Imaging technology reveals birth of Athena on 2,300-year-old shard from Galilee
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Imaging technology reveals birth of Athena on 2,300-year-old shard from Galilee

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is an increasingly common technique in the tool chests of today’s archaeologists

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Crop of the RTI photographic depiction of Apulian pottery portraying Dione and Aphrodite found in Israel's e-Tell site near the Sea of Galilee. The image is apparently the copy of a design found at the Parthenon in Athens, from the 5th century BCE. (Hanan Shafir, Bethsaida Excavations / Michael Maggen, The Israel Museum)
Crop of the RTI photographic depiction of Apulian pottery portraying Dione and Aphrodite found in Israel's e-Tell site near the Sea of Galilee. The image is apparently the copy of a design found at the Parthenon in Athens, from the 5th century BCE. (Hanan Shafir, Bethsaida Excavations / Michael Maggen, The Israel Museum)

When the Bethsaida Excavations Project uncovered a small, highly decorated pottery shard at its dig site north of the Sea of Galilee back in 2016, a lively debate ensued over what exactly was depicted on it.

“Some saw a figure seated upon a seat with another figure next to it. Others saw something erotic,” laughed Dr. Rami Arav, the project director and a professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “But I said, ‘No, it can’t be erotic. It must be something else,” he recalled this week in conversation with The Times of Israel.

As reported recently in Haaretz, the “something else” on the 2,300-year-old shard turned out to be the goddess Athena springing to life fully formed from the head of her father Zeus, as the nymph Dione and goddess Aphrodite look on. The scene is a rare replica of what is found in the eastern pediment (triangular gable) of the Parthenon, the richly carved marble temple dedicated to Athena completed in Athens in 432 BCE.

RTI photographic depiction of Apulian pottery portraying Dione and Aphrodite found in Israel’s e-Tell site near the Sea of Galilee. The image is apparently the copy of a design found at the Parthenon in Athens, from the 5th century BCE. (Hanan Shafir, Bethsaida Excavations / Michael Maggen, The Israel Museum)

It is not the first important discovery uncovered at the e-Tell site, the location of both Bethsaida and the ancient city of Geshur, which Arav has excavated since 1987, with the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project — a group of 30 scholars from 18 international institutions.

On show at the Israel Museum is one of the more important finds from the site, a Bull Stele that stood atop an altar at the entrance of Geshur, which was discovered in 1996. And in 2014, the team discovered a rare a Roman coin issued in 85 CE by Agrippa II bearing the phrase “Judea Capta,” which commemorated the victory over the Jewish rebels and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

But what revealed the scene on the small 7.5 cm x 3 cm “Athena” shard is almost as fantastical as the mythology it depicts. To piece together the picture, excavation photographer Hanan Shafir used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), an increasingly common technique in today’s archaeologists’ tool chests.

Judea Capta coin with the head of Domitian found at Bethsaida, dated to 85 CE. (photo credit: Hanan Shafir)

RTI photography is a technique developed in the past several years based on the 2001 work by Hewlett-Packard Labs scientists Tom Malzbender and Dan Gelb. To create the special composite image, an object is photographed 48 times from the same spot, under changing light conditions as the source of light moves at the same distance around the object.

According to non-profit corporation Cultural Heritage Imagine, a leading proponent of the technique, “In each photograph, light is projected from a different known, or knowable, direction. This process produces a series of images of the same subject with varying highlights and shadows.”

“A special software combines all the 48 pictures into one active image,” said Shafir. The photographer can choose which photos had the best light source in different modes — black and white, focus on topography, etc. “The result is a digital improvement of the photo that simulates a 3D image,” he said. While best if performed in laboratory conditions, Shafir said the technique can also be used on items found in situ at dig sites.

Bethsaida dig co-director Prof. Rami Arav (courtesy)

Shafir, who learned RTI photography in 2014 from the Israel Museum’s head of Paper Conservation Michael Maggen, performed the procedure on the pottery shard back at his Ramat Hasharon lab. To get a clearer look at the pottery shard, he eliminated all color and enhanced its topography, which produces a “shiny,” but clear image. The results were also analyzed by Dr. Stefany Peluso, a post-doctoral student at Haifa University.

“Today, technology helps archaeology in many ways; it can enhance things that you don’t see otherwise and allow archaeologists to search on the computer for things you don’t see in the naked eye,” said Arav.

Shafir gives the example of an oil lamp the team discovered four years ago. According to the naked eye, “you could see there’s something on the spout; otherwise, you didn’t see a thing.” With the RTI imaging, “now you see things that are really amazing… with the shiny RTI topography image, you have a real surprise.”

RTI photographic depiction of a Hellenistic oil lamp found circa 2013 at the Bethsaida Excavations, north of the Sea of Galilee. (Hanan Shafir, Bethsaida Excavations)

Souvenir from far-flung lands?

Just how the piece of pottery made it to the Galilee is now a greater mystery than what is depicted upon it. According to Haaretz, the only other surviving artistic copy of the Parthenon frieze was found a mere 25 km from Athens in Eleusis.

Apulian pottery portraying Dione and Aphrodite found in Israel’s e-Tell site near the Sea of Galilee. The image is apparently the copy of a design found at the Parthenon in Athens, from the 5th century BCE. (Hanan Shafir, Bethsaida Excavations / Michael Maggen, The Israel Museum)

The Bethsaida shard, said Arav, which is now black with an inner color of light brown or red, likely dates to 2nd century BCE. According to dig director Arav, the shard is what could be considered a contemporary knock off of “Apulian pottery,” a style of pottery painting which began in circa 7th century BCE based in southern Italy and has come to typify the archetypical “Grecian urn” look.

However, like today’s imitation “Gucci” cases that are made in Hong Kong not Italy, the Bethsaida copy of the Parthenon scene most likely originates from the Phoenician coast, said Arav.

There is a lot to learn about the settlers of Bethsaida based on this pottery shard, said Arav.

“It tells me that in spite of being remote from Athens, Rome and the big cultural centers of the world of that time, and despite the fact that they did not have newspapers, radio, television, internet connection, and things that we think today that connects us to the world, people were very much connected,” he said.

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Charles P., Flickr)
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece. (CC BY-SA Charles P., Flickr)

“Looking at their coins they could tell who the current rulers were, what there is to see in the cities that minted their coins. Pictures on ceramic vases could tell them about the monuments in the cities, remind them of stories they were told about their gods and goddesses, and local heroes,” said Arav.

The pot shard allowed the Galilean settlers have an idea how the pediments on the Parthenon were decorated, without making the trip to Athens.

“It is similar to tourists traveling to Paris and bringing back home a miniatures of Eiffel Tower. They show it to their families and say: ‘See, this is what there is to see in Paris.’ We are not that much different,” said Arav.

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