BOSTON – Not since the Babylonian Exile have so many ancient Israelite artifacts left the Holy Land together.
Called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by organizers, the most comprehensive assemblage of Israeli antiquities ever sent abroad opened at Boston’s Museum of Science on Sunday. Headlining the US tour are ten rare fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, some of which have never been displayed.
Concealed in Judean caves for almost 2,000 years, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known version of the Hebrew Bible. They were discovered by a Bedouin goat herder in 1947, just months before Israel declared independence. More than 900 manuscripts were eventually uncovered near Qumran, close to the Dead Sea, including copies of the Bible and sectarian writings.
Hosting the fabled scrolls would be an event in itself for most museums, but the Israel Antiquities Authority went several steps further to create “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times,” which will show in Boston through October.
More than 600 objects from ancient Israel – some of them freshly unearthed – fill small galleries surrounding the exhibit’s main event: a 25-foot diameter Communal Scroll Table housing the fragments themselves. Diverse artifacts illustrate the lives of ancient Israelites, including their jewelry, coins, shoes and weapons. Though focused on Biblical times, the exhibit includes artifacts from as recent as the British Mandate.
All objects are original – not one replica appears – and some of them have yet to be published by archaeologists. Next to the scrolls, top billing goes to a three-ton stone from Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Visitors are allowed to touch the stone and – in keeping with tradition – leave notes to God for eventual transport to Israel.
“The artifacts and rare texts brought here from Israel offer a tantalizing glimpse of daily life in ancient Israel, a vital cultural crossroad,” said Paul Fontaine, the museum’s vice president. “The scrolls help us understand the attitudes and aspirations of a people who lived two thousand years ago. They help us all appreciate a culture that continues to influence our own,” he said.
The Dead Sea Scrolls open a window onto what historians see as the transition between ancient times and the modern era. Maintained by the Essenes, an obscure Second Temple-era Jewish sect, manuscripts shed light on the beginnings of Christianity and ways in which Judaism evolved during the centuries. Some historians have called the scrolls the “evolutionary link” between Judaism and Christianity.
The manuscripts date from 250 BCE to 68 CE, almost 1,000 years older than the next oldest copies of the Bible discovered. Beyond proving the Bible’s centrality during Hellenistic and Roman times, the scrolls supply previously unknown stories about Noah and Abraham, as well as psalms attributed to Joshua and King David.
On a more esoteric note, the “Manual of Discipline” and “War Scroll” have kept scholars busy for decades, as have the so-called apocryphal texts about the world’s end.
By partnering with Boston’s Museum of Science and – later this year – Salt Lake City’s Leonardo Museum, “Ancient Life” curators seek to highlight the role of archaeology and preservation in elucidating the distant past. Artifact presentations skew toward the scientific, with emphasis on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ painstaking and sometimes perilous reconstruction.
Some of Israel’s top antiquities experts are in Boston this week to offer perspectives on “Ancient Life” during the scrolls’ first visit to New England. The museum partnered with Brandeis University to offer educational programming during the scrolls’ five-month sojourn in Boston, a city once called “New Jerusalem” by Puritan founders.
For decades after their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls were inadvertently damaged by preservationists, said Pnina Shor, an expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
Almost unfathomably, 1950s-era photographs show cigarette-smoking scientists attaching scroll fragments to plates with adhesive tape. Well-intended but harmful efforts caused “gelatinization” and other damage to the priceless scrolls, culminating with the IAA’s creation in 1989 to – in part – reverse the trend.
Tasked by Israel’s Antiquities Law with safeguarding more than 30,000 known archaeological sites, the IAA employs 500 archaeologists and conservators. New sites are discovered every year, often at the start of construction projects such as Jerusalem’s Givati Parking Lot dig at the City of David.
In keeping with the Museum of Science’s mission, a “hands-on” archeology laboratory will engage young visitors through October. The museum’s planetarium will explore “Stars Over the Dead Sea” to illustrate the evolving role of astronomy in mapping history. Museum visitors can also learn about NASA-style spectral imaging, used to decipher damaged scrolls and monitor their condition.
Tellingly, the ten featured scroll fragments will be switched out with new pieces in 90 days, the maximum time conservationists allow for display.
The exhibit’s chronology starts in the Iron Age, when Israelites settled the hill country of ancient Canaan. Limestone capitals from the First Temple Period and Roman burial ossuaries reside near a four-room house recreated from the time of King Herod, builder of the Western Wall and Masada fortress.
On a smaller scale, “Ancient Life” boasts a stone stamp seal bearing the figure of an archer and ancient Hebrew signature. Other tiny objects include pottery heads of “pillar” figurines and fragments of leather phylacteries, called teffilin in Hebrew.
Of particular interest to archaeology buffs will be a number of artifacts uncovered during recent digs at the City of David, just south of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Finds include a high-quality goblet, decanter and jug, as well as part of a cult stand bearing a nude male dating to the 10th century BCE.
Curators spent four years assembling artifacts that would speak not only to the Bible, but also to everyday life in ancient Israel. Household items include limestone measuring cups, a boxwood comb and a 2,000-year-old gold earring inlaid with pearls and emeralds.
“Our goal is for people to be able to see what life was like beyond and behind the objects,” said Risa Levitt Kohn, exhibit co-curator.
Arranged chronologically, the 600 artifacts provide tangible evidence of events described in the Bible. A marble slab carved with a menorah dates to the Second Temple’s destruction and includes the plea, “One God, help Judah the Elder.” Four-horned pottery alters attest to domestic Israelite religion practiced alongside Temple rituals in Jerusalem.
To prepare for the exhibit, Museum of Science director and president Ioannis Miaoulis visited Israel two years ago, including Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book with its Dead Sea Scrolls. During an advance preview of “Ancient Life” last week, Miaoulis called the exhibit’s meticulous and inspiring presentation a “comparable experience” to visiting the scrolls in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
The exhibit closes with God’s injunction to Abraham, as recorded in Genesis: “Stay in this land for a while and I will be with you and will bless you.”
More than 3,000 years later, Abraham’s descendants unearth biblical treasures almost every day of the year, shedding light on the lives and beliefs of history’s “People of the Book.”