Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ophel Medallion

Posted by dianamuir on September 09, 2013
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Two hoards of gold coins and objects were recently uncovered in an archaeological dig at the Opel, the area just to the south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.   One bundle of gold and silver treasure was carefully buried, and the second apparently dropped by someone fleeing during the Persian attack/conquest of 614 CE (plus ça change).

The most interesting individual piece is a large medallion and the gold chain from which it was once apparently suspended.   The gold medallion with its image of the seven-branched menorah that once stood in the Temple, a Torah scroll, and a shofar is a remarkable piece of jewelery.  At 10:30 on this video, which includes excellent photos of the objects, archaeologist Peretz Reuben compares the newly discovered medallion with a similar medallion in the collection of the Jewish Museum of London.  The London medallion features  (12:16) very similar images of a menorah, shofar and Torah scroll.   Unlike the Ophel menorah, however, the London menorah is inscribed (12:39) in Greek: This is the donation of Jacob the head of the synagogue (or community) the setter of pearls.  A wealthy  and generous jeweler (remember the vastly higher rarity, and therefore, value, of pearls before the 19th century development of cultured pearls)  and community leader who apparently donated the London medallion to a synagogue for use as a Torah ornament.

Reuben and Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist who headed the dig,  propose that the Ophel medallion was intended for a Torah ornament, and that, because the image of a Torah in this period was rare in the land of Israel but common in the diaspora, that it may have been fashioned elsewhere and brought to Jerusalem by pilgrims.   Perhaps.  But the Ophel medallion does not have a donor inscription.  Instead, it is large and associated with a heavy gold chain and, in short, it looks remarkably like a chain of office.

Large gold medallions suspended from heavy gold necklaces are known in this period.   Here is a Byzantine pectoral now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Popes and Byzantine bishops wore  pectoral medallions [Engolpion  (ἐγκόλπιον)]  and pectoral crosses at least from the time of Pope Hilarius (461-468).

Jews in the Levant, who had suffered under Byzantine rule, are known to have supported the Sassians against Emperor Heraclius in the hope that a Sassanian Persian conquest would be less oppressive than Byzantine rule. If  they had expectations of attaining some kind of official status as a community under Persian rule as a reward for this political  support, or if for a brief time early in the Sassanian period some sort of autonomous status was granted,  there may have been a moment when someone prepared –  or actually wore – a heavy, gold chain of office with a large gold medallion symbolic of his role as the leader of the Jewish community of Jerusalem or of the Land of Israel.



Sweden, Israel, and why national history museums fear history

Posted by dianamuir on September 04, 2013
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The curators of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm are embarrassed.   So are the curators of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.   People visit these museums of history not merely because they want to see artifacts, but because they want to see the narrative that the artifacts illustrate.      But some topics are so fraught with meaning that curators in Sweden and in Israel are afraid to approach them.


To some extent, these curators may be responding to the contemporary preference for displaying objects unencumbered by context.   The core of Historiska (the Swedish History Museum) is an enormous basement vault filled with gold.   Case after case of gold baubles, bangles, and beads, mostly displayed in no particular order and with a label but not a context.  Looking at objects that total 114 lbs (52kg.) of gold and 200 kg. of silver turns out to be boring.   We humans need narrative to make sense of things.   If the curators told us where the various glittering objects came from,  how the various styles of objects evolved, or how they contributed to the evolution of Sweden we might care.

Upstairs, the stories are all too specific.   The museum begins with the oldest prehistoric objects – presented as dramatic stories about human sacrifice and the dire possibility that slashes in an ancient cloak indicate murder – while larger questions go unaddressed.

We want to know  how did the first people returning after the Ice Age make a living, what happened to them when peoples with a knowledge of farming moved in, and what made the people of this region go a-viking?

Visitors to this museum especially want to know what made them go a-vikig=ng.  After all,  the coasts of Europe were ringed with farmers and fisherfolk, but it didnot not occur to the Breton, Basque, or Briton farmers to get into open boats, sail to Gotland or Öland, and carry home gold.   the museum could present the leading  theories about what made the Vikings set sail as heavily armed traders capable of seizing an opportunity to raid and loot, or were they better described as armed raiders willing also to trade, whatever worked?  You wont find out in the Swedish History Museum.

In this museum the Vikings hardly go viking at all.

All that Viking Age gold, how did it get to  Sweden?    “During late Viking times we find a great deal of wealth entering the country in the form of Western European coins.”   As though the gold entered the north lands of its own free will.

It may seem puzzling that so much gold could make its way to a country that exported some fur and a bit of amber.  But, according to the Historika, so it was.  “The Vikings were mostly peaceful traders.

But if so, who trashed Lindesfarne Abbey in 793?

It was the biggest news story of its day.  Alcuin of York, whose account we have,  was not at Lindesfarne, he was comfortably seated at his writing desk in Charlemagne’s court  when he wrote that memorable bit about blood gushing as  Norsemen stepped on Christian monks as though they were pieces of shit lying in the street.   He may have exaggerated; the Vikings have come in for more than their share of exaggeration.    But the curators of the Historika  grossly exaggerate the peaceful nature of these armed boatloads of warrior/trader/conqueror/colonizers.

Also, they succeed brilliantly in making the Vikings boring.   On a Sunday  in a city packed with tourists and families, the museum was virtually empty.

Vikings are so central to the Swedish imagination that modern curators are apparently only capable of describing them with absurdity, exaggeration, and denial.  Swedish curators are capable of better, it is visible upstairs in the same museum where Swedish history from the middle ages  forward is presented as  a  fairly straightforward explication of how competing medieval fiefdoms were eventually joined under a monarchy that, by the reign of Gustav Vasa, is recognizably Swedish.

The other topic (in addition to the Vikings) that the curators cannot discuss rationally is the role of religion in shaping Sweden, a nation created less by Vasa’s sword than by his savvy decision to create a Swedish written language, have the Bible, catechism and prayers translated into it, and  break with Rome.   When a Swedish archbishop answerable to the king presides over a church where in each parish the world suddenly changes from a place where incomprehensible prayers are chanted in Latin to a place where the congregation hears the Bible, sings the psalms and prays for the King in their native tongue, a national identity is created.*

Curators at the recently renovated Israel Museum would probably be capable of describing Vikings objectively, what they fear is a straightforward presentation of the history of the  Israelite kingdoms  in the 10th to 7th centuries BCE.

The archaeology wing of the Israel Museum does not begin with  the earliest human artifacts.    Instead, the curator makes an arbitrary choice to start  with a dramatic set of large 13th 14th century humanoid sarcophagi showing clear Egyptian influence.   This, the curators are saying, may be called the Israel Museum, but we will not follow, or even endeavor to present, a narrative history of the Israelites.  Rather, we intend to depict this land as a space occupied by a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of   cultures.

The sarcophagi fill the first room of the archaeology wing.   Only a visitor who chances to turn around  will see a large, horned altar tucked behind the entrance panel.     Horned altars are a distinctive form described in the Biblical text.  Several have been found.    This one comes from a temple in Beersheva that was destroyed in the 8th century BCE, thereby corroborating the Biblical story of King Hezekiah’s suppression of altars in other towns as part of his campaign to centralize worship in Jerusalem.

The archaeology wing is filled with inscriptions and objects that could be used to trace the development and history of the Israelites.   The museum could have been arranged so that such a narrative could stand alongside narratives about the rise and fall of Canaanite culture, the arrival and history of the Philistines, the periods of Egyptian influence, conquest and rule, and so forth.

Separating these braided cultural threads into narratives of cultural development and interaction that the visitor could follow through time would help make sense of the complex history of this land.   Instead, there is an endless, confusing, and ultimately numbing procession of objects, here a figurine of a bull, there an inscription mentioning the royal “House of David”.    The museum rarely attempts to draw the visitor’s attention to objects that have excited major scholarly controversies, or overturned widely accepted understandings of the history of the region.

Instead of telling us what Persian, or Phoenician, or Israelite culture was, the curators focus on the way that artifacts produced by these cultures show that they influenced one another.     It is as though exhibit after exhibit in a  sports museum  showed us  the similarities between baseballs and soccer balls, without explaining  what makes soccer and baseball two different games.

The Israel Museum is large.  In another part of the campus there is a large-scale and very popular model of Jerusalem in the first century.   And, of course, the Shrine of the Book, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But, like the history of the Vikings, and the history of Christianity in Sweden, the history of the Israelites is too hot for the curators of the Israel Museum to handle.

*Appelbaum, Diana Muir, “Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth-Century States”, National Identities, in press.





Henry Kissinger’s father’s Stockholm synagogue

Posted by dianamuir on September 03, 2013
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On Rosh Hashanah Barack Obama will stop in at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm,  an extraordinary building erected in the 1860’s during an international wave of enthusiasm surrounding the first archaeological digs to uncover the ruined glories of ancient Assyria.   The advantage to the Jewish congregation in Stockholm was that in an era when fashionable churches were being built in medieval Gothic style, they  were able to erect an ultra-fashionable building in an even more ancient architectural style (follow link and scroll down to Assyria), one that linked back to the Bible.

