Yale and the Ancient Holy Land: Archaeology and Exploration in the Yale Collections

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel, Yale University will exhibit treasures from the Holy Land that are part of the University’s collections, now through April 30. The exhibition will include books about important archaeological sites as well as ancient objects – oil lamps, seals, amulets –and historic photographs and journals by 19th and early 20th century travelers to the Middle East. The Sterling Memorial Library’s Judaica and Babylonian collections, the department of Manuscripts and Archives and the Yale University Art Gallery contributed to this exhibit.

The display includes lamps and figurines from the John Whiting Collection, purchased in Jerusalem by Yale in 1914. The collection, housed in the Yale Art Gallery, spans 5,000 years of history from the Late Chalcolithic Age (3500 B.C.E) to the 15th century. Several pottery lamps, smudged with smoke from when they burned olive oil, are featured, including some with Greek inscriptions and one decorated with a seven-branched menorah and delicate abstract designs.

Seals played a variety of roles in the ancient Near East, serving as legal instruments, amulets, funerary deposits and objets d’art. In ancient Israel, stamp seals were apparently worn on bracelets or in signet rings. Three from Yale’s Babylonian Collection are on display, including one made of orange carnelian that depicts Egyptian images sacred to the Pharaohs: a sun disk, ram’s horn, asps and Osiris crowns. The inscription on this seal is written in ancient Hebrew script and indicates that the signet belonged to Ushna, servant of the Biblical King Ahaz of Judah.

Attesting to the historical validity of the books of Ezra and Chronicles is the cast of a cylinder made from two fragments – one at Yale, the other at the British Museum. The text written on the cylinder is a declaration by Cyrus, Persian king who conquered Babylon in 538 B.C., giving the exiled Jews permission to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem.

Also displayed are photographs taken in 1909 by Ellsworth Huntington, Yale instructor in geography. He led the Yale Expedition to Palestine to explore how the “geologic structure, topographic form, and the present and past nature of the climate have shaped man’s progress, molded his history; and thus played an incalculable part in the development of a system of thought which could scarcely have arisen under any other physical circumstances,” according to the mission statement. Photos include scenery and images of everyday life: the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, the Church of the Crusaders, the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem, Arab women drawing water from a well, mules at work and the tent of a sheikh.

The exhibit is on view in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library during regular library hours, Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun. 1 p.m.-midnight. Admission to the library is free and the public is welcome.

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325