Israel's Good Name

University Trip: IAA Warehouse & Rockefeller Museum

In Israel, Jerusalem on January 28, 2018 at 8:19 AM

Several weeks ago, just after my trusty LG G3 phone kicked the bucket, I went on another university trip to two sites in the Jerusalem area. As part of my “Early Ceramics” class, taught by Dr Eran Arie, we were to visit both the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) warehouse in the Bet Shemesh area as well as the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Due to our status as students of archaeology, we were going to be taken to areas generally off-limits to the general public.

Some of the IAA’s outdoor collection

We boarded our minibus just outside the campus in the morning and drove directly to the warehouse, pulling up alongside the fenced-off compound. Very nondescript from the outside, we saw the first signs of IAA presence within. Huge outdoor shelves supporting large stone architectural elements on wooden pallets grabbed our attention, but we were assured that there were even more interesting antiquities to see inside.

Around the IAA table

Inside and upstairs, gathering around a large table, we were given a short talk about the history, techniques and struggles of the IAA’s endeavours in safeguarding the nation’s antiquities. The speaker, Dr Miki Saban, is the warehouse’s director and followed up his talk by taking us into the adjacent storage room, where thousands of articles are stored. From this side room we were taken back downstairs and into the cold main warehouse, where rows upon rows of large, sturdy metal shelving units awaited us. Divided by time periods, we instinctively wanted to explore unhindered, but we were visiting with a purpose. We were to be seeing early pottery vessels, from the various prehistoric periods as well as Early Bronze, and were ushered into the proper rows accordingly.

Filing card pulled at random

Eventually we were allowed to explore a bit, and I found many fascinating items, some of which are still unpublished. The problem with unpublished items is that the head excavator or archaeologist usually retains the rights to display said item to the world, and thus the item can remain in limbo until published. Regardless, we had a lovely time seeing the numerous ossuaries, vessels, columns, anchors, cannons and more from all the ages.

Fancy ossuary

Outside, when our visit came to an end, we left the compound and climbed back into our minibus. The drive to our next destination, the famed Rockefeller Museum, went by and before we knew it we were in East Jerusalem, in the shadows of the great walls of the Old City. We entered the museum’s complex and were taken aback by the beauty of the buildings architecture.

Rockefeller Museum

It wasn’t just the stone filled us with admiration; clusters of daffodils were freshly blooming in the front yard begging us for photographs. I took a bunch, but none of mine came close to the beauty of this photo taken by Orpaz, a fellow classmate of mine:

Blooming narcissus (photo Orpaz Horn)

Inside the museum, I felt swept away by the heavy stone architecture, an interesting blend of what looks to me as neo-Gothic and Islamic with Classical elements. We breezed past the temporary display in the foyer and the coat-check (a glorious reminder of a romanticised past), and made our way to the building’s central courtyard. There, Eran gave us an opening talk on the museum’s complicated history and its modern-day custodians, a joint effort by both the IAA and the Israel Museum.

Pooled courtyard

Just to summarise, the museum was built in 1938 by the British who controlled the Holy Land after WWI in order to house regional finds securely. It was built of white limestone of stately architecture, funded by American financier John D Rockefeller Jr. With the declaration of independence in 1948, Jerusalem found itself divided, with the Rockefeller Museum ending up in Jordanian hands. Eventually, in 1966, Jordan’s King Hussein decided that he wanted ownership of the museum and seized it as part of his nationalisation plan. This turned out to be a good thing for us Israelis, because East Jerusalem was reconquered in 1967 and Israel took control of the museum. Since then, the museum has been used to house a variety of important local finds, with everything kept just as it was back in British hands – a rather proper look.

Examining Seti I’s stela

Back into the arched corridors, we found the first of many very interesting items on display: the basalt stela of Seti I, an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled some 3,300 years ago. Another fascinating item was the partial skull of the “Galilee Man” from Nachal Amud, said to be the oldest human remains found in the Levant. Before long we met up with Allegra, who took us behind a closed door in the South Gallery. Inside the narrow, somewhat dusty room filled with old wood-and-glass display cases, we were introduced to even more early ceramic vessels and sherds that we didn’t have access to in class. Weak sunlight filtered in through the old windows (vestiges of the British) as we handled various pottery pieces.

Arched corridors

We had a good time in the narrow room, but there was much more to see. We were then guided through the museum’s different exhibits and galleries. We saw many fascinating items, yet I found difficulty trying to identify what I was seeing because everything is labelled with a simple number reference and laminated sheets located throughout the rooms hold the answers – not the easiest way to get answers when rushing through a fascinating museum.

Interesting character

One fascinating room contained a huge amount of decorative stone architectural elements from Hisham’s Palace in Jericho. I know so little about that site, but from the displayed remains, it must have been a very beautiful palace in its heyday. Another cool exhibit was the ancient wooden panels from al-Aqsa Mosque of the Temple Mount from its destruction by earthquake in the 700s CE. Then we were back behind closed doors, this time down a charming circular staircase. We gathered in the bunker-like underground storerooms, peeking about at the many interesting items on the shelves. One thing that particularly struck my fancy was the display of old tobacco jars and cigarette boxes from the British and Ottomans still being used to this very day to hold antique knick-knacks.

Rockefeller Library

One of the final stops in the museum was the rich IAA library, located in the northeast corner of the building. A charming room with huge neo-Gothic pillars (similar to those in the Column Hall in the Hospitaller Fortress in Akko) pockmarked by bullets from the Six Day War, I felt pangs of longing for the romantic days of heavy stone architecture and dusty, leather-bound books.

Timeline of ceramics

At last, we had just two small exhibitions to look at on our way out. The first was a showcase of potsherds as the ages go in an artistic long glass case–truly joyous to look at. The second, and final, was the temporary exhibition that we had skipped in the very beginning: a selection of curiosities from ancient Ashkelon. With that we left the fancy building and headed back to our minibus for the ride back to Givat Shmuel, ending yet another exciting trip provided by Bar Ilan University.

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  1. Thanks for the inquisitive photo reporting and discerning summaries.

  2. […] week after our exclusive tour of the IAA warehouse and the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem we embarked on another exciting trip. Again with the Land of Israel Studies and […]

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