Heritage Site Remnants Were Long Believed Lost in a Fire. Then a Letter Surfaced

Objects from Shivta archaeology site in Israel's Negev, found through a 1938 letter from a customs clerk, are now on display at Haifa’s Hecht Museum

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A clay figurine in the shape the head of a person or doll.
A clay figurine in the shape the head of a person or doll from Shivta.Credit: A. Gerstein
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

An exhibition of objects from an archaeological site in the Negev that was thought to have been destroyed 81 years ago opened on Saturday at the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa. It was a 1938 letter written by a customs clerk at the Haifa Port that was found last year that led to the rediscovery of the lost objects.

On October 7, 1938, in the turmoil of an Arab revolt during the period of the British Mandate, several armed men came to the site of the archaeological dig at Shivta in the Negev. They tied up the guards and set fire to the archaeologists’ headquarters building on the site, destroying reports, photographs, sketches and the archaeological finds. That, at least, was what the guards from the Al-Azameh Bedouin tribe told the British officer who investigated the attack.

The incident put a halt to a five-year archaeological dig that had been run by a British archaeologist, Harris Dunscombe Colt. It was thought that the objects found at the site were lost forever.

But a year ago, Michael Peleg, a doctoral student at the University of Haifa, found a letter from a Haifa Port customs clerk in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s archive at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. It had been sent to the antiquities department of the British Mandatory government half a year before the destruction of the archaeology expedition’s building at Shivta. The British Mandatory government’s antiquity department was housed at the Rockefeller Museum.

An aerial view of Shivta, December 2018.Credit: PW

The port clerk wrote that three months earlier, a case had been forgotten on a port dock that contained documents and archaeological objects. The case was kept at the port’s lost and found department but nobody came to claim it. The correspondence indicated that the case was probably ultimately taken to the Rockefeller Museum.

Peleg and an archaeology researcher, Dr. Yotam Tepper, went to the archives, which now belong to the Israel Antiquities Authority, to look for the material from Shivta. They found no fewer than 140 small items, including jewelry, glass and objects made of metal, bone, ivory and wood. They also found pottery shards inscribed in Arabic and Greek. They were all from Colt’s dig at Shivta and could have all fitted easily into a single suitcase or crate.

The recovered objects were given to scientists to examine and that ultimately led to the Hecht Museum’s exhibit. The finds shed new light on Colt’s lost excavation and on the ancient city at Shivta.

A metal cymbal from Shivta.Credit: A. Gerstein

Colt was born to an aristocratic American family. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was mayor of New York and his father was a successful lawyer. A distant relative of his invented the Colt rifle and established the brand.

In 1933, Colt began digging at Shivta, the site of a large Byzantine city in the Western Negev that had been built on Nabatean foundations. The conditions were difficult, because the site was remote. Colt instructed his staff to collect stones from the site and use them to build the house that served as the expedition’s headquarters. (Over the doorpost of the house, he added an inscription in ancient Greek that still confounds archaeological students to this day).

A document found in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s archive states that the British Mandatory antiquities department had agreed to allow Colt to take possession of half of the finds on the condition that he write about them in a scientific journal. The correspondence shows Colt took numerous objects out of the country, but did not return them even though the Mandatory antiquities department had requested it. Instead the objects made their way to the international antiquities market.

Colt barely published anything about his work and no organized collection of the findings from Shivta is to be found anywhere in the world.

A stylized Maltese cross pendant from Shivta.Credit: S. Marmelstein

In January 1938, Colt’s close friend, the archaeologist James Leslie Starkey, was shot dead by Arab gunmen near Beit Guvrin while on his way to the inauguration of the Rockefeller Museum. The murder shocked the local archaeology community and may have had something to do with Colt’s decision to leave the country with the objects and documents from Shivta.

A few days later, he set sail from Haifa, but left that one case on the dock. It was a half year later that the expedition’s building at Shivta was burned down. A letter addressed to Colt’s New York address, which was also found in the antiquities authority archive, detailed the damage from the blaze. The structure was looted and the roof had collapsed. The contents of the building were either removed or destroyed, the letter said.

A ring inlay from Shivta with a figure of a whale.Credit: A. Gerstein

There have been a number of archaeological digs at Shivta since then, but the research there always suffered from the absence of documentation and small objects from Colt’s major excavation. Four years ago, a new archaeology team headed by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa arrived at Shivta. “You see walls, floor tiles, water holes, but nothing when it comes to the small objects,” said Bar-Oz.

For his part, Dr. Tepper, who is also involved in the dig, noted: “It was always said there was nothing from Shivta, that Colt had taken everything out of the country. You walk around churches, streets and houses [at Shivta] and there are no [archaeological] finds. It’s something that definitely bothered us.”

The documentation in the archive was found by Peleg, who had gone there in an effort to distinguish between ancient garbage heaps found at the site and garbage generated by Colt’s expedition. After finding the letter from the Haifa Port clerk, he resumed his search and discovered the small objects.

There is no certainty that the objects came from the case that was left at the port, but there is no doubt that all 140 of them are from Shivta and that they could all easily fit into one suitcase, along with other documents and photographs, Bar-Oz and Tepper said.

In addition to the Hecht Museum’s exhibition, which is entitled “The Forgotten Suitcase,” a new issue of Michmanim, a journal published by the University of Haifa and the museum, deals with the objects from Shivta, most of which date to the Byzantine era, some 1,500 years ago. Some, however, are older, from the Nabatean period. The most ancient artefact is probably a stone bread seal from the 1st or 2nd century B.C.E. It was used to imprint a design on pre-baked dough.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: