Objects from the Holy Land offer view of ancient life

It’s no secret that the ancients loved ornamentation: Think King Tut or the golden calf. But they didn’t favor only gold and precious stones. Some 7,000 years ago, inhabitants of the Galilee, the Negev and the Golan Heights took a shine to copper, crafting ornate birds, goddesses and elaborate scepters and weaponry.

Ram libation vessel and ”Lady of Gilat”

Artifacts from the Chalcolithic Period (5500–3500 BCE) are on display in “Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land,” opening Saturday, June 28, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

The exhibit features 157 objects, ranging from ancient linens to copper scepters, in a one-room gallery that curator Renee Dreyfus called “hauntingly beautiful.”

“You get a sense that you are walking back into the remotest history and looking at the earliest art, which is the foundation of our art today,” she said.

Smelting copper requires mining and transporting ore and then orchestrating a four-step process under intense heat. Yet discoveries from the Nahal Mishmar hoard, found in 1961 near Ein Gedi in Israel, have revealed that these societies — living a full millennium before the earliest pyramids were built in Egypt — had incomparable mastery of metallurgy and ceramics.

Dreyfus, who has been at the museum for 37 years and oversaw its two blockbuster King Tut exhibitions, conceived “Masters of Fire” six years ago when she was visiting the Israel Antiquities Authority and saw a cache of ceramic ossuaries that had been unearthed from an ancient cemetery in Peqi’in Cave in the Upper Galilee. Dreyfus connected the Antiquities Authority to her colleagues at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University to organize this show, which just concluded a run in New York City.

The eight house-shaped ossuaries on display are evidence of a complex burial ritual in which the deceased was first left out in the elements to decompose, or offered to birds of prey. The remaining bones, which were sometimes combined with those of other individuals, were then encased in charmingly decorated boxes bearing abstracted faces and simple geometric designs.

In Peqi’in, the ossuaries were accompanied by objects made in other parts of the southern Levant — lands that today include Israel, Jordan and their surrounding area. Dreyfus marveled at the fact that motifs on the ossuaries — such as wide eyes, prominent noses and ibex horns — were also found on objects at sites in the Negev desert and in the Golan Heights. “Even at this very early age, there was a communication link across such a far distance,” she said.

Hoard of copper objects found in the Cave of the Treasure, near Ein Gedi in Israel photos/israel museum jerusalem

There are no written records of social life in the Chalcolithic period. Yet archaeologists speculate that it was an age of prosperity that came about because of the domestication of animals, which made the food supply more abundant, and the metal revolution, which spurred the creation of new tools and weapons.

Increasing wealth led to the formation of a ruling class that governed the supply and distribution of resources and maintained relative peace. And like most royalty, these elites enjoyed their bling, Copper-Age style. The exhibition displays dozens of their “prestige objects,” which functioned as symbols of power: scepters topped with heavy bulbs and swirling designs, crowns festooned with birds, and stunningly shaped ceremonial weaponry, called mace heads.

People were also devout, living at a time when human worship was transitioning from a vague animism to a more defined religion incorporating rituals overseen by priests. They constructed temples and domestic shrines at which they made offerings and left votive statues with divine significance, perhaps to supplicate the forces of nature or pray for fertility.

Small violin-shaped figurines carved from stone likely depict fertility goddesses. Male power was most often represented by animal forms, such as the Gilat ram on display: a stubby, clay libation vessel with a comically carved face and three cups mounted on its back. It was found next to the Gilat lady, whose grave expression, detailed genitalia and round belly suggest that she is about to give birth.

The exhibition examines four regions, each with its own set traditions and objects: the Golan plateau, the north-central plain, the Beersheva Valley/northern Negev and the Jordan Valley.

These objects may not bedazzle viewers like the gold treasures in a King Tut show, but they offer subtly glowing insight into a previously little-known period of ancient history.

“Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land”
is on exhibit Saturday, June 28 to Jan. 4, 2015 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., S.F. $6-$10. www.legionofhonor.famsf.org