The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 9, 2001
'Art and Soul

Excavating the City of David
B.N. Goswamy

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning. If I do not remember thee, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. If I prefer not Jerusalem above my own joy, may …." (Psalms, 137:5-6)

Ptolemaic coin, 2nd century BC, from the City of David
Ptolemaic coin, 2nd century BC, from the City of David

I saw it only fleetingly then, for it was being wound up last year at the National Museum, in the very galleries where the Sikh Heritage show, 'Piety and Splendour', was to go up, but even then I was impressed by the 'City of David' exhibition.

It was a terse show, very pointed, and clean at the edges. For years together, dedicated scholars at the Institute of Archaeology, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had been digging at one end of that hoary old city, held in reverence by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, alike, and they were eager to share their discoveries, their excitement at what they had found. A period of history, long claimed by time but wonderfully alive in the memories of men, seemed to have sprung up from the soil again. There it was, in this show, reaching out to the present, speaking in its mysterious tongue of pots and broken handles, votive figures and arrowheads, clay seals and copper coins.

The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001
The Mountain Goddess of Japan
July 29, 2001
The arts of heraldry
July 15, 2001
The ‘timeless’ Indian shawl
July 1, 2001
To "explore with desire"
June 17, 2001
Things that museums do
June 3, 2001
Taoism and the arts of China
May 20, 2001
Some fakes and a scandal
May 6, 2001
A collector’s intimate world
April 22, 2001
Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001
The persistence of memory
December 17, 2000

Jerusalem is no ordinary city, and the passions which it has evoked for close to 400 years is reflected in the epigraph above: the words are engraved on the very altar where Prophet Abraham is believed to have prepared himself to sacrifice his son, Isaac, obeying God's decree, as recounted in the Testament. Remarkable, stirring events are associated with its history, and when the second King of Israel, the celebrated David, began to rule over its destiny in the 10th century before Christ, after having united the 12 Israelite tribes, the place came to be known, deservedly, as the 'City of David'. Intriguingly, the Old City as it stands today, the site that generations of pilgrims have wended their way towards, is not where biblical Jerusalem stood. The core of that city was the City of David; and that city, spiritual and political capital of the kingdom of Israel, archaeologists conclude, lay on the Eastern Hill, towards the southeast of the present city of Jerusalem. The settlements unearthed there, and all else that these excavations have yielded, tell that story.

Not everyone is an archaeologist, and not too many people would understand the story that archaeologists are able to piece together, or the terms they use. But there is great fascination in the things that emerge from excavations, and the ease with which experts begin to 'read' them, get on talking terms, as it were, with objects that others would be able to make no sense of at all. Here, in the City of David excavations, thus, we find them—once they get past the long Bronze and Iron Ages—giving precise names to spots and quarters at different strata: the House of Ahiel, for instance; the Ashlar House; the Burnt Room; and so on. The catalogue of the exhibition has all these and more, and explains precisely what was found where and what forms the basis of these reconstructions.

On my part, I found the section dealing with sealed impressions on handles of earthen jars—'probably put there for taxation purposes'—and the one titled the 'House of the Bullae', remarkably absorbing. For here were objects that put one in mind of things not only nearer home, those from sites connected with Harappan culture, for instance, but also those that continued to be used long afterwards, into our own times, in fact. But let me quote from the text of the catalogue on the bullae—clay lumps bearing seal impressions, roughly speaking—here.

"An assemblage of 51 lumps of clay which served to seal documents and letters was discovered in the 'House of the Bullae'…. The bullae were found together, surrounded by a large amount of ash, in a corner of the floor of the building. The fire of Stratum 10's destruction baked the bullae, and hence they have survived in excellent condition". "Bullae", the text goes on to say, "were made of soft clay pressed onto a string tied around the papyrus, and then impressed with a seal. The backs of the bullae exhibit impressions of papyrus fibre on which they were pressed, as well as the impressions of the strings that tied the papyrus. The edges of the bullae sometimes bear the fingerprints of a person who handled the seal. It appears that each of the witnesses of various documents sealed his name on a separate bulla. The documents themselves, written on papyrus, have not survived." Reading the seals, and the information they yield, is specialist territory. But this is fascinating, exciting stuff, even for the layman. And, at a decidedly obvious level, one thinks immediately of survivals of practice: consider the use to which we continue to put sealing wax for similar purposes in our own day.

There is much else of course that the excavations at the City of David yielded. But this travelling show could naturally serve only as an introduction: arousing curiosity, whetting appetites. In his brief introduction, the Foreign Minister of Israel wrote that it was his hope that the "exhibition will encourage the citizens of India to visit Jerusalem and to witness the city and its history in person". This citizen would have liked to do precisely that.

Documentation & more

Going through the City of David catalogue, I was very interested in two bits of incidental information that it contained. One, about the number of places that the exhibition had travelled to, and over how many years: New Delhi, it seems, was its 17th stop, and the exhibition had been constantly travelling since 1989. Second, that the excavations at the City of David had gone on for eight seasons, from 1978 to 1985, and that four volumes of reports on the excavations had already been published, while two more were in the press.

Ruefully, one contrasts this with the situation in our own land.

Here, even exhibitions that are mounted with enormous effort remain grounded in one location, and wind up with remarkable speed, as if exposing other people and other cities would somehow infect them.

And, as for excavation reports from our own sites, especially those of the last 50 years, where are they?

One waits, and waits ….


This feature was published on August 26, 2001