ambition was to establish an interdisciplinary research center to study the earliest civilizations of an area that he vividly named “the Fertile Crescent.” At the time, this broad geographical area—today variably called the Middle East, Near East, or West Asia and North Africa—was more commonly called the “orient,” which meant “east,” and the institute launched expeditions and research projects at sites spanning from Tunisia to Iran. The Oriental Institute Museum opened its doors in 1931, and the collections grew in the following decades.

DADEROT / CC0 1.0

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Last year, the museum changed its name. Why was the name change necessary?

NEUMANN: The meaning of the term “orient” as “east” is no longer part of common American English usage. In addition to more often being associated today with East Asia, the term can also carry derogatory associations. Our new name more fittingly represents the geographical and cultural regions that are the focus of the institute’s research and collections. We are hopeful that the new name will foster new and stronger connections both locally and globally, as well as opportunities for engagement and celebration.

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What are some of the highlights of the museum’s collections?

NEUMANN: Beyond the most visually impactful objects from the galleries—such as the commanding, 40-ton winged bull from the Assyrian palace at Khorsabad, a monumental limestone bull head from Persepolis, or a 16-foot statue of King Tutankhamun—two aspects of the museum truly shine: the strong archaeological provenience of the collection and its accompanying archives. Most of the objects were excavated during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s and allotted to the institute through the division of finds. The museum’s archival collections include expedition diaries, object logs, archival slides and photographs, and export permits that offer unparalleled insight into the history of the institute’s work. They also document the objects’ original archaeological contexts and their subsequent acquisition, study, and display.

BOSIL JKA ZUTICH / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

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Beyond the museum’s name change, what other changes will visitors notice?

NEUMANN: The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reevaluate what types of programming are most impactful and enticing for in-person versus online events. Although we reopened our galleries in September 2020, we continue to offer online programs and recordings that reach audiences across the globe.

Visitors who come to the museum in-person will see updates to labels throughout the galleries, alongside references to the institute’s new name and updated geographical terminology. We’re shifting our temporal terminology—from BC/AD to BCE/CE—and we’re updating our displays to move away from the use of the term “mummy” in favor of more humanizing terminology, including “mummified person” or the name of the deceased individual when known. We’ve also added a label at the entrance to the Egyptian gallery alerting visitors to the display of mummified remains of deceased persons and animals.

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What is your job as museum curator and what do you enjoy most about your work?

NEUMANN: My position is one that spans an assortment of responsibilities—no day is exactly the same! There are the expected curatorial duties: research and publishing on the museum’s object and archival collections, curating and coordinating special exhibitions, continually updating the permanent galleries’ object displays and didactics, improving our data-base, and guiding tours. We’re a small museum team, so in these various tasks I work closely with all of our departments: archives, conservation, curatorial, exhibition design, registration, and visitor services, in addition to colleagues at ISAC more broadly.

What I enjoy most as curator is the direct connection with objects. Despite having worked in museums for more than 14 years, I’m still humbled by the sensory experience of handling an object that is thousands of years old. Curatorial work is not just about caring for and understanding objects. For me, it’s catching a glimpse of the people who imagined and created the object; who used, experienced, and discarded it; who might have stumbled upon it centuries later; and who feel an intimate connection with it in the present day.

Archaeology Argot: Enkolpion

© DUMBARTON OAKS, BYZANTINE COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, DC

Beginning in the fourth century, people in the eastern, Greek-speaking world of early Christianity used pieces of jewelry called enkolpia (singular, enkolpion). Meaning “in (or on) the bosom,” they were a kind of pendant attached to a necklace or string and worn around the neck. Since they typically featured Christian scenes or inscriptions or contained a sacred relic, enkolpia were designed to protect their wearers by means of their religious imagery or contents.

Produced in virtually all materials used for jewelry, including gold and wood, enkolpia could take many different forms, from simple disks (medallions) to crosses to various containers. In the latter form, they were usually reliquaries, as the category of enkolpion encompasses several other types of artifacts, including phylacteries, pilgrim tokens, and amulets. Elaborately decorated enkolpia from precious materials often served as royal gifts.

Pictured here is a gold enkolpion featuring a pressed frontal image of the prophet Daniel standing between two lions. Daniel, in a gesture of prayer with both hands raised and a beaded halo encircling his head, is wearing a belted tunic and short cloak. He is identified by a Greek inscription Ο ΠΡΟΦΙΤΗϹ ΔΑΝΙΗΛ (“the prophet Daniel”). Dating to the 13th century and measuring about 1.5 inches in diameter, it probably was a pilgrim token from the prophet’s shrine in Constantinople.

How Many?

How many plagues did Yahweh send upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus?

Answer: Ten

According to the Hebrew Bible, there were ten plagues prior to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt (Exodus 7–12). This series of natural and supernatural disasters was supposed to soften Pharaoh’s heart to let the people of Israel go. But the defiant pharaoh did not allow for a peaceful departure, and the Israelites were able to flee only with the aid of the strong arm of Yahweh.

