And the letters keep pouring in!
In “Ransomed for Posterity!” Field Notes, AO 02:04, we ran a story about a group of Jewish gravestones dating from the fourth to sixth century A.D. These stones were looted from cemeteries in Jordan near the southern end of the Dead Sea and later purchased on the market—in effect, ransomed—by London collector Shlomo Moussaieff, who allowed us to publish, for the first time, pictures of the objects.
Sad to say, one of the pictures in that section (the stone depicted in the first photo) was flopped. To read the inscription (and the headline above), you would have to hold it up to a mirror.
We noticed the error on receiving the issue from our printer—as did scores of readers. The mistake is all the more egregious because the stones tell an important story: Their inscriptions include precise dates indicating that this Jewish community followed a calendar different from that used in Rabbinical Judaism (the form of Judaism that has come down to us today). The observance of Passover, for instance, varied by as much as a month between this Dead Sea community and Rabbinical Jews. Thus we learn that at least one community of non-Rabbinical Jews was living in Palestine as late as the sixth century.
So here’s the photo again, with the stone’s shofar (ram’s horn) and machtah (incense shovel) in their rightful places—and with the lovely words Shalom al Yisrael Shalom proceeding as they should, from right to left on the last line of the inscription.—Ed.
Ancient literary works recovered in mummy wrappings
Deep in the vaults of the Bancroft Library, of the University of California at Berkeley, an eclectic collection of acid-free folders, cardboard storage boxes and old cigar tins fills dusty shelves. But this is a papyrologist’s gold mine: 22,000 fragments of ancient texts discovered a hundred years ago in Tebtunis, 40 miles southwest of Cairo.
Some of the papyri, which date to the Greco-Roman period, are written in Greek, others in hieroglyphics or demotic (a form of the cursive Egyptian hieratic script, which derives from hieroglyphics). The fragments include bits of Homer, Demosthenes, Euripides and Virgil, as well as sections of a lost Sophocles play, Inachus.
Besides their literary appeal, the Tebtunis papyri possess a more macabre attraction: Many of the fragments once swathed the carcasses of ancient crocodiles, preserving the creatures’ bodies for all eternity.
In December 1899, Berkeley archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt began scouring the ruins of Tebtunis, including the temple complex dedicated to the crocodile god Soknebtunis (Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis). Located in the fertile Fayum region, Tebtunis was a popular destination in the Ptolemaic period (305–30 B.C.) and the Roman period (30 B.C.–395 A.D.), when pilgrims descended in droves upon the city to worship the crocodile god.
Encouraged by the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s earlier discovery that papyrus documents were often used to form the cartonnage (layers of linen or papyrus stiffened with plaster) covering human mummies, Grenfell and Hunt excavated a vast cemetery south of the city. They 007found not only human mummies but also more than 1,000 embalmed crocodiles, 31 of which had been wrapped with papyrus.
In 1938, the Tebtunis papyri, which had been housed at Oxford University since their discovery, reached the Bancroft Library, forcing curators into a dilemma: How to preserve the fragile fragments? In England, the texts had been stuffed between sheets of old newspaper and placed in tin boxes. Library officials at Berkeley turned to a then-state-of-the-art plastic called Vinylite. Light, compact and easy to store, the plastic seemed like a perfect mounting material. But Vinylite proved to have a number of flaws: Its surface scratched easily; it was also too flexible, allowing the papyrus to bend and splinter; and it allowed static electricity to build up within the mounts. Eventually, the Bancroft officials abandoned their efforts at organizing and mounting the collection.
For half a century the scrolls languished in their boxes and cigar tins. Then in 1996, with the help of a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, library officials renewed their efforts to preserve and catalogue the texts. Using technology developed by a Berkeley-based electronics firm, Bancroft officials have been slowly “de-ionizing” the papyri so they can be removed from their plastic sheaths without damage. An international team of papyrologists has also begun the long and arduous task of sorting through the unexamined Tebtunis scrolls.
Although the Bancroft’s director, Anthony Bliss, estimates that it may take ten years to translate and photograph all of the documents in the collection, the library recently launched an exhibition, featuring some of the 1,100 papyrus fragments deciphered to date.
