(photos) University of Pennsylvania Museum excavations at Gibeon, clearing debris in pool, directed by James B. Pritchard (1956-1962). (inset) Grotesque coffin lid. Beth Shean, Israel. Early Iron Age (c.1175 BCE). The rendering of the quite exaggerated facial features in high relief is termed "grotesque" by archaeologists in order to draw a contrast to the naturalistic lids on which the faces are roughly life-size and portrait-like.

The Bible's People, by Todd Pitock

Megiddo, a small town in Israel, is at the crossroads of what was once a major land route between Asia and Africa. Historically, whoever controlled it controlled trade, so it was a constant battleground. Situated on a hill, or har in Hebrew, it was known as Har Megiddo until the Greeks wrested control and hellenized the name by attaching the suffix -on. Biblical prophets believed Har Megiddo would be the locus of a catastrophic, final conflagration.
   Today, the word Armageddon conjures a frightening image of the world's end. The place itself is obscure -- not even a pin prick on an atlas -- except to archaeologists, who still mine the area for artifacts.
   The etymology, though, illustrates how Biblical ideas that seem like visions inspired within a mystic void more often than not come from a particular set of circumstances. In fact, for many people, even religious people, the Bible is something of an abstraction -- parable and poetry, prayer and prophecy -- that is divorced from its historical context.
   Archaeologists try to restore that context by piecing together artifacts to form a picture of daily life that texts like the Bible don't really provide. As Dr. Barry Gitlin, a Penn-trained archaeologist who is now head of the Hebrew University of Baltimore's archaeology department, puts it, "We need artifacts because using the text alone would be like inferring daily life in America from reading the Congressional Record." In the best of cases, the array of disinterred objects offers glimpses of ordinary lives, giving such mundane but revealing details as what people wore, what tools they used, even what issues concerned them.
   A first-of-its-kind permanent exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, "Canaan and Ancient Israel," which opened October 18, reconstructs life in the Bronze and Iron Ages and suggests what shaped the identities of the Bible's people. Five hundred artifacts, including jewelry, statuary, pottery, inscribed seals, weapons, and coffins, were selected from the Museum's 15,000-plus collection, one of the largest outside of the Levant, the Biblical lands encompassing Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. The exhibit draws together material culled from six excavations over a period of more than 60 years. It also features replicas and texts.
   "We've assumed most visitors can connect with the objects through their background in the Bible," says Dr. Bruce Routledge, the James B. Pritchard Assistant Curator for the Museum's Near East section and co-curator of the exhibit. "Our educational goal is to pick up on this connection and get people to ask what life was like [in Canaan and ancient Israel]. We want to convey the idea that identity is complicated and formed over time." The exhibit doesn't necessarily provide hard-and-fast answers. Archaeology can be like a jigsaw puzzle with many missing parts. Penn's collection, though, is particularly good not only because of its scope but because Museum archaeologists documented their discoveries in diaries, daybooks, photos, even watercolors that provided much-needed background in the days before color photography. "Without that documentation, you can say an object is beautiful, but there's no way to know where it came from -- a house, say, or a grave -- so you lose the story, the point of the artifact," observes Dr. Linda Bregstein, co-curator and research associate at the Museum.
   The new exhibit has some unusual highlights, including a life-size replica of a Bronze Age house. One wall has been removed, so you view it in profile. There are two human mannequins, one grinding wheat into flour and the other spinning wool. A loom shows weaving, and an oven shows bread-baking. A goat mannequin illustrates the role animals played in daily life. The house, which is based on actual houses excavated in the Jordan Valley, dates to the eighth century BCE. It's a typical domestic house in Israel, Judah, and Jordan, and the purpose is to show the basic rhythms of daily life. Most of the objects inside were found in the houses. The loom and oven are replicas.
   "The house is typical of what archaeologists tend to find on digs," says Routledge. "We don't find many whole Egyptian temples, but we do find a lot of evidence of houses and daily activity. It's really central to what life was like in those places."
   Other extraordinary pieces include a series of offering stands, which held vessels used to burn incense. The stands feature elaborate iconography with snakes, birds, and people. Modern observers can only guess at their meanings, with some suggesting that the birds are messengers and the snakes represent some connection with the underworld. In general, the best guesses come from examining objects in light of written documents, but even then, explains Routledge, "Sometimes there is a disconnect between literature and art. There are symbols and myths but they don't always go together neatly or in ways we understand."
   Most of the collection comes from Beth Shean, a Pompeii-like archaeological preserve in Israel at the intersection of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys. Beth Shean is a classic tel, an artificial mound that grew as succeeding civilizations built on top of one another over the course of centuries. It provides a historical record that allows archaeologists to dig, quite literally, through time.
   Following World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Levant for four centuries, the League of Nations endorsed British rule of Palestine in what came to be known as the "British Mandate." For American Biblical archaeologists, the period was a Golden Age. The political climate was favorable and America itself was opening up to the world and making money available for scholarly and cultural activities. The University Museum, which also sent teams to Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt, seized the opportunity, funding an excavation in Beth Shean, in what was then Palestine, in 1921.
   Penn's first excavation was prolific. In the next 13 years, led by three distinguished field directors -- Clarence Fisher, who was followed by Alan Rowe, and then Gerald Fitzgerald -- the teams found temples, a garrison, burial plots, eventually digging through 18 city levels, unearthing 7,500 artifacts and uncovering a complete sequence of civilizations that went back to the late Neolithic or Chalcolithic periods, or 4,000 BCE to 900 BCE. (During part of the time the excavation was under way -- from 1928 to 1933 -- a Haverford team was working at nearby Beth Shemesh, finding family and communal tombs, among other things. It consulted the Penn team, which it paid with artifacts.) The scale of the excavation, which ended in 1934, was unprecedented.

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