Sam Harrelson

Show and Tell: Handling Art at the Wurtele Center

My time with the incredible finds from Dura Europos at the Yale University Art Gallery are some of my fondest memories…

Walking alongside the shelves, one can step from intricate African sculptures to ancient Greek vases to Chinese porcelain to a collection of Picasso ceramics. Opposite the entrance and behind glass display cases are a series of white, metal sliding shelves. They are filled with, among other things, wooden staffs, tea cups and wall fragments excavated from Dura-Europos, Syria.

Source: Show and Tell: Handling Art at the Wurtele Center



“Dura Europos Fanboy”

Merianna just called me a “Dura Europos Fanboy” as she walked past me reading an article in this morning’s NY Times by Prof. Michael Peppard about Dura Europos while drinking coffee from my Dura Europos mug.

duranytimes

 



Destroying Dura Europos

A Greek settlement on the Euphrates not far from Syria’s border with Iraq, Dura-Europos later became one of Rome’s easternmost outposts. It housed the world’s oldest known Christian church, a beautifully decorated synagogue, and many other temples and Roman-era buildings. Satellite imagery shows a cratered landscape inside the city’s mud-brick walls, evidence of widespread destruction by looters.

Source: Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed

One of my biggest regrets in life is not making more of an effort to actually visit the site of Dura Europos (and Nimrud) before this bleak period in the area’s history. I’ll always have my memories from working with Yale’s collection of material from Dura, and my books, my journal articles, and my media clippings… but to have been there before ISIS…

carpe diem



Dura Europos Looting and Devastation Update

Tragic.

“There is a complete and massive change to this site,” Wolfinbarger says, comparing the pre-war images to those collected in 2014 of the renowned archaeological treasure.

British soldiers discovered Dura Europus in the 1920s. They hit on the wall of the ancient city while digging a trench during World War I. Excavation revealed a provincial Roman town founded in 300 B.C.

Brian Daniels, director of research at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, describes Dura Europos as “a snapshot in time.”

“It has the oldest synagogue known in the world and it also has one of the oldest house church known in the world,” Daniels says. “The level of looting and devastation that’s happened to Dura Europus is heart-breaking.”

via Via Satellite, Tracking The Plunder Of Middle East Cultural History : Parallels : NPR.



Dura Europos as a “Moonscape of Craters”

More sadness regarding ISIS and looting at Dura Europos in Syria…

“I am fearful that there will be mass looting as in Syria,” said Katharyn Hanson, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Centre and a specialist in Mesopotamian archaeology, who is visiting Erbil. She says that Nineveh, Nimrud and other cities of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which once stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, will “become like Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, a moonscape of craters [from looters pits].” Dura-Europos is a Hellenistic city whose site used to be known as “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert”.

via Iraq: Isis militants pledge to destroy remaining archaeological treasures in Nimrud – Middle East – World – The Independent.



Dura Europos and Its Art



Just received my 1938 first edition copy of M. Rostovtzeff’s Dura Europos And Its Art today. I’ve now been able to secure every first edition of books about Dura (outside of the Final Reports, which I’m working on).

Good day. 



Why We Should Care About Archaeological Destruction

This is terrible…

The Islamic State group released a video on Thursday showing militants using sledgehammers to smash ancient artifacts in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, describing them as idols that must be removed, according to the Associated Press.

The destructions are part of a campaign by Islamic State, who have destroyed a number of shrines — including Muslim holy sites — in order to eliminate what they view as heresy.

via Islamic State Video Shows Militants Destroying Museum Artifacts in Iraq – Dispatch – WSJ.

While the world was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, the people of Mosul were watching a different show. They were horrified to see ISIS members burn the Mosul public library. Among the many thousands of books it housed, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned.

via ISIS Burns 8000 Rare Books and Manuscripts in Mosul – Yahoo! Finance

Let’s not forget that people of many faiths (ancient and modern) have used the defacement or destruction of art or cultural items as a way to “wipe the slate clean” of previous heresies. From Hatsheput to Josiah pulling down the high places in Israel to the burning of books, these tactics are power plays designed to show that the deity or deities are on one’s side in a presumed theo-political battle.

Lost in the fear that ISIS / ISIL / IS is imminently planning to attack the US is the cultural damage this collection of people are doing to museums and sites in Syria (Damascus, Antioch, Palmyra, Dura Europos) and northern Iraq (Mosul / Nineveh).

Specifically for the stories linked above, the modern city of Mosul sites very near Nineveh, the historical capital of the Assyrian Empire, at its height in the 9th-7th centuries BCE. Believe it or not, Assyrian artifacts caused quite a rage in the late 1800’s after Sir Henry Austen Layard’s discovery of Assyrian palaces in the 1850’s.

These artifacts directly impacted the development of the missionary movement as northeastern universities used these impressive pieces of art as proof of God’s providence (as the folks in Jerusalem were saved from Sennacherib’s invasion by God’s hand according to the book of Kings… the folks in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as Lachish were less fortunate).