This past September, the library invited scholars from around the world to a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the papyri. Some of the translated documents in the collection have also been digitized and are currently on display at the library’s Web site: sunsite.lib.berkeley.edu/apis.
Archaeological Institute of America v. the National Geographic Society
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has taken on the venerable National Geographic Society. And it appears their horns are locked.
In the July/August 1999 issue of the AIA magazine, Archaeology, AIA president Nancy P. Wilkie condemned the National Geographic Society for exhibiting finds recovered by a “treasure hunter” from the wreck of an 18th-century pirate ship named the Whydah. The society chose to display these items, Wilkie charged, “after other museums refused out of concern that doing so would encourage commercial exploitation of these wrecks.”
“National Geographic has long supported treasure hunters,” Wilkie wrote.
In the May 1999 issue of National Geographic, editor Bill Allen had justified the exhibit as providing “an important glimpse of early 18th-century pirate life.” The society, Allen wrote, had decided to resist the “pressure” from archaeologists that had “shut the doors of U.S. museums.”
Allen added, “The two camps [commercial salvors and archaeologists] must learn that their missions are not always irreconcilable.”
That suggestion did not sit well with the AIA: “As long as salvors claim ownership to shipwrecks and sell off their contents, their interests and those of archaeologists will remain at cross purposes,” wrote Wilkie.
The AIA president urged her members to “make [their] views known to Congress.”
The religious and artistic ferment of ancient Akhenaten, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Akhenaten, the “Heretic Pharaoh.” His wife Nefertiti. Aten, the Sun Disk.
These were the principal players in a 14th-century B.C. religious and political drama that included the building of a new Egyptian capital, the development of what some claim was the world’s first true monotheism, and the creation of a strangely beautiful—if short-lived—artistic style.
After becoming pharaoh, Amenophis IV (1353–1336 B.C.) changed his name to Akhenaten, in honor of the Sun Disk, Aten, the god he worshiped as the exclusive, all-encompassing Creator. He then built a new capital, Akhetaten (“Place where the Sun Disk becomes effective”), on a barren stretch of the Nile—modern Tell el-Amarna—halfway between the traditional political capital, Memphis, and the religious center of Thebes. At its height, Akhetaten housed 20,000 to 50,000 people, with great palaces, temples to Aten, hundreds of residences and outlying tombs. In his ninth regnal year, Akhenaten began a campaign to wipe out other (false) gods in the Egyptian pantheon, destroying their images and erasing their names from monuments and inscriptions. Shortly after his death, the old polytheistic religion took its revenge: Akhetaten was plundered and abandoned; its temples were dismantled and re-used in structures built by Horemheb (1319–1292 B.C.) and Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.) across the Nile in Hermopolis—pushing Akhenaten’s city into an oblivion that would last 3,000 years.
This brief, brilliant episode in Egyptian history is the subject of a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, opening November 14 and featuring more than 250 objects from museums and private collections around the world.
In 1887 a woman digging near Amarna for sebakh, a fertilizer produced by the decay of mud brick, unearthed almost 400 cuneiform tablets. These were the so-called Amarna Letters, diplomatic correspondence of pharaohs Akhenaten and his father Amenophis III (1390–1353 B.C.) with other Near Eastern potentates. Soon archaeologists began exploring the site. The first to arrive, not surprisingly, was William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who in 1891–1892 uncovered the ancient city’s two major temples to Aten, the Great Palace (measuring 750 feet by 2,500 feet), the Office of the Correspondence of the Pharaoh (presumably the source of the Amarna Letters), private houses and boundary stelae erected by Akhenaten to mark the city’s borders. (Joining Petrie in these excavations was the 00917-year-old Howard Carter, who in 1922 opened the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Petrie complained that since Carter was only interested in painting and natural history, it was futile “to work him up as an excavator.”)
