Center of the Universe

A group of individuals have taken a courageous stand against the plunderers and devastators of our past

"Sha'ar Hagolan Neolithic Art in the Jordan Valley" by Yosef Garfinkel. Published by the Israel Exploration Society; Yehuda Roth Museum of Yarmukian Culture, Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan; and the Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 183 pages, NIS 108

These days it seems that the title of the world's most beleaguered scientific discipline belongs to archaeology. Local farmers working their fields and fast-moving contractors accidentally or deliberately devastate entire archaeological sites, ultra- Orthodox Jews protesting the "desecration of graves" prevent undisturbed and unpressured excavations, and looters of everyday antiquities and museum plunderers cause irreparable damage to cultural treasures that are of priceless value to historical researchers. And last but certainly not least, the producers of fake antiquities whose "finds" ostensibly reinforce (or refute) historical accounts and religious perceptions are blowing to smithereens the public's faith in both archaeology and its findings.

One sometimes gets the feeling that all these factors have joined forces to commit crimes against human civilization - to carry out a sort of "culture-cide" whose goal is frequently to amass gargantuan material profits, as well as ideological and political ones.

However, all this could be considered a mixed blessing. The attack on archaeology testifies to the immense prestige that entire segments of the public extend to that discipline, perhaps because of the almost intuitive human feeling that it is a science that tries to uncover the true roots of our past and refuses to be bound by the chains of our mythological past. Possibly, that is the reason we sense that archaeological discoveries and findings deserve a special degree of esteem and respect, that their preservation is a human necessity (even a vital one), and that their destruction - particularly that of human civilization's earliest layers - constitutes a crime not only against our past but also against our present and future existence.

Unparalleled building style

The incredible story of a group of individuals who have taken a courageous stand against the plunderers and devastators of our past can be found in the pages of "Sha'ar Hagolan Neolithic Art in the Jordan Valley," whose subject is the Yehuda Roth Museum of Yarmukian Culture at Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan. This is a museum of prehistoric archeology whose exhibits have been collected over many years of excavation at the site adjacent to the kibbutz. Before any discussion of this exciting exhibits can take place, some words should be devoted here to the museum's founding.

In its initial stages, the museum was established in the kibbutz's air-raid shelter by kibbutz member Yehuda Roth, who decided, together with a number of other kibbutzniks - shortly after the War of Independence and at a time of economic difficulties and massive demands on the country's defense forces - that every effort must be made to preserve for posterity the unique archaeological finds discovered not far from Roth's doorstep. Thus, he proved the validity of a major principle in human history: Humanity's really important achievements are invariably the product of the labor of a few dedicated enthusiasts. And Sha'ar Hagolan had a sizeable number of them.

The money needed to complete the construction of the museum (which had moved out of the shelter) was donated by kibbutzniks who were Holocaust survivors and contributed part of the restitution payments they received from Germany. The museum's design was the brainchild of architect Yaakov Ivry, a kibbutznik who drew up the plans and blueprints for the building's construction. Construction proceeded under the watchful eye of Pessach Ivry, who supervised the work until the very day of his death. Without Eitan Ivry, who assumed responsibility as logistical manager of the groups of volunteer excavators who came to the site, it is difficult to imagine how the sheer weight of this undertaking could have been handled. Finally, had it not been for the volunteers - one of whom was a 78-year-old man from Arizona who regularly volunteered at excavations - the project could never have come into being.

Thus, without any government assistance and without any private association in charge of begging for alms from private individuals and agencies, one of the most important institutions for the understanding of human history and culture was created here in this country.

This is no exaggeration. During the Neolithic period (the late Stone Age), the book's author tells us, "8,000 years ago, when the center of civilization was neither New York nor London, it was here in this place, at Sha'ar Hagolan in the Jordan Valley." Between 2,000 and 3,000 people lived at that site, or perhaps we should say in the city that once existed there and covered an area of some 200 dunams (50 acres). They built their homes in accordance with an architectural concept that has endured until this very day among traditional Mediterranean societies. Some of the remains at Sha'ar Hagolan attest to a monumental style of construction unparalleled in any other part of the ancient world.

A major technological innovation introduced by the inhabitants of the ancient city that once existed at Sha'ar Hagolan was the manufacture of pottery, and this is where the industry appears for the first time in the Holy Land. The variety of pottery products found in the excavations is huge: from miniature vessels used for cosmetics to giant storage containers. Some of the pottery is painted and decorated with fishbone-pattern engravings in the style of other Neolithic cultures that once existed in the Holy Land, such as that discovered in Jericho.

