Dig this, it's free

Free archeological exhibits are great places to root around in, filling in missing information about ancient Israel's residents.

archeology 224.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
archeology 224.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Shaul Gefen grew up in a minuscule apartment in Dorot, the first kibbutz to be founded in the Negev. On one side of the only sink in the one-and-a-half-room dwelling stood a box of caustic soda for cleaning metal; on the other, a container with paraffin oil for restoration. Both items belonged to his father, Yekutiel, who like many others of his generation was obsessed with the past and spent his free time combing the nearby fields, tels and wadis for artifacts left behind by long-ago Negev settlers. As a child, Gefen often tagged along with his dad - but not because he was interested in archeology. It was the joy of picking things up off the ground and seeing the look on his father's face when they turned out to be special, he says. "Once I brought him what I thought was a tiny bead," relates Gefen. "My father was thrilled and told me I had discovered a scarab - an ancient Egyptian amulet decorated with a beetle." Today, in addition to his other kibbutz duties, Gefen is in charge of Dorot's small archeological museum. Like dozens of other little-known archeological exhibits scattered throughout Israel, Dorot's is free to all comers. This is the first in a series of articles about delightful archeological museums and outdoor exhibits that anyone can visit at no charge. Each has its own particular charm, history and landscape, and all display their artifacts courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. That's because every relic found in this country dating back to before 1700 belongs to the state. Each and every ancient object, no matter how small, is catalogued by the IAA, which holds a million or so artifacts in storerooms that are bursting at the seams. Delighted when antiquities are put on display for the general public to enjoy, professionals at the IAA assist in setting up the exhibits, provide historical and technical information, and offer unending encouragement to museum staff. The first three in this series are located at Kibbutz Dorot, at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and on the grounds of the Scots Hotel in Tiberias. South Kibbutz Dorot was established in 1941. The founders, idealistic young people from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Latvia, had been waiting impatiently at a farming center in Hadera for half a decade. Imagine their joy when informed that land had been purchased for them to settle in the Negev. Their new little kibbutz, surrounded by Arab villages, was 20 kilometers south of the southernmost Jewish settlement. Nearby stood several man-made hills (tels) where communities flourished thousands of years ago. One of them was Tel el-Hesi, excavated in 1890 by Flinders Petrie, and site of the very first scientific archeological dig in the Land of Israel. (Petrie's body, by the way, is buried in Jerusalem. But his wife thought his genius deserved analysis, and sent his head to the Royal Surgeons of London for study.) You will find Dorot's archeology museum inside half of the kibbutz baby house (beit hatinokot), the only building left from the original settlement. Before you enter, look for the bottom of a marble chancel screen, or lattice, used to separate priests from simple worshipers in Byzantine churches. Capitals and pillars just outside the building are from a huge Byzantine monastery that stood on a hill only minutes away. Inside, antiquities are displayed according to the site at which they were discovered, with English descriptions: animal figurines and oil lamps from the Israelite period, flint from the Paleolithic era, human figurines dating back to the Greeks, iron-age cooking pots and Chalcolithic relics such as basalt tools, and flint scrapers. Among the exhibits on view is an exciting coin collection. It includes a whole package of coins that Yekutiel Gefen's father put into the kibbutz safe 25 years ago - it was completely forgotten until recently. Take a look with the magnifying glass, as Gefen explains how you can read the entire history of a city from an ancient coin. The collection includes a penny from 1896, probably left near the kibbutz in 1917. That's when the British relentlessly pursued the Turks right through this very area and pushed them out of Palestine. Gefen jokes that the penny probably fell out of the pocket of a British soldier who, when he went to the canteen for a drink, would have been devastated to find he was missing a coin! EXTRA: While at Dorot take a 2-kilometer hike to remains of the Byzantine monastery, a well, and an ancient burial cave. (Try to come in winter when all is green and the fields are filled with anemones if you can't make it in the summer months.) To get there, take Route 334 and turn towards Kibbutz Ruhama. Just outside the entrance to the kibbutz begin walking (or driving) on a dirt road. Enjoy the dramatic landscape, for rivulets that run into the Shikma Riverbed have created a badlands wilderness of hills and deep gullies. After proceeding for exactly 1.4 kilometers, you will see a metal sign on your right. Follow the path to discover a carob tree growing inside an ancient cistern, the handsome opening to a burial cave, and mosaic floors that were part of a Christian complex about 1,500 years ago. Then cross the field parallel to the road for about 50 meters to stumble upon a well used by long-ago settlers. Finally, head for the watchtower you can see in the distance. Park