In the Great Palace, Petrie found a magnificent floor painting, measuring more than 2,000 square feet, depicting animal and plant life in the Egyptian marshes. He conserved the painting himself—dabbing tapioca water on it with his fingertips—and built a causeway so that visitors could view the floor without damaging it. (Two decades later, the floor was hacked up by an irate villager whose fields had been trampled by tourists.) On one of the palace’s balustrades, Petrie found a relief carving showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and one of their daughters worshiping the Sun Disk, Aten (below). This relief, now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, was carved in the “extreme” Amarna style, marking a radical departure from traditional Egyptian canons of representation: Rather than projecting typical pharaonic authority, Akhenaten, with his elongated head, protruding chin and voluptuous hips, bathes in Aten’s life-giving rays.
One of the most spectacular discoveries at Amarna came during the 1911–1914 excavations by the German Oriental Society, under the direction of Ludwig Borchardt—the house and adjoining studio of the royal sculptor Thutmose. Among scores of statues left behind when Thutmose’s craftsmen fled the city, Borchardt found the famous painted limestone head of Nefertiti (see Gernot Wilhelm, “Nefertiti Was not Abducted!” The Forum, AO 01:04), which has since served as a model of feminine beauty. Borchardt also found a another life-size head of Nefertiti (below), though this one is made of quartzite and is unfinished (or perhaps was used as an artist’s model).
A number of works from Thutmose’s studio demonstrated yet another facet of the Amarna style, this time not the ideal beauty of the Nefertiti head or the sinuous serenity of the Akhenaten relief but a naturalistic rendering of the human countenance. The face of the old woman shown at the beginning of this section, made of gypsum plaster, seems to have been sculpted from life; in fact, however, this plaster face was probably cast from a clay model, which was worked by the artist until he felt that the image was ready to be carved in stone.
The London-based Egypt Exploration Society, excavating at Amarna from 1921 to 1936, produced a plan of the city in its entirety: with an urban center, “suburbs” of residential housing, a workmen’s village and tombs at the periphery. Among the thousands of objects the British team found in the city’s private houses was a delicate, brightly painted, 6-inch-long glass fish (above), probably used as a vessel for precious oil.
Excavations at Amarna were resumed by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1977 and continue today, directed by British archaeologist Barry Kemp. The modern excavators have published a survey of the site, clarified the results of earlier excavations and performed technical analyses on such things as faunal remains. They have also been able to replicate ancient techniques—such as bread-making—using models of ancient implements.
The exhibition will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (March 19, 2000), the Art Institute of Chicago (July 17, 2000), and the Rijksmusem van Oudheden, Leiden, the Netherlands (November 23, 2000).
The Golden Bowl
A contentious lawsuit over an ancient phiale is now settled, but where does it leave us?
A closely-watched court case involving a magnificent gold phiale has now been decided by the United States Court of Appeals in New York (see “Bought on the Market: A Gallery,” AO 02:02). And it is largely irrelevant. The case is a sideshow; the real contest lies elsewhere.
A phiale is a small platter, in this case made of the most intricately and beautifully hammered gold. Apparently illegally excavated in Sicily and dating to the fourth or fifth century B.C., it was ultimately purchased by New York collector Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million.
The American customs declaration under which it was imported falsely stated that the phiale was being imported from Switzerland, rather than from Italy. This proved to be a fatal flaw. Under Italian law, all archaeological artifacts recovered since 1902 belong to the state. The phiale is therefore stolen property under Italian law. Stolen property may not be imported into the United States under the National Stolen Property Act. Had the customs declaration truthfully stated the country of origin, customs officials might well have been alerted to the possibility that the phiale could not be legally imported into the United States. The court therefore held that the phiale is subject to forfeiture under American customs law. The government of Italy appeared in the suit to claim ownership of the phiale.
All this is very complex and beyond most non-lawyers. What I find most interesting, however, is how the players lined up. Two separate briefs were filed with the court on behalf of interested parties who were not themselves parties to the lawsuit. These are called amici curiae briefs, lawyers’ Latin for friend-of-the-court briefs. One of the amicus curiae briefs supported the position of the American purchaser. The other brief argued for the position of the Italian government. The brief supporting the American purchaser was filed by museum associations—the American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Association of Science Museum Directors and the American Association for State and Local History. The brief supporting the Italian government was filed principally by archaeologists—the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society for American Archaeology and the Society for Historical Archaeology, along with the American Anthropological Association, the United States Committee for the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the American Philological Association.
