6,000-year-old Star Mural Shines on Display in Jerusalem

Scholars believe that the fresco and other paintings were used in rituals and represented deities whose characteristics are not truly known.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The Ghassulian Star during its restoration in Jerusalem.
The Ghassulian Star during its restoration in Jerusalem.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

About a month ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority dedicated its fine new building on Jerusalem’s Museum Row. Archaeologists on hand were surprised to find on display what they had considered a long-lost treasure – a 6,000-year-old mural known as the Ghassulian Star.

The whereabouts of the star, which was discovered at an archaeological excavation in Jordan in the 1930s, have long been a mystery to many. Still, the antiquities authority said it had never hidden the object, and anyone who was interested knew where it was.

The star, which was put on display after undergoing a long and complex restoration process, was discovered in 1937 by an expedition from the Jerusalem Pontifical Biblical Institute at the site of Tuleilat el-Ghassul in Jordan. At the 6,000-year-old Bronze Age site, a culture was discovered dubbed the Ghassulian culture – that dominated the area at the time.

The eight-ray star was found together with other murals in the room of a house. It is a fresco; that is, it was painted on plaster, and four different soil-based colors were used. The star is significant both because of the technique used in painting it and because it attests to a world of symbols that had previously been unknown to scholars.

“This is a very active period in terms of symbols and art,” said Prof. Rafi Greenberg of Tel Aviv University. “The star that appears there shows elements that later repeat on pottery and other materials. It attests to great artistic and symbolic richness.”

Scholars believe that the star and the other paintings were used in rituals and represented deities whose characteristics are not truly known. No other painting from this period of richness and precision has ever been found in this region.

After the star was discovered it was removed by scholars and placed in a specially constructed wooden chest. In 1939 it arrived at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, where it was placed in Antiquities Department of the British Mandate government.

According to Jacques Nagar, head of artistic conservation at the antiquities authority, the star was not moved until 2015. Most archaeologists who studied it over the years did so based on a copy at the Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem. Most archaeologists believed the original star had crumbled into dust or disappeared into the international antiquities market.

In 1967, when Israel took East Jerusalem from the Jordanians in the Six-Day War, the Rockefeller Museum with all its treasures was taken over by Israel. The chest containing the star was left where it was and was covered by dust until the decision was made to try to restore it and put it on display in the new archaeological building.

“We were thinking about doing this for a long time. It was a very great challenge; no one knew exactly what was in the chest,” Nagar said.

Conservation experts from Italy and the United States who saw the star said it was beyond restoration and there was no point in even trying. It would crumble and in any case its outlines would not be visible.

“It was no secret that it was in the storeroom, but its condition was a lost cause, and when people looked at it they didn’t see anything,” said Dr. Miki Saban, curator of the exhibit and director of the antiquities authority’s department of national treasures. “Some people said there was no point in trying because it could never be put on display.”

The painting consists of a very thin layer of lime-based plaster on top of a mud-brick wall. Before restoration it was completely broken and some parts were not in the right order.

The conservators gently removed the many layers of dust until they reached the layers of original paint. The fresco parts were put back in the right order, its base was stabilized and the old wooden chest was dismantled, Nagar said.

“We did work here of the highest order for the sake of human culture,” Saban said.

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