next to a pipe used in the first Negev pipeline. Laid by Mekorot in 1947, it brought water to settlements both before and during the War of Independence. Then climb up the hill for a great view of the region. Center During the War of Independence, when former president Ezer Weizman flew airplanes into the fray, he often took off from a little army base in Herzliya. That army base, including a few of its (renovated) barracks, today hosts the first private institution of higher education in Israel: the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, established in 1994 by Tel Aviv law professor Uriel Reichman. Looking very much like a kibbutz with mostly low buildings, lots of gardens and a pastoral atmosphere, the IDC offers bachelor's and master's degrees in six areas. The IDC's international school - also unique to this country - offers the same degrees, with classes taught in English. Stressing the importance of mixing the present with the past, Prof. Reichman decided students at the IDC should come into daily contact with archeology. It all started small, with a capital or sarcophagus here and there borrowed from the IAA and placed strategically outside buildings and along the sidewalks. But when construction began on the School of Business, the IDC began methodically planning what kind of relics to display and where to place them. Soon antiquities relating to trade and government - such as ancient weights, certificates of contract and milestones naming long-ago governors of Israel began to appear. And as the concept took wings, more and more artifacts began showing up on the campus, exposing Israeli students daily to their past. The displays also provide foreign students walking through the grounds to get a whole new idea of what Israel is all about. Along with archeology, the IDC has also brought modern art to the campus. Sometimes only meters away from a marble capital or the granite shaft stand dozens of lively sculptures. Visitors are welcome to enjoy both antiquities and modern art by strolling through the IDC any time that the school is open. Don't miss the permanent exhibition in the Business School, which includes an authentic letter written by Shimon Bar Kochba to one of his generals, a bronze coin from the Hasmonean era and a ninth-century limestone capital from Samaria. The MBA (Masters of Business Administration) lounge is actually a tiny museum, featuring a fabulous mosaic from a fifth century monastery near Acre and some beautiful ossuaries. A wall at the entrance to the Computer Science building is covered with a marvelous mosaic floor that once graced a villa in Caesarea. Look for an enormous ornamental sarcophagus (the largest I have ever seen) and a beautifully sculpted second-century bust of Apollo that once stood in Roman Ashkelon. Examine basalt and limestone sarcophagi, granite shafts, parts of a Byzantine oil press, and my favorite: a decorative basalt door to a burial cave that dates back to the Roman era. Next to every relic you will find outstanding, detailed explanations in English. North If I could meet anyone at all from the not-too-distant past, I would probably choose David Torrance. Doctor and missionary, he was an extraordinary man. Indeed, after his death in 1946, the chief rabbi of Tiberias remarked that the town had been triply blessed: it had a glorious lake, healing hot springs and David Torrance! Torrance got his first look at Tiberias in 1884 when he was part of a Scottish fact-finding delegation to the Holy Land. The young doctor was appalled to find the town falling apart: Israel's spiritual and intellectual center for hundreds of years and one of its four holiest cities, Tiberias in the 19th century was awash with sewage and disease. Soon afterwards, Torrance returned as head of the Scottish Church's Mission to the Jews. He planned to preach the Gospel, of course, but he would also heal the townspeople. Dr. Torrance immediately began treating patients with the tools he had available: Epsom salts, cod liver oil, and his magically healing hands. Ten years later he erected the town's first medical facility, where he continued to care tenderly for everyone in need, regardless of his or her faith. Despite a series of horrendous personal tragedies, and the fact that he failed miserably in his mission to convert the Jews, Dr. Torrance provided half a century of selfless service to the city and was universally revered. The hospital eventually became a maternity unit which closed down in 1950 when no longer needed. For several decades following, the complex operated as a simple pilgrims' hostel. A few years ago it was renovated and reopened as Tiberias's unique and utterly exquisite Scots Hotel. Scattered around the grounds are fascinating antiquities from the lake region, items that the doctor would discover when driving around in his horse and buggy. Although Torrance's collection today belongs to the state, it is on display together with exceptionally comprehensive signs in English describing each artifact and explaining its background. Come on a weekday and walk around the gardens to your heart's content, viewing and learning about ancient stone utensils used for food preparation, anchors, ossuaries, pillars and other antiquities. I highly recommend another special feature of the hotel: a visitors' center featuring a riveting slide show of photos from the 19th and early 20th centuries, newspaper cuttings, and Torrance's medical implements. And, while you are there, why not enjoy a cup of tea in the elegant, second-story lounge? n For a tour of the visitors' center call (04) 671-0710. Fee for the visitors' center: NIS 10 (minimum - one family).