Treasures and earthen vessels
October 4 2002 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Treasures and earthen vessels | Friday, Oct. 4, 2002

Friday, Oct. 4, 2002

Treasures and earthen vessels

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor

Few archaeological treasures are more rare, more prized or more closely guarded than the ancient texts of parchment, papyrus and even copper that have been recovered from dry desert caves near the Dead Sea.

Most ancient inscriptions reside in museums, but a few scraps of written texts from the Judean desert have made their way into private collections, and two of them belong to Paige and Dorothy Patterson. Paige Patterson has been president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1992. Dorothy Patterson is a professor in the school's women's studies program.

In a mirrored display case in the parlor of Magnolia Hill, traditional home of the seminary president, there rests a fragile papyrus fragment the size of an index card. Beside it sits an inscribed bone fragment that appears to be the crown of an ancient human skull. The Pattersons obtained them from a dealer who said both came from Qumran where the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Other valuable artifacts share pride of place, including a cuneiform tablet of baked clay from the ancient city of Ebla, possibly 4,500 years old. It appears to be from a larger tablet used by an early Bronze Age student as he practiced writing in Akkadian, according to an epigrapher who verified the tablet's authenticity.

A smaller, elongated tablet is from Ugarit, where the earliest forms of a phonetic alphabet were invented and written in wedge shapes pressed into wet clay. The thumb-sized tablet originally served as a merchant's bill of lading.

The display case contains a trove of other intriguing items from the ancient Near East. There is a pottery milk jar from Jericho that may be from the time of Abraham, a miniature statue of the Egyptian deities Isis and Horus from the 26th dynasty (c. 664-525 B.C.), a circular terra cotta jar from the time of Jesus, and a round alabaster box from the Roman period. An assortment of early oil lamps includes simple rounded shapes of pinched clay and a rare, intricately detailed double-lamp molded in the shape of a Roman soldier's feet.

The collection includes several spear points and arrowheads of bronze and stone, common household items such as a small colander-shaped "bug strainer" of pierced clay shaped to fit in the mouth of a jug, and a collection of bronze pins and needles that may date to 2000-1500 B.C.

The Pattersons collected the artifacts during the course of 40-50 trips to the Middle East.

During the late 1970s they lived near Jerusalem for three months while visiting antiquities dealers and acquiring items for an archaeological collection at Criswell College.

"We knew just about all the antiquities dealers," Patterson told the Biblical Recorder. "There was an elderly Syrian orthodox man named Mr. Kando who had a shop by the St. George Hotel in Jerusalem, not far from the Garden Tomb.

"Because Mr. Kando was Arabic, the boy who first discovered one of the (Dead Sea) scrolls took them to him. He eventually turned the scrolls over to the Israeli Department of Antiquities - for quite a price - but he kept back at least one jar and a few small pieces."

The scrolls were stored in large pottery jars.

The Pattersons visited Kando often in their quest for collectibles, and "He really took a liking to Dorothy," said Patterson.

"I really wanted that jar for the collection at Criswell College," Dorothy Patterson said, "but he would not part with it."

Instead, he gave the Pattersons the papyrus and bone fragments for their personal collection as a sort of consolation prize. Kando implied that the writing was a form of Hebrew. He told them the parchment fragment was from Cave 14 at Qumran, and the bone from Cave 22 - numbers that don't necessarily match the system most commonly used by archaeologists.

The tablets from Ebla and Ugarit were obtained during a trip to Damascus with a group of Criswell College supporters. Patterson contacted Jerry Vardeman, an archaeologist friend best known for his excavations at Halutzah. "Jerry was one of my 'liberal' buddies," Patterson said. "He wouldn't dare buy anything from an antiquities dealer, but he gave me a map leading to a dealer on a back street in Damascus."

Many scholars are critical of antiquities dealers, some of whom buy and sell artifacts that are removed illegally from ancient sites. When artifacts are removed haphazardly from their context rather than excavated in a careful manner, archaeologists lose valuable knowledge.

Others argue that purchasing the artifacts brings them to light and makes them available for study, even though the archaeological context is lost.

"We found the house," Patterson said, "and in a small room on the back side of a courtyard he had a little shop." The dealer offered the tablets from Ebla and Ugarit for sale at a price far less than their value because he could not sell them openly. Patterson's friends purchased the tablets for him as a gift.

The Pattersons carried the tablets back through Jordan and into Israel without incident. On their return to Jerusalem, a friend who happened to be attending a convention of epigraphers confirmed the tablets' authenticity.

Following a trip to Istanbul, Turkey, however, Paige Patterson forgot that the tablets he had obtained in Damascus were still in his pockets. As they prepared to leave Istanbul, an airport security guard detected the tablets and instructed Patterson to hand them over for examination.

The guard was apparently more skilled at military matters than at archaeology. As Patterson remembers it, "He said, 'Rocks?' And I said, 'Rocks!' And he handed them back to me."

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10/4/2002 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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