Ransomed for Posterity!
Tombstones Reveal Non-Rabbinic Jewish Community Near Dead Sea in Byzantine Period
Looted from ancient cemeteries near the southern end of the Dead Sea in Jordan, these Aramaic funeral stelae mark the tombs of Jews who were buried here between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. These exemplars, among a number now on the market and in private hands, were “ransomed” by London collector Shlomo Moussaieff, who has made them available to scholars to study (see “How to Stop Looting: A Modest Proposal”). Had Moussaieff not purchased them, they would have gone underground and we might know nothing about them. As a result of Moussaieff’s purchase, Professor Sacha Stern of the London School of Jewish Studies of the University of London is publishing an article on them that will soon appear in the scholarly Hebrew journal Tarbiz. Moussaieff has also agreed to allow them to be published here for the first time to inform a wider public of their existence.
The first Jewish tombstone from this burial ground surfaced in 1925; two others were recovered and published in 1944. In the 1980s extensive looting produced a number of others. The known corpus today is about 30. In 1995, Israeli epigraphist Joseph Naveh published nine of them. Others are expected to be published soon.
The corpus of Christian tombstones from this cemetery—in Greek rather than Aramaic—is much larger, numbering over 200. Like the Jewish examples, they too are painted in red (and sometimes incised).
The Jewish tombstones are especially significant because they are dated very precisely, usually giving the month, week and day of the date of death, as well as the year, reckoned both from the date of the destruction of the Temple and by the year of the Sabbatical cycle. This provides scholars with new data for computing the Sabbatical cycle of years and the Jubilee year (the year after a cycle of seven sabbatical years).
Apparently the Jews from this community, like the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, followed a different calendar from Jews who followed the rabbis. Observance of Passover, for example, could vary by as much as a month between those who were buried in this cemetery and those who followed the rabbis. These tombstones thus provide evidence of a community of non-Rabbinical Jews living in Palestine as late as the fourth to sixth centuries.
Readers of Hebrew will immediately recognize on the last line of the inscription on the tombstone at left the words Shalom al Yisroel, “Peace unto Israel,” from Psalm 125. Below the inscription is a typical three-footed menorah: To the left of the menorah is a shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet blown at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur); to the right is what appears to be another common depiction in Jewish iconography, the machtah, or incense shovel.
Another stone (not shown here) exhibits a menorah and a lulav, the palm branch waived on the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). The branches are excessively spread out, however, which is contrary to rabbinic law.
A third stone (above) contains, in addition to a menorah, a depiction of an ark containing the Torah scroll. A curtain (paroket) covers the front of the ark and the “eternal light” (ner tamid) hangs from the pediment.
Spitalfields Roman Sarcophagus and Coffin
Museum of London
3rd-4th century B.C.
stone and lead
In March of this year, British archaeologists excavating in the Spitalfields district of London uncovered something spectacular: In a Late Roman imperial cemetery, outside the walls of Roman London, they unearthed a stone sarcophagus inside of which was a rare lead coffin containing the remains of a woman.
Although the stone sarcophagus is unadorned, the lead coffin is decorated with a scallop shell and rope pattern. These nautical motifs may symbolize the deceased’s journey across the sea to the pagan underworld. The grave goods buried with the woman—glass perfume bottles and jet (polished black coal) jewelry—may have been intended to accompany her and protect her from evil spirits.
But other features of the burial suggest that the woman was a Christian. The grave was oriented east-west, and the deceased’s left arm was found laid across her body. These two practices are associated with Roman Christian burials. By the mid-fourth century A.D., Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, but the old Roman pantheon continued to be worshiped. Jenny Hall, curator of Roman London at the Museum of London, suggests that the woman may have been buried according to the rites of two conflicting belief systems in an effort to “appease all the gods that were being worshiped at the time.”
When the body was exhumed in mid-April, archaeologists were astonished to find that the coffin had been flooded at some point, filling it with mud that helped preserve some ancient leaves and gold thread. The gold thread may be the remains of a shroud, while the leaves may have come from a cushion or a funeral garland.
The rarity and expense of lead coffins in the ancient world leads archaeologists to believe that the woman came from a very wealthy, perhaps even noble, family. Although physical anthropologists have not been able to determine the cause of death, the woman’s skeletal remains indicate that she was in her 20s when she died. She was well-nourished, though her teeth were beginning to decay from eating sweets!