Imported wonders

Of no less importance are the finds at Sha'ar Hagolan that were brought there from distant places, such as seashells from the Mediterranean Sea, which reached the site from coastal communities. However, the most surprising discovery consists of about a dozen items made of obsidian, a volcanic glass. There are obsidian deposits in central Anatolia and in Armenia, a distance of at least 700 kilometers from Sha'ar Hagolan. The author of the book in question, Dr. Yosef Garfinkel, points out, and rightly so, that the discovery of obsidian articles at Sha'ar Hagolan is of tremendous importance because they attest to the fact that, 8,000 years ago, long-term contacts, including extensive commercial and cultural ties, were maintained between the different regions of the ancient Near East.

However, the museum's "crown jewels" are the artistic creations uncovered in the archaeological excavation. Its collection of prehistoric art is the largest and most variegated in Israel and one of the most important in the world. The collection comprises more than 300 items, the most interesting of which are approximately 250 human figurines made of loam and stone. Like their modern-day counterparts, prehistoric artists preferred the female figure as the object of their art; thus most of the figurines represent a woman with large eyes that look very much like coffee beans and which are typical of relics discovered throughout the Near East in excavations of sites estimated to be between 6,000 and 9,000 years old.

Scholars believe the female figurine in Neolithic art is actually a prototype of the "mother goddess," who symbolizes all aspects of the fertility concept: human fertility, as well as that of flora and fauna. The assumption that the female figurine has religious significance is reinforced by the fact that, in one of the structures at the site, about 70 figurines were discovered - evidence, apparently, that the particular spot where they were found was a place where the public could engage in religious ceremonies.

International `brand name'

The "mother goddess" from Sha'ar Hagolan has become an international archaeological "brand name." The figurines representing her have been loaned for exhibition to the world's major museums: New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the |Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. No wonder - maybe this goddess from Sha'ar Hagolan was the primordial grandmother of Ashera, the Israelite goddess of fertility and Yahweh's consort. The goddess was revered by the first inhabitants of this country, who were part of the Yarmukian culture and may have been our earliest ancestors. They lived for centuries in the Sha'ar Hagolan region, in Jericho, in Megiddo and in what is today known as Tel Aviv (on present-day Bashan Street, close to Hayarkon Street). The city that was built at Sha'ar Hagolan was a sort of prototype of a typical Canaanite - that is, Israelite - city, such as Arad. The city of Arad was built "only" five millennia ago; however, an architectural system remarkably similar to the one at Sha'ar Hagolan was discovered there.

We know nothing about the language of the residents of the ancient city, of course, although it is possible that a certain dimension of their language has been preserved in Hebrew, in the names of the large rivers on whose banks they settled: the Jordan, the Yarmuk, the Yabok (Yarbok) and Hayarkon. If this is the case, the community that lived in Sha'ar Hagolan 8,000 years ago was part of an endless chain of human settlements - a chain in which each link left its own unique imprint on the culture and history of this land, a land that has never been promised to anyone or to any nation, a land "in which no one has (ever) died and in which no one will (ever) die" (to quote from a poem by Mordechai Geldman, which he wrote following a visit to the archaeological excavations at Sha'ar Hagolan).

Here, in my opinion, lies the special importance of this book. It is dedicated to a local museum that has an immense social and cultural significance, which the country's national museums do not necessarily have. The reason is that it has become a central component in the creation of local history and it enables all of us, on an individual basis, to place ourselves on the continuum of a historical saga that comprises past, present and future. This is the way to nurture authentic roots and to acquire a true, not counterfeit, sense of belonging to one's native land.

This approach expresses a unique Israeli spirit - the sense of local patriotism that sees a feeling of belonging to a given place and given nationality, rather than to a given race or religion, as the center of our social existence. This is the same spirit that gives each of us emotional strength even at times of crisis and distress.

This point was discerned by celebrated anthropologist Robert Ardrey who, in his book, "The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations," talks about what he saw in Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan's air-raid shelter. According to Ardrey, only after you have visited a kibbutz by the name of Sha'ar Hagolan, located near the Sea of Galilee (a gunshot away from the Israeli-Jordanian border), and only after you have seen its antiquities from the Neolithic period, which the kibbutzniks excavated during their free time after working the land - only then can you perhaps understand that you don't have to observe a hard-working beaver to appreciate that creatures that defend their own territory find themselves in possession of an immense amount of energy.

Yishai Cordova is editor-in-chief of the Ministry of Defense Publishing House.