While doing graduate studies at Yale, I somehow lucked into a dream job at the Yale Art Gallery. I was so fascinated by the Assyrian antiquities there and the story of why Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Williams etc were so passionate about securing Assyrian pieces for their own collections in the 1800’s that I wrote a book about it:

This accompanying text to the Yale University Art Gallery’s famed Assyrian reliefs details the 19th-century American frenzy for reliefs taken from Assurnasirpal II’s magnificent palace in Kalhu near the Tigris River. The discovery of the palace by the British in 1845 captured the Victorian public’s imagination, leading to the discovery of other architectural sites and the deciphering of the Assyrian language. Soon, American missionaries sought to procure artifacts for their alma maters, most often coveting reliefs that were religious in content. William Frederic Williams was one such missionary and former Yale faculty member. He, along with Yale Medical School graduate Henry Lobel, secured six slabs from Assurnasirpal’s palace, which were divided up between Yale, Amherst, and Union Seminary in Utica. Harrelson analyzes at length the two reliefs obtained by Yale. He touches on the technical aspects of the materials as well as the reliefs’ religious iconography, situating them within the palace as a whole.

via Asia Has Claims Upon New England by Sam Harrelson, Yale University Art Gallery

Along with the atrocities being done by groups such as IS to other humans, we should care about the destruction of irreplaceable pieces of world history whenever it happens. For those of us with a more jingoist mindset, we should especially care when these cultural pieces are directly tied to our own history and majority religion.

William F. Williams wrote back to his benefactors at Yale from the city of Mosul in the 1850’s that, “Asia has claims upon New England.” Perhaps that has never been more true in the modern context.

Thomas and I will definitely discuss this on the next Thinking Religion, so give that a listen if you’re interested.

I pray for peace.



Yale’s Religious Treasures

My masters degree in religion is from Yale, and it’s great to see the religious treasures there highlighted. However, I can’t believe the Dura Europos baptistry (from the earliest house church we’ve recovered and one of the first depictions of Jesus we have) didn’t make the list (the Mithraeum did, though… which is also spectacular).

Nevertheless, good read and makes me miss my days working in the Yale Art Gallery as a grad assistant…

In reality, this supposed bastion of elite godless education is teeming with people studying religion, teaching religion, and doing religion. Yale has a divinity school with a Christian identity, albeit a non-denominational one that welcomes students of other religions and no religions. It has two large chapels, the famed Battell Chapel on the undergraduate campus and the graceful Marquand Chapel at the divinity quadrangle. And Yale, a place that started out as a training ground for Congregationalist ministers (whose students included none other than Jonathan Edwards) retains to this day a dazzling array of religious treasures and relics, all publicly available.

via 15 Religion Treasures at Yale | Tom Krattenmaker.



More on Dura Europos Looting

The first image is the site of Dura Europos from June 28 2012 and the second image is from April 2 2014 (notice how many looting holes there are now):

  

Dura Europos is located right near the border of Syria and Iraq on the Euphrates and is an archaeological record of the strife this area has faced for millenia. The little fort town only existed as a functioning place for about 500 years, but was controlled by the Macedonians, Persians, Parthians, and Romans before finally being destroyed and left for us to recover by the Sassanians around 256 CE. We’ve discovered incredible records of our shared human culture such as the earliest depictions of Jesus, a full Mithraeum, a rather intact Roman citadel, and a “painted” Jewish synagogue complete with depictions of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament narratives that still cause wonderment from scholars.

It’s sad that we’re not hearing more about this cultural loss.

From the US State Department regarding looting at Dura Europos and many similar (very important) archaeological sites in Syria…

This unique Classical-period site, founded in the 3rd century BC and occupied until the 3rd century AD, demonstrates the diversity of the ancient Middle East. One of the world’s earliest churches was discovered here, as was one of the oldest preserved synagogues and numerous temples devoted to polytheistic deities. This important site of approximately 150 acres (60 hectares) is now covered by looters’ pits.

via Imagery of Archaeological Site Looting | Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.



Dura Europos Looting

The “holes” in the inset picture are looting holes from the area near the main agora at Dura Europos. Sadly, we haven’t properly excavated much of that area.

This literally breaks my heart given that we’ve properly excavated such a small amount of Dura Europos and we’ve learned so much about Judaism, early Christianity, and a plethora of other 3rd century religions flourishing under Roman rule in Syria…

We need to act rapidly against a situation that is becoming noticeably worse. In fact we are faced by a volcano in permanent eruption with a mixture of hate and horror. It is breaking down Syrian society and its values through the violent and systematic destruction of its heritage. The situation is comparable to a boiling crater of lava. Around this volcano, archaeological heritage is suffering eruptive blasts, with the population hovering between expectation, anguish and hope.

via Syrian Archaeology, ‘Scale of the Scandal’ | The ASOR Blog.

History and our cultural heritage matters.