The Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem is marking its 20th anniversary with an exhibit of a collection of ancient gold jewelry and artifacts. Most of it has been tucked away in storerooms and never seen in public before, not in Israel nor anywhere else in the world.
The private collection is called Pure Gold and fills the ground floor of the museum where its 400 pieces literally shimmer in their glass cases.
Among the displays are a Roman-era wreath of gold laurel leaves, a magnificent silver and gold horn cup made literally for kings two thousand six hundred years ago, a Canaanite goddess pendant and an exquisite Greek pendant of Aphrodite.
“This is our twentieth anniversary and we wanted something spectacular to celebrate the occasion. Gold is something universal in appeal and we thought that this was a wonderful year to do it,” Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum, told The Media Line.
The collection draws on pieces from the Roman Greco world, to Etruscan treasures; and artifacts from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia; as well as China and the Baltic Sea.
Opening the exhibit is a replica of a papyrus from 1,300 BCE (BC) which marked gold mines in ancient Egypt where the miners were slaves. “This working of the gold is affected through all the extensive labors here described for Nature herself, in my opinion, makes is clear that whereas the production of gold is laborious, the guarding of it is difficult, the zest for it is very great, and that its us is half-way between pleasure and pain.” So wrote the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus over 2,000 years ago.
Indeed, the precious metal has enchanted mankind for thousands of years and one of the reasons is its eternal glitter as the only metal that doesn’t tarnish or decay. Archaeologists say that when they find gold in excavations all they have to do is blow off the dust and its luster returns.
“It almost invites you to work with it. It’s soft and pliable and malleable and can be stretched and made into the most phenomenal and exquisite detail and you have some of the finest examples in the world in this exhibition,” Weiss said.
It is said that from one gram of gold, ancient jewelers could make a thread one kilometer long, or hammer out a one meter square filigree.
One of the first items on display is a pair of gold necklaces from the 13th century BCE from the period and location of ancient Troy mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. This is followed by a collection of wreaths worn by ancient Greeks and Romans; some in the shape of olive leaves, others in laurels. It is believed they were used in burials.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a large third century BCE pendant of Aphrodite which looks as if it were produced yesterday.
“The brightness. It is so clear; everything, you can see small details. It never fades. It is always bright. I don’t know how to explain, but it has something; magic,” said visitor Aviva Wind. “You look and say, ‘it’s modern. I would like it now.’ Then you look at the details of when it was made: 2,600 years ago? Wow. It is impossible. How did they make it?”
Curators also brought treasures from the Etruscans, who preceded the Romans and lived in present-day Tuscany. Known for their affinity for ironic viciousness, one fibula, or safety pin used to hold up togas, shows a mother duck leading her ducklings, but being eaten by an otter.
Interesting enough, the collection from the Levant is small and while beautiful, can’t compare in technique or design of the gold to that fashioned elsewhere in similar periods.
There is a mysterious and extremely rare gold amulet, or kamea, which once belonged to a Jewish woman about 2,500 years ago. “This kamea is actually something that is a spell to protect a woman and we have her name and it is written in Aramaic and has magic symbols on it. It’s a phenomenal piece of documentation written on gold and it would have been rolled up and it would have been worn around her neck to protect her,” Weiss said.
“You had less opulence in this part of the world. As you do today. If you look at Greek, Roman and Etruscan and the really exquisite and elaborate pieces we have on display, when you get to this part you have Canaanite goddesses and the kamea ... ancient Jewish kamea. And you have a few pieces that are very minimal and very simple, but we are a more modest part of the world,” she said.
Gold plays an important role in the history of Jewish people. In the Bible gold is mentioned more than any other metal, 385 times. This includes commands not to make idols out of gold, such as the golden calf of Exodus fame.
The Bible Lands Museum is about the cultures of the ancient near east and its collection is aimed at telling the story of the bible and biblical history.
This piece was part of the private collection of museum founder Elie Borowski, a renowned collector, which has never been seen before now. The mysterious stories of the pieces and their provenance, or path they have traveled since they were created, may never be known.
“The science of archaeology is only 150 years old, so before then people would find things, keep them, own them, trade them. This is a collection that was put together in the 1950s and 60s, mostly in European auctions and galleries. The founder of the museum was one of the world’s greatest experts in ancient arts,” Weiss said.
While most of the exhibit is from the Mediterranean and ancient Persia, curators also decided to bring Chinese gold to show how other ancient cultures held the precious metal. The Chinese used gold less as jewelry and more to decorate functional pieces, like a horses bit, or military belt buckles.
“It really is priceless. Because gold is weight. We value gold by the weight… but you can’t value the art and the gold together. It is just absolutely beyond value,” Weiss said.
The exhibit will be on display for the next six months. As part of the preparation for the exhibit, the museum cooperated with students from Bezalel Academy’s Jewelry and Fashion Department. They studied the pieces and using the inspiration, created their own works which are on display in specially designed cases in the city center.
The museum is holding a treasure hunt on July 12 and the first prize is a real gold bullion.
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