The skeleton was displayed at the Museum of London during the month of June, but it will eventually be reburied when the excavation of the cemetery is complete. The sarcophagus, coffin and grave goods have been added to the permanent collection of the museum and will be put on display sometime this year.
Carrying Kohl to Karnak
French Scientists Determine the Composition of 4,000-Year-Old Egyptian Make-up.
The cosmetics sold at make-up counters today claim to improve the condition of your skin, melt away the years and make you more enticing to the object of your affection. The ancient Egyptians made all these claims and more about their cosmetics: In addition to increasing your appeal, Egyptian cosmetics were supposed to cure eye disease, prevent ingrown eyelashes and bring relief to skin ailments. The uses for these products were often listed on the wood, alabaster or reed containers in which the cosmetics were stored. One container, for example, held a concoction that was “good for the sight,” another was “to stanch bleeding,” and a third caused tears to flush out the eyes.
Several of these cosmetic containers (like the ones shown above) have survived the ages intact. The make-up was stored inside the containers as clumps, then ground into a fine powder on ornately decorated palettes. The cosmetics were created with a base of ground-up materials: Galena, a grey lead ore, was used to create black eye paint, called kohl, while malachite, a green copper ore, was commonly used for green eye make-up. According to recent analyses by a group of French scientists, the Egyptians of 4,000 years ago used sophisticated chemistry to produce their distinctive make-up. The study, presented in last February’s issue of Nature magazine, revealed that the make-up contained two compounds, phosgenite and laurionite, that are seldom found in nature. Generally, they have to be artificially created through a series of complex chemical reactions.
The French scientists believe that the Egyptians may have synthesized their cosmetic ingredients by combining crushed salt and lead oxide in water, and then filtering the mixture repeatedly through a sieve. (A similar technique for creating phosgenite- and laurionite-like crystals was described by Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) in his book Natural History.) Until recently, it was thought that this particular approach to creating synthetic compounds—which scientists sometimes refer to as “wet chemistry”—was unknown in ancient Egypt, but the results of the French study indicate it may have been in use as early as 2100 B.C.
Archimedes Takes Center Stage
An Ancient Text Goes Public
Math textbooks are not crowd-pleasers, but this summer the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore expects to draw big audiences with the recently rediscovered Archimedes Palimpsest. This tenth-century, vellum palimpsest (a manuscript in which the original writing has been partially erased and written over) contains the oldest known Greek-language editions of Archimedes’s mathematical treatises Method of Mechanical Theorems and On Floating Bodies, as well as several lesser-known works by the ancient Greek mathematician.
A prolific theoretician and engineer, Archimedes (287–211 B.C.) invented the corkscrew, the catapult and the grappling hook. He laid the foundations of calculus, described the value of pi, and, of course, discovered the principle of water displacement that bears his name. (According to legend, after discovering the Archimedes Principle, the colorful thinker ran naked through Sicily’s streets shouting “Eureka!”)
Until recently, scholars had to infer most of the Greek mathematician’s theories from a handful of his letters and partial Latin translations of his works. The Archimedes Palimpsest may enable scholars to read something closely resembling Archimedes’s original work.
In the 12th century, a monk—desperate for a writing surface—scraped off the book’s top layer of ink, turned the pages 90° and recorded a set of mundane church rules over the original Greek text. After a few centuries of obscurity in the Mar Saba monastery, in Israel’s Judean desert, the codex made its way to an Istanbul monastery, where it was eventually “discovered” in 1907 by the Danish classicist Johan Heiberg. (With the help of a magnifying glass, Heiberg painstakingly reconstructed several pages of the original text). In the 1920s, before other scholars had a chance to examine the palimpsest, it was bought by a French collector. Once again, the book vanished from sight, only to resurface unexpectedly last October, on the auction block at Christie’s.
The Christie’s auction immediately incited protest from scholars and provoked a controversy over the manuscript’s ownership. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem claimed that the text was stolen from him in the 1920s. He filed an injunction against the auction and demanded that the codex be returned and displayed at the National Library in Athens. But an 11th-hour decision by a federal U.S. judge allowed the auction to continue. The book was sold in October to an anonymous American collector for $2.2 million.
Some scholars feared this change of hands would result in another disappearing act. But soon after the sale, the palimpsest’s new owner announced that the text would be available to the public. The Walters exhibition (June 20 to September 5) also features other texts from the museum’s collection, such as an early edition of a work by the third-century B.C. mathematician Euclid.
