Sunday, May 23, 2004

Local museum boasts rare finds

Sunday, May 23, 2004
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Buried in the basement of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Highland Park is a small archaeological treasure: The James L. Kelso Bible Lands Museum.

It is more staid than the upcoming touring exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but appeals to the same interests with rare finds of its own. In addition to pottery, jewelry and other items unearthed in the Holy Land, it features newly digitized films of early 20th-century digs. And it's free.

"This institution has not only taught archaeology, but it has been doing archaeology since the 1920s," said Ronald Tappy, professor of Bible and archaeology and director of the museum. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary stands alongside Harvard and the University of Chicago as schools that changed archaeology from the hobby of treasure seekers to a meticulous science.


Some delicate pieces have survived, including a wooden comb from Qumran, the site in Israel near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. There's an exhibit on the excavations, including a large model of the complex where most scholars believe the scrolls were created.

Although alternate theories have been proposed, the consensus is that Qumran was home to a religious community that copied the scrolls and hid them in anticipation of a Roman attack, Tappy said.

"This was a monastic desert community of Essenes who broke with mainstream Judaism," he said. "There is a scriptorium there where they have even found inkwells that were used."

If I may nitpick a little, whether it was a monastic community or a sectarian retreat center or something else is still debated. I'm a little uncomfortable with the term "monastic" here, since it brings to mind much later Christian communities and can color our reading of what was at Qumran in ways that might lead to confusion. And it's been argued by archaeologists in recent years that the room in question could not have been a scriptorium.

The museum also has lots of important data for the history of archaeology:
One of the museum's rarest finds came from its own storeroom. Many years ago the widow of James Kelso, the staff archaeologist for whom the museum is named, brought a collection of 16mm movies to the seminary. A former curator determined that the films were too fragile to project, so they were put into storage.

Then Bowden was reading Kelso's diary from 1930, and he mentioned that he must stop writing to take "moving pictures." Bowden immediately remembered the films and vowed to find out what was on them. Pittsburgh Filmmakers made a digital master at no charge.

Now visitors can watch Kelso and early archaeological luminaries on digs going back to the 1920s. Kelso was fascinated with the life of local Arabs and filmed workers drawing water from wells and farmers loading huge stacks of wheat onto a camel.

The earliest films are from Tell Beit Mirsim in the hill country southwest of Jerusalem, where seminary archaeologist M.G. Kyle was the chief administrator of an excavation conducted by the legendary William F. Albright. Still photos of that dig, begun in 1926, are displayed among those of other representative sites that seminary archaeologists have worked.

Photos from the 1950s show New Testament Jericho, which is not the Jericho where the Bible describes the walls falling. It was the home of Herodian kings, and Kelso directed the excavation of the Roman-style palace of Herod the Great.

In the 1960s, work began at Bab edh-Dhra', a town and cemetery near the Dead Sea in Jordan, last occupied in 2300 B.C. Kyle first surveyed it in 1924 as the possible site of Sodom.

And Professor Tappy (who, incidentally, was a graduate student at Harvard in the '80s at the same time I was studying there) has his own excavation in Israel:
Tappy, who joined the faculty in 1997, has been excavating at Zeitah, a mound of ruins in a valley between the biblical sites of Lachish and Gath. He maintains a Web site on the dig at

He chose Zeitah because he wanted to explore a tiny village from antiquity. But in the sort of surprise that characterizes archaeology, Tappy found that it had been a large town that was occupied from at least 2000 B.C. until the Israeli war of independence in 1948.

He thinks it might be the biblical city of Libnah, mentioned in the Book of Joshua, or Ziklag, where David governed before he was king. Tappy's was one of the last excavations to remain in Israel as political tensions heightened in 2001. A few days after he returned home, the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. But he is optimistic about the future. He will return to Zeitah June 5 with a team of 20 professionals and 35 volunteers.

It's good that the Scrolls exhibition is generating some well-deserved publicity for the museum.

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