A few short blocks away there is another synagogue, in a large room inside the Jewish school.   The school enrolls 150 Jewish children, with another 150 or so on the waiting list.   Unlike the Great Synagogue, Adat Jeschurum is orthodox.     And while the Great Synagogue draws crowds for the holidays, and will undoubtedly be packed during Obama’s visit, the orthodox services at the far smaller smaller Adat Jeschurun bustle.   Visiting on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we attended the bar mitzvah of a boy who chanted the first sections of the Torah portion beautifully, followed by a series of teenagers able to read the Torah, lead prayers, and sound as though they do it every week.

Stockholm is not the dying Jewish community all too typical of European cities.   The Shabbat crowd at Adat Jeschurun skews young.   Children dart in and out because, their parents tell me, Sweden is a good place to rear a family.   A second Orthodox shul, Adat Jisrael, on Södermalm, the other side of Gamla Stan, is a little quieter –  Adat Jeschurun draws the young families.  So, while the question of whether there is Jewish future in Europe is open, the community of young, Jewish families in Stockholm who attend a traditional synagogue and send their children to a Jewish school is not merely flourishing, it is growing.

Adat Jeschurun is decorated in a blend of the early 20th century Arts and Crafts Movement and art nouveau styles, with particularly charming lilies on the Torah Ark and decorating the ends of the wooden pews.   Sweden, which has had a Jewish community since the eighteenth century,  maintained a pro-Nazi neutrality during World War II, but it admitted (saved) Jews from Norway and Denmark during the war, and had admitted a modest number of Jews from Germany in the 1930’s.   Some of these Jews came form Hamburg, as did the furniture of Adat Jeschurun.

In the months between Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) and the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the interior of a Hamburg synagogue that had survived the Nazi synagogue burning of November 9 was dismantled and shipped to Stockholm.   Henry Kissinger’s family fled Hamburg in 1938, traveling to London and on to New York.   But he remembered the synagogue his father had once belonged to and he sent a letter to  Adat Jeschurun when the old German shul celebrated its fiftieth year on Swedish soil.



Cathedral of the Viking Ship, and the National Museums of Norway

Posted by dianamuir on September 03, 2013
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In 1932 Norway built a cathedral to house the spectacularly preserved  Viking ship unearthed at Osebourg.   They call it a museum,  but as I crested the hill walking up from the ferry landing the cruciform, domed  church museum building with it’s enormous vaulted nave looked so much  like a large, mid-century, suburban Lutheran Church  that  I assumed that it was one, and glanced back at my iPhone to figure out where  the museum was.

Inside, light angled from tall windows into the foyer, filtering into the high arched nave built as a reliquary  to contain  the most arresting physical relics of Norway’s Viking past.    The Viking Ship Museum is formally a branch of  the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, located in the city center, and  curators in both museums present the relics of the nation’s past with a reverence once reserved for fragments of the true cross.

The  Museum of Cultural History devotes the first floor to the history of Norway from the Ice Age through the Middle Ages – treating the carved doorways of Norway’s stave churches with especial reverence –  but it does so as one floor in an ethnology museum.   There are large Africa, Arctic, and Amerindian galleries, a recently revamped Ancient Egypt gallery, and  an East Asia gallery with compelling objects in a series of display cases that appear not to have been altered since the  museum opened in 1904.   The Japan section, for example, includes kimono, Samurai armor and an elegant sedan chair, and it is located beside sections on  China, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia.   Norway, then, is presented here as a national culture that can take it’s place in the world alongside other ancient cultures.   This was a bold political statement  in 1904, when Norway was ruled by the king of Sweden.

Norway was governed by the Danish King until January 1814, when, with Denmark on the losing side in the Napoleonic Wars, there was no government in effective control of the country.     Norway’s republican nationalists seized the moment.   They declared themselves independent, asked Prince Christian Frederick, heir to the Danish throne to serve as head of a constitutional monarchy,  ratified a Norwegian Constitution  on May 17, 1814, and began seeking diplomatic recognition.   The victorious powers, however, had awarded Norway to the King of Sewden, who had an army.  A brief Norwegian-Swedish war in the summer of 1814 ended in a negotiated truce that allowed the Norwegians to keep their new constitution.    Norway, however, came under  the Swedish crown, where it would remain until independence in 1905.   The history of 19th century Norway  can be read as a long nationalist campaign for  independence, echoes of which are still visible in Oslo’s  national museums.

