For the first time since its discovery in the 1930s, a spectacular, mysterious mural painted on a cave wall in modern-day Jordan some 6,000 years ago — over a millennium before the formation of the first cities or invention of writing — went on display in Jerusalem with little fanfare.
But the Ghassulian Star’s recent removal from the storeroom of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, where it has sat since the British Mandate, and its subsequent exhibition, until Sunday, at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s new facilities next to the Israel Museum on the other side of town, violated the IAA’s promise a few months ago not to remove artifacts from the museum.
The magnificent centerpiece was part of a series of cave wall paintings discovered during excavations conducted by the Pontifical Biblical Institute between 1929 and 1938 and in 1959 at Teleilat el-Ghassul, a site just east of the Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea.
Only a handful of Near Eastern wall paintings survive from that period, and only two other fragments have been found in the southern Levant.
The paintings were executed in red, brown, yellow, black and white paints made of natural minerals atop mud and lime plastered walls. Aside from the star, the paintings depict masked figures, animals and geometric designs.
The murals, which were badly damaged during their removal from the caves, are extremely rare examples of artwork from the Chalcolithic period — between six and seven thousand years ago, before the invention of bronze working, and when human habitation was limited to small farming villages.
At the Pontifical Biblical Institute’s small museum in central Jerusalem, director Stephano Bittasi pushed aside a curtain beneath a reproduction of the Ghassulian Star into an inner sanctum where some of the more fascinating finds from Ghassul are kept. Pulling aside a cloth covering glass-topped wooden cases, he revealed some of the remaining fragments from a section of the mural containing beaked masked figures, the black and ocher paint still vivid. A baby’s skeleton, its neck broken, buried in a clay pot beneath the floor of a house was beside the pieces of mural in another box.
The Ghassulian Star’s exact purpose and symbolism remain a mystery. The people of Ghassul maintained a basic culture similar to that of their successors in the Bronze Age, cultivating olives and grapes and herding sheep and goats. But we know little about their cultic practices. Scholars have variously suggested that the babies buried beneath the floor were seen as protectors of the household, or were the victims of child sacrifice, Bittasi said. Whether the Chalcolithic people had a pantheon of gods, however, isn’t clear, but the general assumption among historians is that religion during this period focused on fertility deities who provided for the basic needs of mankind.
The centrality of the eight-pointed star found in the cave at Ghassul, surrounded by masked figures and animals, suggests that “the sun was revered and adored as a major god,” Bitassi said, which only emerges in other cultures far later. It predates the formation of the first Egyptian dynasty by a thousand years, the emergence of the first possible monotheism — the Aten cult — by nearly 3,000 years, and upends the notion that abstract deities didn’t exist that far back in antiquity.
Some scholars, including Andrea Polcaro from the University of Perugia in Italy, contend that the painting reflects “homogeneous religious thinking related to an important solar cult” and served as a rudimentary solar calendar.
After the first murals’ discovery in the 1930s, Jesuit archaeologists from the PBI removed them from Ghassul. A section discovered during later excavations in the 1970s ended up in Jordan’s national museum in Amman, and some fragments made their way to the Pontifical Biblical Institute. But the star wound up in a storeroom at the Rockefeller.
The Rockefeller Museum opened to the public in 1938 and housed the British Mandate’s Department of Antiquities and the country’s first significant archaeology museum. Artifacts from across the British-governed territory — which includes what is today Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories — were collected and stored there. Jordan took over when it occupied East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, then Israel gained control during the June 1967 Six Day War. In the intervening half century, the building has been jointly managed by the Israel Museum and IAA, which made it the organization’s headquarters.
Israeli governments since 1967 have maintained an unofficial status quo in the Rockefeller by neither adding to nor removing to the facility’s collection of relics (with certain exceptions, including transfer of some ancient scrolls to a modern laboratory housed on the Israel Museum campus). A recent petition by Emek Shaveh, an NGO that opposes the politicization of archaeology, objected to the transfer of the Rockefeller’s library to the IAA’s new headquarters in West Jerusalem.
The argument against the IAA’s move is that transferring artifacts from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem constitutes a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention on Protection of Cultural Property’s protocol “to prevent the exportation, from a territory occupied by it during an armed conflict, of cultural property.”
The High Court of Justice rejected the petition, ruling that the IAA could transfer the library to its new headquarters because the Rockefeller lacks the proper facilities to preserve the fragile books in the collection, and that doing so is in line with the Hague Convention.
At the same time, the IAA insisted it would not transfer any archaeological finds from the Rockefeller to the new IAA facility.
“The existing archaeological relics in the Rockefeller Museum will remain as part of the historic structure, and there is no intention to transfer them to the archaeological campus,” the IAA said in a statement at the time.
“Why should there be opposition?” Hava Katz, chief director of national treasures at the IAA, said as we toured the new facility. “In ’67 when we took the Rockefeller… the state gave us the building, and everything that was there — according to Jordanian law — passed to us, to Israel. [The Jordanians] also enabled us to receive ownership of the items inside.”
International law, however, considers the Rockefeller Museum sovereign Jordanian property, and the international community doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980.
The Rockefeller was established as a safe haven for artifacts to bring Jews and Arabs together, an “island away from the conflict,” Professor Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University said over the phone. The limestone edifice has signs etched into the rock in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Apart from the potential legal issues of removing the star and other antiquities from the museum, Greenberg said, the broader issue is also the symbolism involved in dismantling the collection: the situation between Jews and Arabs is “hopeless.”
As for the star’s return from the IAA’s museum to the Rockefeller with the ending of its exhibition on Sunday, Katz explained that “fresco paintings are like organic material and metals, sensitive things. We don’t expose them for too long,” lest they deteriorate beyond repair. Unless there’s a future exhibit on Chalcolithic artifacts, the star will remain in a storeroom where it can be preserved.