Unburied treasure: Legion of Honor exhibit highlights Israels deep past

In order to see Michelangelo’s representation of King David, you’ll have to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy.

But to read David’s book, you need travel no further than the Legion of Honor museum right here in San Francisco.

With 4,000-year-old artifacts, partially completed display cases and ox-sized storage and transportation boxes resembling the multitudes seen at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” mingling around her, curator Renée Dreyfus deftly lifts a lid on a double-paned glass case. Inside is a 7-inch-high, 3-foot-long scrap of wizened parchment emblazoned with densely packed Hebrew text.

It’s a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and not just any portion: It’s Psalm 129, which is traditionally attributed to — you guessed it — David. Fittingly for the man who slew the giant Goliath, the piece on display here in Lincoln Park is one of the largest Dead Sea Scrolls in existence.

Like all the pieces on display, it is on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Most of the artifacts in the San Francisco show have never before traveled outside of Israel. Some haven’t even been publicly shown there.

The quasi-chaotic scene surrounding Dreyfus will be pristine by Saturday, Feb. 16, when the exhibit, titled “Highlights from the Israel Antiquities Authority: The Dead Sea Scrolls and 5,000 Years of Treasures,” kicks off a seven-month run at the Legion.

Dreyfus, curator of ancient art and interpretation for the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, specially designed the exhibition to demonstrate the stunning array of people who have put down roots in present-day Israel (and, often enough, had them yanked up). And this is but a partial sampling: The 5,000-year spectrum encapsulated by the show ends a good 1,000 years ago.

The oldest artifacts in the show, hailing from roughly 4,000 years B.C.E., are a series of remarkably preserved ossuaries — small, decorated coffins used to house bones of the deceased for a “second burial.”

Dreyfus points to an ossuary archaeologists have nicknamed “The Scream.” While the hollow, terra cotta vessel is roughly the same size and shape as a gym bag, its front half is decorated with eyes, thick black eyelashes, a prominent nose and an O-shaped mouth reminiscent of the angst-ridden individual Edvard Munch would paint 6,000 years later.

Yet while Munch’s screamer is androgynous, the screaming ossuary most definitely represents a male figure (and housed a man’s bones). The Neolithic inhabitants of the Galilee who wrought them had a pretty definitive method of signifying masculinity or femininity.

“The women have breasts and the males don’t,” sums up Dreyfus. “It’s clearly a very early attempt at a natural image.”

This, however, depends upon the meaning of the term “natural.” The breasts on the ossuaries are not subtly crafted: “These look like torpedoes” says Dreyfus, pointing at an ossuary lid adorned with a pair of parabolas reminiscent of Madonna’s brassiere, circa 1991 C.E.

A quick walk around the gallery jolts one forward and backward thousands of years in time.

A display of amazingly intact glass blown by a Jewish master gleams not far from a trove of solid-gold Islamic jewelry hidden too well by its original owner in a small canister — and only unearthed in the last two decades.

A Byzantine mosaic the size and shape of a large manhole cover hangs from the wall, advertising, in Greek, who funded the Jerusalem monastery it once graced on Mount Scopus. (Adhering to j.’s policy on listing sponsors, the mosaic reveals the monastery’s decor was funded by Theodorus the priest and abbot and the monk Cyriakos.)

The centerpiece of the exhibition — literally — is a wildly intricate arch-shaped mosaic, with gold foil encapsulated within its multicolored glass. The table-sized slab was recently discovered in the ruins of a Byzantine villa near Caesarea overrun by Islamic invaders during their conquest of the Holy Land. Removing it, scrap by scrap, from the dusty floor and then putting it back together was a Herculean achievement.

The most mysterious items in the exhibit may be a trio of Philistine cult objects discovered in a subterranean pit apparently set aside for decommissioned Philistine temple objects (a consecrated garbage if you will, noted Dreyfus). Their uses are unknown.

With a pair of klieg lights illuminating the Philistine objects, Helena Sokolov, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s special projects coordinator, and Elisabeth Cornu, the Fine Arts Museum’s head object conservator, painstakingly examined the pieces against large, color snapshots to ensure no additional cracks or chips occurred during transport.

Cornu estimates she and Sokolov took about half an hour to scour each piece — “but some of the coins did go by a little faster.”

Asked how much insurance the museum took out to cover artifacts biblical literalists would claim were crafted during the world’s first few weeks of existence, Dreyfus could only shake her head and giggle.

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s priceless.”

“Highlights from the Israel Antiquities Authority: The Dead Sea Scrolls and 5,000 Years of Treasures” runs from Feb. 16 to Aug. 10 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F. Information: (415) 750-3600.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.