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A wealth of objects, including the world's first crown and scepters, travel to U.S. for first time
Crown with Building-Façade Decoration and Vultures. Copper. H. 17.5 cm; Diam. 16.8 cm. Naḥal Mishmar, 4500–3600 bce. Photo: Clara Amit © Israel Antiquities Authority.

NEW YORK, NY.- While rappelling off a sheer cliff into a remote cave high above the Dead Sea in 1961, an archeologist peered underneath a reed mat and chanced upon the Nahal Mishmar Hoard, which was to prove one of the greatest hoards of antiquity and a game-changing missing piece to the puzzle that is the Chalcolithic Period—or the Copper Age (4,500 to 3,600 BCE).

A comprehensive selection of artifacts from the Nahal Mishmar Hoard and the Great Burial Cave at Peqi’in, another landmark find, are being seen for the first time in this country from February 12 to June 8, 2014 at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Thanks to the generosity of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, the exhibition Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel presents the fullest array of Copper Age material to ever leave Israel: 157 objects representing the full scope of Copper Age finds made over the last eight decades.

A blackened crown ringed with protruding symbols and painted ossuaries of breathtaking formal inventiveness: these and other artifacts from Nahal Mishmar and Peqi’in have been joined by bone, stone, and clay figurines, basalt stands with human faces, clay goblets and bowls, and fragments of mats, leather, and textiles found in the Golan Plateau, the Coastal Plain, Beersheba Valley, and the Jordan Valley. Large wall paintings provide context by depicting the period’s rituals.

“To the modern eye, it is stunning to see how these groups of people, already mastering so many new social systems and technologies, still had the ability to create objects of enduring artistic interest,” says Jennifer Y. Chi, ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator. It was during the Copper Age that people in the Southern Levant discovered not only how to make implements and ritual objects out of copper, but also began to organize hierarchically and glean secondary products like milk and wool from flocks and herds.

In the Large Gallery: Nahal Mishmar and Peqi’in
An object of enormous power and prestige, the blackened, raggedly cast copper crown from the Nahal Mishmar Hoard greets the visitor to Masters of Fire. The enigmatic protuberances along its rim of vultures and building façades with squarish apertures, and its cylindrical shape, suggest links to the burial practices of the time, from circular graves to house-shaped ossuaries, containers for collecting and storing the bones of bodies left exposed to the elements and birds of prey.

Displayed nearby are more than 20 other finds from the Hoard that read today as unique statements about the potential of a few basic shapes and decorative strategies when interpreted through the metallurgic technique of lost-wax casting. These include scepters with horned-animal head finials, and ibex heads protrusions and in the shape of a shepherd’s crook; mace heads with a pair of flanking ibexes, protruding plain cylindrical bosses, and vertical rows of protruding knobs; shafts, grooved, spiral, plain, and incised; and even a copper container modeled after a woven basket.

In a first in the U.S., all three types of Peqi’in ossuaries are featured. Among a number of jars and clay stands on view, the most striking is a fenestrated stand decorated with a rippling snake motif. Shaped like a candlestick, it supports three bowls, which likely would have held skull parts.

Taking center stage here are eight house-shaped, red-painted clay ossuaries from Peqi’in, excvated in Peqi'in by archeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority, all signature works on rare loan from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The practice of secondary burial in the Chalcolithic period must have been extremely significant, given the inspired shape making that resulted in these roofed containers. One has an opening that cleverly reads like a gaping human mouth below a sharp, protruding nose and open round eyes. Another takes the form of a big, elongated body with a tiny man’s face and, seemingly, tail. A third has an architectural façade where a door-like aperture is symmetrically flanked by a pair of narrow, two-story columns. These and other ossuaries on view are decorated with red stripes and/or zig zag patterns. Several manifest female breasts.

Archeologists now know that these ossuaries held the bones of more than one person and that the vast majority were men. “Who was accorded the honor of having their bones placed in an ossuary, and why, has implications for how society was organized,” says Daniel M. Master, Professor of Archaeology, Wheaton College, and a member of the curatorial team. “The burials do not just define the status in the afterlife, they give us insight into how the world of the living was organized. We can see in Masters of Fire that those who controlled the process and production of these ossuary chests were maintaining the social power of particular clans or families.”

While less common than secondary burials, primary burials were known in the regions under scrutiny in Masters of Fire. An exceptional array of objects interned with burials in the Cave of the Warrior at Wadi Makkh, near Jericho, serve as evidence of daily life in the exhibition. Displayed here are a basket, a bowl carved of oak, and a fringed textile fragment, whose very survival over 5,000 years is a marvel.

The Focus Gallery: The Lady and Ram of Gilat
Two clay statues of gods, modeled with a liveliness, confidence, and sensuousness still resonant across five millennia, are encountered upon entering the Focus Gallery. Although they are very different in form, archeologists have established that they are a pair. One, dubbed the “Lady of Gilat” for its origins in the Negev, is a libation vessel in the form of a woman seated erectly upon a birth stool, her breasts no more than tiny cones, her pubic hair sketched in dashed-off grooves, her genitalia swollen, and her abdomen extended. With one hand, she balances a churn on her head; in the crook of her other arm, a drinking vessel.

The second statue, the “Ram of Gilat,” depicts a realistically sculpted ram carrying three drinking vessels nearly as large as itself. The people of Chalcolithic period were the first to exploit the secondary benefits of animals, and the maker of the Ram of Gilat clearly saw the animal as more than a source of meat, but as a symbol of strength and virility. Red paint animates the surfaces of both statues, crisscrossing the goddess figure in bands and adorning the god figure in triangular patterns and stripes.

To either side of the Lady and Ram of Gilat is full array of Copper Age figurine types—female and male people/gods and animals; made of stone, ivory, bone, clay, mother-of-pearl, and basalt; and conceived in three dimensional or flat/slab-like forms. The later ranges from powerfully abstracted ‘violin’ figures to more anatomically correct figures.

“The fascinating thing about this period is that a burst of innovation defined the technologies of the ancient world for thousands of years,” notes Dr. Master.

“People experimented with new ways to use not just copper, but also leather, ceramics, and textiles—sometimes successfully, sometimes not,” he continues. “For instance, visitors to the exhibition will see the churn held aloft by the Lady of Gilat. This shape of churn was first made of leather, then someone experimented with reproducing it in clay (which is unlikely to have worked as well).”

The curatorial team for Masters of Fire is comprised of Dr. Chi of ISAW; Dr. Master of Wheaton College; Osnat Misch Brandel, Curator of Chalcolithic and Canaanite Periods, Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and Michael Sebbane, Director of the National Treasures Storerooms, Israel Antiquities Authority.

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