What this represents is a deep divide between the museums and the archaeologists. What are the real issues dividing them? One thing is certain: It is not the technical issues over which the phiale case was decided. The museums are essentially interested in assuring public 011access to newly discovered objects; the public, the museum officials believe, should be able to see these discoveries and scholars should be able to study them. The archaeologists’ position is based on their opposition to looting; in their view, this complex of laws, which they vigorously support and lobby to have enacted, is a deterrent to looting.
Both sides will object to my characterization of their position. The museums will say that they, too, are against looting. And the archaeologists will say that they also want the public to see scientifically excavated objects and that they endorse scholarly study of artifacts.
At this point, matters get so complicated that it becomes difficult for ordinary human beings to follow the fine threads of the arguments. What seems clear is that the two sides should be talking to each other. There are better fora then courtrooms for airing differences and coming up with reasonable compromises or solutions.
Since both sides are against looting and both sides favor public access and scholarly study, it would seem that they share at least some common ground. This is a time when all kinds of long-term enemies are making peace. Is there some basis for working out a common approach to the problem of looting and public access?
It’s worth trying.
Florence Archaeological Museum
3rd century B.C.
Last June, a bronze tablet containing one of the longest known Etruscan inscriptions finally went public.
The third-century B.C. tablet records a business deal between two parties involving the sale of goods or land. The text also mentions a third group of people who may have witnessed the transaction.
According to Luciano Agostiniani, a linguist at the University of Perugia who is studying the inscription, no one knows why such a document would have been laboriously inscribed on bronze. “Clearly, it has something to do with the importance of the transaction,” he told Archaeology Odyssey. Agostiniani said the tablet was designed to be hung, perhaps “in a public building, or a temple.”
The tablet, which at some point was cut into eight pieces, first surfaced seven years ago. In October 1992, the Florence Archaeological Museum received a phone call from a man who said he wanted to deliver an ancient artifact to the police. That evening, a carpenter from Cortona, 50 miles southeast of Florence, arrived at a Florence police station and handed over seven pieces of the tablet to Francesco Nicosia, chief inspector for Italy’s Ministry of Arts. (The eighth piece is still missing.) The carpenter claimed the pieces had been uncovered at a construction site, but subsequent investigation of the site turned up nothing. The carpenter was later tried and acquitted for the crime of stealing state property.
The so-called Tabula Cortonensis spent seven years in the Florence Archaeological Museum as scholars tried to determine its authenticity. Although the tablet is now thought to be genuine, its provenance remains unknown. The best guess is that it was illegally excavated by tombaroli (tomb robbers).
The tablet contains 32 lines of text, including 27 words previously unknown. These words are important, Agostiniani said, because they come in a legal document, whereas the bulk of the known Etruscan vocabulary comes from funerary inscriptions. Reading Etruscan is like trying to learn Chinese by studying gravestones, Agostiniani said. Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia expect to publish a study of the inscription sometime next year.
New Greek Galleries
New York, NY
Tel: (212) 535–7710
new permanent galleries opened
April 20, 1999
The renovated galleries for displaying the Metropolitan’s vast collection of Greek art feature higher ceilings, more natural light, and groups of objects often arranged by theme, emphasizing the relationship between Greek art and culture during different stylistic periods.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Tel: (312) 922–9410
March 10 through June 11, 2000
Portions of 15 different scrolls (four of which have never been out of Israel) will be on display, including a commentary on the biblical verses of Hosea 2:8–14.
Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur
Tel: (202) 357–3200
October 17 through January 17, 2000
This traveling exhibit offers a rare opportunity to view the Ur treasures outside of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Many of the pieces date to the mid- third millennium B.C. and were excavated by Leonard Woolley from 1922 to 1934.
Ancient Gold Jewellery from the Dallas Museum of Art
Santa Barbara, CA
Tel: (805) 963–4364
October 31 through January 30, 2000
The Dallas Museum of Art’s collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman gold jewellery is traveling until May 2000. The Santa Barbara Museum is its only West Coast appearance. The exhibit’s next venue is the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, beginning on February 24, 2000.