After the exhibition, the manuscript will return to the gallery’s conservation department, where its moldering pages will be treated and its loose binding repaired. Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters, told Archaeology Odyssey that during the two-year conservation process digitized ultraviolet images will be made of the book’s pages—allowing viewers to distinguish the Archimedes texts from the 12th-century writing. These images will then be made available for study through paper and CD-ROM media.
Rock of Ages
The Rosetta Stone’s 200th Birthday
When Napoleon embarked on his 1798 invasion of Egypt, he took along 60 scientists and scholars to record and study ancient monuments. But it was a French field officer—not one the emperor’s trained experts—who made the expedition’s most famous archaeological discovery.
Exactly 200 years ago, in July of 1799, the Rosetta Stone was unearthed by workmen constructing a fort in the town of Rashid (Rosetta). The French officer in charge of the project, an engineer known only as Bouchard, realized the importance of the stone after noticing that it was inscribed in three different scripts, one of which was ancient Greek. In time, the stone would become famous as the final clue to solving the mystery of ancient Egyptian writing.
The stone’s inscription, a commemoration of the first anniversary of Ptolemy V’s coronation in 196 B.C., was written in two different types of Egyptian script, hieroglyphics and demotic (a cursive script). Several scholars tried their hand at deciphering the text, but it was not until 1822 that the code was cracked, when the 32-year-old Jean-François Champollion, compared the Greek names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra to the hieoroglyphic names in cartouches (ovals enclosing royal names).
The stone was taken to Britain in 1802 as a prize of war, and it has since been part of the collection of the British Museum. This July, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the stone’s discovery, the museum opened a new Rosetta Stone exhibit. The piece of dark grey granite with a rose-colored vein was freshly cleaned, and for the first time the stone is displayed in an upright, rather than flat, position, making it easier to view the inscriptions. The new exhibit focuses upon the challenges of decipherment and the significance of the Rosetta Stone in understanding Egyptian culture. A separate display demonstrates how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. The exhibit will close in January 2000.
The Lamassu’s Tale
Among the thousands of unique and important artifacts in the collection of the Oriental Institute Museum, one stands out due to its sheer size and to the number of stories—both ancient and modern—that can be told about it.
Standing over 16 feet tall and weighing approximately 40 tons, this stone sculpture originally guarded an entrance to the throne room of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721–705 B.C.) in his new capital city of Dur-Sharrukin, at modern Khorsabad in Iraq. This guardian figure, known in ancient times as a lamassu, is composed of parts of several different animals and probably was thought to embody the most desirable aspects of each. The head is that of a human and the ears and body are those of a bull, from whose shoulders rise the sweeping wings of a bird. Carved on the back and front of the lamassu are two inscriptions in cuneiform script in which Sargon boasts of his accomplishments.
This massive sculpture was carved in an ancient Assyrian quarry and transported a considerable distance to the capital. Letters written to Sargon by his officials contain numerous references to the royal demand for these colossi, as well as descriptions of the difficulties encountered in transporting them; there are a number of references, for example, to colossi-bearing barges that sank in the river and had to be raised.
We don’t know if our colossus ever sank in a river. But the problems involved in transporting it to Chicago were daunting. The fragments into which the piece had broken in antiquity were hoisted from their resting place, packed in wooden cases reinforced with iron beams, and sent on a difficult 15-day journey to the Tigris River, some 12 miles away. Once the fragments reached New York, the largest piece proved too big to pass through certain railroad tunnels and had to travel to Chicago via both Canada and New Orleans. The lamassu entered the newly built Oriental Institute Museum through a hole in the wall left open especially for it. Today it proudly dominates the largest of the museum’s galleries.
Out with the Old
Ever since Callimachus of Cyrene invented the first card catalogue in the third century B.C. for the library at Alexandria, libraries have been arranging books according to subject matter. (See Origins, AO 02:02) But all that may be about to change. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC—home to more than 113,000,000 volumes—recently announced that it is considering a new space-saving system of organization. To accommodate the 5,000 items received each day, the library plans to shelve books according to size, not subject. The location of each book will be stored in a computer. This system will conserve shelf space, but critics fear it will also eliminate opportunities for browsing. No wonder Callimachus said “A big book is a big evil.”
Ransomed for Posterity!