In chronological order, the ten plagues included water turned to blood, frog infestation, gnat infestation, fly infestation, livestock disease, boils, hail and storms, locust infestation, total darkness, and the death of all firstborn male children and livestock. Inconsistences in the account of the first plague suggest the list originated from two separate literary traditions—the Jahwist source (J) and the Priestly source (P)—which accords with the Documentary Hypothesis about the Torah’s origins.

Additionally, a poetic retelling of the “signs and wonders” that preceded the Exodus appears in Psalms 78:43–51 and 105:28–36. The former recounts six plagues (blood, flies, frogs, locusts, hail, death of the firstborn), to which the latter adds two more (darkness, gnats) but still omits livestock disease and boils.

Then and Now: The Best Part of Waking Up

ALP AKSOY / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Coffee is one of the most valuable commodities in the world. It has become a large part of our culture even though many people don’t even drink it. We take coffee breaks at work, we meet friends at the local cafe “for coffee,” and we even take our children to coffee shops when they wake up sinfully early. Coffee gets us going in the morning, excites us to try new things, and brings us together.

Much like the beverage itself, the origins of coffee are dark and murky. Two of the most popular legends place the plant’s discovery in medieval Ethiopia, but they disagree on who actually made the discovery. In one version, an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats had more energy after eating the berry-like fruit of the coffee plant and decided to try it for himself. In another version, a Yemenite Sufi mystic was traveling through Ethiopia, where he encountered some very energetic birds that had been eating the fruit off the coffee plant. Exhausted from his journey, he decided to try these berries for himself and found that he too had more energy.

Regardless of the origin, our modern conception of coffee—a drink created by roasting and brewing beans—comes from Arabia. In the 15th century, Sufi monks from Yemen were the first to cultivate coffee plants and brew them into the drink we know today. Thanks to Arab and European traders, coffee made its way around the world; it is estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day! Let this be your invitation to go grab a cup while you enjoy this issue of BAR.

Book Review: An Anatomy of God

God: An Anatomy

What does God look like? Sound like? How does God smell, taste, or touch? These are the fundamental and, for some, controversial questions that frame Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s newest book. For those who have grown up in religious communities, Stavrakopoulou tells a story at once familiar and strange. Her masterful synthesis of ancient Near Eastern texts (including the Hebrew Bible and New Testament), archaeology, and the history of interpretation emboldens her reader to engage these fundamental human questions about the divine without fear of theological censure. In so doing, the reader embarks upon a journey to a time before the strictures of orthodoxy or modernity, to a place in human history where deities walk, talk, breathe, speak, touch, snort, and lust.

The pictures we humans draw of the divine dictate not just the way God(s) is/are conceptualized but also how we imagine our own place in the world and how we treat each other. Stavrakopoulou’s fresh take on these questions explores the physicality of divine-human interactions one body part at a time, moving from God’s legs and feet, to the genitals, the torso, the arms and hands, and finally the head. In so doing, the reader encounters familiar passages in the biblical text but with a new sensitivity to their literal rather than allegorical interpretation.

Although the book is written for a general audience, it is also teeming with scholarship ranging over miles and millennia. It describes the way biblical passages may have been understood during the time they were created as well as the changes in Jewish and Christian interpretation that have led to the way people tend to read these passages today. This attention to the history of interpretation is crucial. When we better understand why we read these texts in particular ways as a modern audience, our eyes are opened to the possibility that ancient authors, creators, and audiences understood descriptions of the divine in different, far more visceral terms.

Reading biblical texts within the context of ancient Near Eastern mythologies, ritual texts, and legends leads to a radical reevaluation of many descriptions of Yahweh that modern readers assume are metaphorical, helping the reader reconsider the accuracy of English translations that have rendered anatomical language figuratively (e.g., the face of Yahweh) or euphemistically (e.g., Yahweh’s phallus).

In this way, Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus of the New Testament come alive as fully embodied entities with a host of spiritual companions (including consorts) that populate the divine, earthly, and sub-earthly realms. These deities, at once, fit much more comfortably within the context of the larger artistic, cultural, and ritual spheres that constituted the fabric of human-divine interaction from the Bronze Age through the Roman period. The extensive examples of artifacts and artistic portrayals throughout the book further undergird this point. Most of the purported contrasts drawn between the biblical depictions of God’s body (or lack thereof) and the perceptions of the divine in contemporaneous cultures are not true to the time when they were written but are actually byproducts of later theologies anesthetizing the Bible and early Jewish and Christian practice.

By focusing on the physical body of the divine, we also gain a new appreciation for the sensory landscape of ancient human ritual life. From the clouds of sweet-smelling incense in temples to the expressions of awe experienced by worshipers encountering a cult image, to the realia of ejaculates, menstrual blood, and pus, we gain a deeper understanding of the holistic experiences through which humans understood themselves as encountering the divine. As a corollary, we also must consider which humans are allowed in which spaces and under what conditions, drawing our attention to the diversity of ancient ritual experiences and the power dynamics of who had access to deities and their physical presence.