Pre-oil boom Oslo, a city that you could visit as recently as a decade ago, was set back from the working harbor and centered around a one-block-wide park stretching from Parliament  (built 1866) to the Royal Palace (1825), with the   National Theater (1899) placed in the center of the park.   National institutions clustered nearby:  the 1811 University of Oslo, 1876 Kunstindustrimuseet (Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design)  and the 1882 Nasjonalmuseet (National Gallery).

The two old art museums have recently merged with Oslo’s architecture museum to form the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, slated to move into a dazzling new building on the waterfront.    The new museum has not yet been designed, but we can know that it  will be architecturally dazzling because part of the Norwegian  identity being built by North Sea oil is a self-image of Norway as a country that combines love of the mountains and countryside with some of the world’s best architecture and design.     Oslo is carefully adding density and dazzle without blocking its views of  green hills and  harbor islands, the beloved city nestled between mountains and sea is too dear to the hearts of Norwegians  to risk.

The National Gallery houses the canvases of Norway’s romantic nationalist painters, but the Decorative Arts and Design Museum (Kunstindustrimuseet) is perhaps more interesting.   The building originally housed both the Kunstindustrimuseet and the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Industry, (Statens håndverks- og kunstindustriskole), founded in 1818, a category of institution beloved of romantic nationalists.   The Kunstindustrimuseet inscribes Norway into the roll of European nations by displaying Norwegian examples of work from every category and period of decorative arts from the 11th century forward alongside work from France, England, the Netherlands and Germany.  The display of Norwegian art nouveau objects is particularly arresting in it’s strongly Norwegian themes. 

Many of the tapestries and, in particular, the silver are worth seeing for their artistry, but they are interesting for the argument they make, backdating the national borders and identity into the mists of medieval politics to stake a claim to the cultural continuity of the Norwegian nation that goes back to the Viking period.   And reinforcing that claim with the display of modern Norwegian artistry.   In this regard the fourth floor with its dazzling exhibition of the work of Norwegian designer Per Spook is particularly interesting in it’s assertion of Norwegian design as both part of the international fashion scene, and a unique product ofg the Norwegian nation.

And yet Norwegian nationalism is most compellingly on display in the origins of Norwegian  democracy as shown at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

In 1891,  when the King of Sweden ruled Norway, Stockholm opened the Skansen, a collection of old buildings gathered in an outdoor museum with the intention of preserving folk architectural traditions.  ( Sturbridge Village  followed in the 1930s)  Skansen describes itself as the world’s first  open air folk museum.    Norway answered with the 1894 Norsk Folkemuseum.    However,  in 1907 Norway’s 1894 museum incorporated the collection of old Norwegian buildings collected and re-erected near Oslo beginning in 1881 by King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway in an effort to show how deeply he cared about his lesser kingdom, Norway claims that its museum is the oldest.   Certainly, few museum donors can top the 12th century stave church His Majesty collected.   But the museum’s most moving exhibit is not at all royalist.

The constitution of 1814 is comparable to the constitutions written in that era across Latin America in that it was written by liberal nationalists who were members of the small, educated elite in a desperately poor and largely illiterate land.  What is impressive about Norway is not only that the gentlemen liberals of the Storting (parliament) were able to defend their constitution against a series of determined attempts (1815, 1821) by King Carl Johan to destroy it.   But that instead of feathering their own nests as powerful elites are wont to do, Swedish nationalists brought farmers into the Storting, building an increasingly real democracy.

The Constitution was written and ratified in a manor house at Eidsvoll, but the Storting very quickly moved to Oslo (then called Christiania) where it appropriated a lecture hall in the Latin School as its meeting place.   The building was demolished, but the interior of the old lecture hall is preserved in the Folkemuseum.

The Norwegian Parliament moved to it’s present quarters in 1866.  But for me, the room where they defied a king and included simple farmers in a  democratic government is the most moving exhibit in Norway.  Constitutions, after all, are easy to write.   And national liberation movements all too easy to organize.   But the room where a clear-eyed group of romantic nationalists built a democratic nation – that is something worth seeing.

The Folkemuseum’s collection of buildings from all parts of the country makes a straightforward statement that All of Norway – from Rogaland to Finnmark – forms a single nation.  Next door to the Folkemuseum, but set on a commanding hilltop, is the Cathedral of the Viking Ship with its claim to unify that nation with an shared and ancient history.