The meager display of artifacts confined to three smallish rooms in the newly installed permanent exhibit of the Jewish Museum in New York only emphasizes how very little Biblical archaeology is on view in the United States.
One would suppose that New York would have the richest collection of Biblically related artifacts anywhere in the country. And perhaps this is it. If so, the richest exhibit exhibits considerable poverty.
Perhaps a closer look at the Jewish Museum’s exhibit will explain why.
The first room, labeled “Forging an Identity,” covers the story of ancient Israel from its beginnings in the second millennium B.C.E. down to the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E. The second room, “Judaism Begins,” takes us from the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. The third room is devoted to ancient synagogues from before the Roman destruction to the mid-seventh century C.E. With so little space, it’s difficult to cover two thousand years in much depth.
The captions to the objects are brief and uninformative. A typical example: “Canaanite male god. Israel or Syria. c. 1550–1000 B.C.E. Cast bronze.” That’s all that describes a tiny (1-inch-tall) figurine displayed in a large vitrine and set so far back that none of its minute features are discernible. Another example: “Arrowhead. Probably Israel. 7th–4th century B.C.E. Cast bronze.” A final example: “Ladle and spoon. Eastern Mediterranean. 1st century B.C.E.”
The only items of real interest and importance are replicas: bullae (small lumps of clay) impressed with seals,a the Gezer calendar, the Theodotus inscription, the Beit Alpha synagogue mosaic, the Dura-Europos paintingsb—all replicas. Sometimes a replica is not clearly marked as such: Of the lovely “column” table (a tabletop supported by a short column) from the Jewish Quarter excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem,c it is said that it was “reproduced … based … on [an] example in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.” I suppose that says it, but you have to read carefully. On the other hand, the replicas are quite good. Still, the Biblical Archaeology Society used to sell equally good replicas of the Gezer calendar for $22.95.
The key to why the exhibit is so poor may perhaps be found in where the objects come from. The most frequent attribution is to the collection of Betty and Max Ratner. This is obviously an old collection acquired, no doubt lovingly, from antiquities dealers. We have no idea where these objects were found. That is one reason they are so hard to date.
Several museums in this country, most notably the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, contributed a few items to the exhibit. The University of 061Chicago’s Oriental Institute provided one of its several altars from Megiddo (albeit one of its less-well-preserved examples),d excavated three-quarters of a century ago. Yale University gave the Jewish Museum a few Dura-Europos ceiling tiles (poorly displayed here at floor level) from an excavation of the same vintage.
What is missing here? Almost nothing comes from the Israel Museum or the Israel Antiquities Authority. An embarrassing omission.
Unless I am mistaken, there are only one or two pieces in this exhibit from excavations conducted in Israel by professional archaeologists since the founding of the modern state in 1948. Why?
The Israel Museum or the Israel Antiquities Authority could mount a score of exhibits better than this one without noticing that anything was missing from their bulging storerooms.
I’m reminded of what sometimes happens when scholars write a book. They are fearful that a popular version of their ideas in BAR will depress sales of their book. On the contrary, it will stimulate sales. They don’t believe me when I tell them this. So I suggest they talk to their publisher. When their publisher confirms what I have said, they write an article for BAR.
Similarly here. Displays of artifacts from modern Israeli excavations would only stimulate interest in Israel, not depress it. There are surely enough duplicates to allow for a very rich permanent display in the United States. Unique items could be lent for a limited time. Several years ago, the Israel Museum allowed the Biblical Archaeology Society to exhibit in Washington, D.C., two unusually precious items—an inscribed ivory pomegranate (possibly from Solomon’s Temple)e and the ossuary (bone box) of the high priest Caiaphas, who presided at the trial of Jesus.f
Perhaps given an appropriate collection of artifacts, the Jewish Museum could mount an exhibit that would tell a story that brings the Biblical world to life, instead of presenting the inert, barely labeled objects we now see huddled together in their cold vitrines.
The meager display of artifacts confined to three smallish rooms in the newly installed permanent exhibit of the Jewish Museum in New York only emphasizes how very little Biblical archaeology is on view in the United States. One would suppose that New York would have the richest collection of Biblically related artifacts anywhere in the country. And perhaps this is it. If so, the richest exhibit exhibits considerable poverty. Perhaps a closer look at the Jewish Museum’s exhibit will explain why. The first room, labeled “Forging an Identity,” covers the story of ancient Israel from its beginnings in the […]
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