The heart of Dayan’s collection encompasses the period from the Chalcolithic era in the fourth millennium B.C. through the Israelite period, first millennium B.C. It includes many unique and priceless pieces from those eras, notably anthropomorphic (human-shaped) and zoomorphic (animal-shaped) pottery, the spectacular Gaza sarcophagi with anthropoid covers, as well as numerous rare cult objects and figurines in an excellent state of preservation.

“Dayan was interested in very specific periods,” says Meshorer. “He wasn’t excited by the Crusader or Byzantine or Roman periods. He was interested in local civilizations with local roots. In fact, the bulk of his collection stops at the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.”

A brief chronological survey will illustrate the scope of the collection, while touching on some individual treasures, the diadems of the collection.

One of Dayan’s earliest and most outstanding pieces is a stone mask from 7000 B.C., found by a laborer in a field south of Hebron and sold to Dayan by a dealer. The mask is from the pre-pottery Neolithic period, and has holes along its edges for tying to the head. Dayan described it: “It has circles for eyes, a small nose and prominent grinning teeth. It is a human face, but one that strikes terror in its beholder. If there be any power in the world able to banish evil spirits, it must assuredly dwell in this mask.” Meshorer calls the mask “all but priceless.” Meshorer declares Dayan’s Chalcolithic pottery collection “the best in the world.” It consists of about 100 objects, including chalices, pottery, cultic libation objects and ossuaries. They were found in Azor, south of Tel Aviv; Givatayim, northeast of Tel Aviv; in Beersheba and some in Jordan.

“He managed to buy, even to excavate, dozens and dozens of complete vessels almost 6,000 years old. “We don’t know who they were, the people of the Chalcolithic period,” says Meshorer, “but the civilization created by them was absolutely superb. They produced a lot of very sophisticated and artistic artifacts, from burial urns to cult figurines and temple objects, many in copper. The technology is unbelievable.”

Early Bronze: Pottery from this period includes an important group from Jordan’s Bab edh-Dhra cemetery (illegally excavated by Jordanians and smuggled into Israel). Also, sophisticated pottery from tombs near Nablus (“New types, new shapes, new varieties,” says Meshorer).

Additional major pieces are two jugs with anthropomorphic faces, penises and hands and two huge intact bowls which may be the only known finds of their kind in Israel.

Middle Bronze: Dayan’s collection of Middle Bronze pottery includes a zoomorphic vessel shaped like a duck, considered by Meshorer to be “one of the Mona Lisas of the collection.”

Late Bronze: Among the unparalleled achievements of the collection is the group of 40 complete sarcophagi from the 14th to 13th centuries B.C. They were uncovered after 1967 from beneath the sand dunes of Deir el-Balah, in the Gaza Strip between Gaza and Rahah and all showed clear Egyptian influence.

Israeli archaeologist and Egyptologist Rafael Givon (whom Dayan referred to as his “teacher,”) says the discovery of these coffins with their human-like reliefs was “a sensation in the history of archaeology in this country.”

The account of how Dayan “cornered the market” on these sarcophagi testifies to the power of his personality and reputation. The coffins were found on Arab-owned land being leveled by local farmers for conversion to citrus groves. Dayan had befriended a Bedouin watchman named Hamed, who was a veritable magician in discovering antiquities. It was Hamed who found the sarcophagi, and, in return for past favors from Dayan, saw to it that most of the excavated coffins were offered for sale to him exclusively.

This infuriated curators and archaeologists, among them Trude Dothan, a Hebrew University archaeologist who specializes in the field and had been tracking the sarcophagi for years. (Dothan eventually was given study access to the Dayan sarcophagic, 16 of which he sold to the Israel Museum ten years ago.)

All 40 are now in the museum’s possession, as well as many of the treasures deposited inside the sarcophagi with the bodies—including scarabs, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, amulets, gold beads, bronze artifacts, and pottery, both local ware and imports from Mycenae, Cyprus and Egypt.

The identity of the people buried in the 13th century Deir el-Balah cemetery remains a mystery. Dayan thought they were Egyptian officials who served in the Gaza Strip as representatives of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Givon speculates that they may have been mercenaries paid by the Egyptians. Says Dothan, “It is certain that those buried in the cemetery were members of a prosperous community imbued with Egyptian culture, but it is not clear they were Egyptians.”

Whatever the origin of the people buried at Deir el-Balah, the successful retrieval from one site of 40 complete ancient sarcophagi, and seven additional lids, all sculpted with human faces and hands, represents a front-rank discovery. Despite much justified criticism of Dayan, the fact remains that because of him, all 40 have remained together and will be on display in Israel for future generations.

Israelite Period: The period from Moses and Joshua to the destruction of the First Temple was Dayan’s special love. Here, he managed to assemble antiquities of astonishing quality and condition, including animal and human figures not only of Canaanite origin, but also those of Israelites who apparently maintained minor household talisman despite the graven image prohibition.

The figurative pieces include “several dozen that are very rare,” says Meshorer, including Astarte figurines apparently used by Israelites as fertility charms.

In addition to his primary interests, Dayan had a keen eye for the special object, regardless of origin. In late life, his interest turned to Egyptian objects, and his collection has a respectable, if not spectacular, sampling of artifacts from that country.

The collection also includes an ornate limestone bust of an Ammonite King with plaited hair, a curled beard and earrings, from the ninth century B.C. Dayan wrote, “Its special feature is the crown … known as a ‘wrapped crown’ (similar to the one worn by Egyptian kings at the time).” The crown bears an ostrich feather on each side, with flowered reliefs carved in front. Dayan was especially excited by this artifact because of the Biblical passage describing the crown King David took as spoil after his defeat of the Ammonites (2 Samuel 12:30 and I Chronicles 20:2).

Another highlight is a delicate ceramic horse of a style originating in Cyprus around the seventh century B.C. It is of special interest because it was unearthed in part of ancient Israel (reportedly in the Gaza Strip) the first such import to be found in the country.

A graceful Roman glass pitcher in superb condition, bearing a patina of gold, green and blue accumulated through the ages, is characterized by Meshorer as “a masterpiece.”

How can we determine the value of this vast collection of 800 to 900 objects? Perhaps the best measure would be to consider the loss to Israel’s national museum, to the public and to scholarship if the works had disappeared into someone’s private collection or were scattered and sold over several continents.

With these artifacts, the Israel Museum not only fills in crucial gaps in its archaeological portfolio, but enriches and deepens its holdings manyfold.

For Dayan—writer, politician, warrior—it is perhaps the most fitting memorial. For all his grandiosity, he pondered the mysteries of the earth and the deep-running streams of history with awe and humility. His collecting transcended avarice or possessiveness. It was his poetry, his statement, his romance with history. And it is assembled now in Jerusalem for the rest of us to contemplate.