Another unexpected surprise from the Egyptian revolution

Rare artifacts have now resurfaced 35 years after they were excavated from the Sinai by Israeli archeologists and handed over to Egypt.

Hershel Shanks mug 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hershel Shanks mug 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Israel made peace with Egypt, some of the most intriguing archeological artifacts ever discovered disappeared. Now they’ve apparently resurfaced.
As part of the 1979 peace agreement, Israel turned over to Egypt materials that had been excavated in the Sinai, among them the finds from Kuntillet Ajrud, a remote desert way station in northern Sinai that had been excavated in the mid- 1970s by Tel Aviv University archeologist Ze’ev Meshel.
Located at the intersection of ancient desert tracks, Kuntillet Ajrud was both a caravanserai and a kind of spiritual center. Among the finds was a 400-pound stone bowl with an inscription on the rim in paleo- Hebrew letters (the kind used before the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s Temple) that read “(Belonging) to Ovadiah, son of Adnah, may he be blessed by Yahwe[h].”
Yahweh, spelled with four Hebrew letters (YHWH), known in scholarly literature as the tetragrammaton, is the personal name of the Hebrew God.
Even more intriguing were two large storage vessels over three feet high called pithoi (singular pithos) bearing inscriptions and crude, faint figural drawings. One of the inscriptions refers to “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.”
Some scholars contend that this refers to the consort of Yahweh. Others argue that asherah is simply a tree that served as a symbol of Yahweh. A drawing on the pithos of a woman playing a lyre may be Yahweh’s consort, some say.
Another inscription refers to “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” Others refer to Ba’al, and the more generic term for God, El. Apparently the eighth century BCE site attracted travelers from several religious traditions. One pithos pictures five men with raised arms, supposedly in supplication to some unidentified deity.
ALL THIS was surrendered to Egypt as part of the peace agreement. The extraordinary finds were never heard from again. They were certainly not seen in Egypt. Rumor had it that they simply remained in the boxes in which they had been delivered; there was no interest there.
In January I was in Egypt and interviewed Zahi Hawass, then the director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I asked him if he knew what happened to the Kuntillet Ajrud artifacts. He said he didn’t, but would find out. This was 10 days before protests erupted in Tahrir Square, so I never heard from him. After being elevated to minister of antiquities before Hosni Mubarak left as head of state, Hawass subsequently resigned.
On February 3, before leaving his post, Hawass reported that the archeological stores at Qantara on the eastern side of the Suez Canal had been looted. Naturally, I wondered if this included the finds from Kuntillet Ajrud. The good news was that 288 objects had been returned. Were the finds from Kuntillet Ajrud looted? Were they recovered? No one knew.
Then on March 3, the Egyptian press reported that 30 truckloads of antiquities had been moved for safekeeping from the Qantara storage facilities to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Included were “Sinai artifacts that were retrieved from Israel following the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.”
So we now know where they are. Whether they will ever be exhibited in Egypt is another question. (Wouldn’t it be nice if they were lent for exhibition to an Israeli museum?) And what steps, if any, are being taken to conserve these fragile, faint and delicate drawings and inscriptions?
In any event, my question to Hawass has been answered. In our interview, however, Hawass threw a jab back at me: He doesn’t remember seeing any scholarly excavation report on the Kuntillet Ajrud finds. It had never appeared, as we both knew. I subsequently inquired about this of Joseph Aviram, president of the Israel Exploration Society. He told me that the publication of the inscriptions had recently been reassigned to two leading epigraphers, Shmuel Ahituv and Esther Eshel. They have completed their work and await only the contribution of excavator Ze’ev Meshel.
Aviram hopes to have the publication out this year. But, still, that’s 35 years after the excavation. Hawass had a point.

The writer is the founding editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the world’s largest-circulation magazine devoted to biblical archeology.