Because this book covers a staggering amount of material and is written for a general audience, there are times when the reader is left wanting to know more details about a translation or interpretation. There is a rich history of scholarly debate over many topics covered in God: An Anatomy, including whether a statue of Yahweh existed in the Temple, whether Asherah served as Yahweh’s consort, the extent to which ancient authors portrayed God as lustful, how to understand images of Yahweh committing or condoning sexual violence, and which passages in the Bible include vestiges of a Canaanite pantheon. As a thought-provoking, thorough, and accessible introduction to the physicality of the divine in the biblical world, this book will serve as a starting point for deeper engagement and ongoing dialogue.

World Wonders: Library of Celsus

ALIAKSANDR MAZURKEVICH / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

One of the largest libraries in antiquity, the Library of Celsus, found at the site of Ephesus on the western coast of Turkey, was commissioned in 114 CE to commemorate the Roman consul and governor Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. Both a mausoleum and library, the building held around 12,000 scrolls, rivaling the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. The library was destroyed in 262, possibly during the Gothic invasion of the city. Today, all that remains is the façade, elaborately decorated with carvings and statuary. The two-story edifice boasts 16 columns built using a forced perspective technique that made the building and its features appear larger than they actually are.

One of the largest cities in the Roman world, Ephesus was a hub of communication, pilgrimage, and trade and was the capital of the rich Roman province of Asia. Perhaps this is why the city was so prominent in the third missionary journey of Paul, who spent two and a half years there (Acts 19). Although the library was not constructed until decades after Paul’s death, the city’s intellectual climate stretched back centuries, creating fertile ground for Paul’s work in the city, which most likely included writing letters to the Corinthians and Philippians.

Roman Sword Stash

COURTESY NATHAN STEINMEYER / BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY SOCIETY

On a chance visit to a remote cave near Ein Gedi along the western shore of the Dead Sea, archaeologists hoping to photograph a fragmentary inscription on one of the cave’s stalactites happened upon a trove of beautifully preserved Roman swords.

The cache includes three spatha swords, each about 2 feet long; a 17-inch ring pommel sword; and a javelin head. The swords were remarkably well preserved, with their wooden handles and scabbards found largely in-tact. Additionally, the ring pommel sword—a type of weapon that originated in eastern Europe—is the oldest example of this sword ever found in the Roman Near East.

Although experts are still studying the date and purpose of the cache, initial analysis indicates the swords may have been taken from Roman soldiers by Judeans during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 CE) who then stashed them in the cave for future use.

Other scholars are more cautious about interpreting the finds. “We can’t even pinpoint yet [the dating] within the second century, to the beginning or the end,” said archaeologist Guy Stiebel of Tel Aviv University, who believes that radiocarbon dating, DNA results, and isotope analysis will eventually help to clarify the history of these remarkable weapons.

Where Is It?

BRENDANVANSON / ISTOCK

1. Jebel Haroun, Jordan
2. Homs, Syria
3. Urfa, Turkey
4. Mt. Sinai, Egypt
5. Mt. Tabor, Israel

Answer: (1) Jebel Haroun, Jordan

Jebel Haroun (Arabic for “Mountain of Aaron”) is traditionally identified as biblical Mt. Hor, where Aaron, the first high priest and brother of Moses, died and was buried (see Numbers 20:22–29 and 33:38–39; though contrast Deuteronomy 10:6, which gives a different location). This mountain’s identification with Aaron is ancient, dating back at least to the time of Josephus (first century CE) and Eusebius (third century).

COURTESY APAAME / PHOTO BY DAVID KENNEDY

The mountain is just a few miles southwest of the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra in southern Jordan. Atop the peak is a small shrine dating to the early 14th century. This shrine, which contains a cenotaph commemorating Aaron’s death, appears to have been built on top of an older structure. Nearby, just below the mountaintop, are the remains of a Byzantine-era monastery, probably built as a Christian pilgrimage site sometime prior to the emergence of Islam in the seventh century.

New “Sayings of Jesus”

COURTESY OF THE EGYPT EXPLORATION SOCIETY AND THE FACULTY OF CLASSICS, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

This small papyrus fragment may contain one of the earliest known collections of Jesus’s sayings. The papyrus, which experts date to the early second century, is known as the “Sayings of Jesus” papyrus. Its contents parallel material from both Matthew and Luke, as well as the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. The fragment is one of more than a half-million documents discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt, a site that has yielded a wealth of treasures related to early Christianity.

The sayings in the text appear to revolve around leaving behind worldly cares. “The papyrus is about freedom from anxiety,” said Jeffery Fish, one of the text’s translators. “And despite some theological differences, the overall thrust is really not very different from what we find in the canonical parallels, especially Luke (cf. Luke 12:13–21).” The fragment’s exact relationship to the Gospels and other early Christian textual traditions, however, remains unclear. Despite some similarities, textual differences suggest it may have developed independently but from a common oral tradition, with the scribe writing down sayings from memory or altering them intentionally.