An Iron Age stone fragment that bears the first known reference outside the Bible to King David will be among the works shown in October during "The Holy Land: David Roberts, Dead Sea Scrolls, House of David Inscription" at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana. It will be a first for a U.S. institution.
The broken monument, or stele, is known as the House of David Inscription and is one of the most important artifacts in Israel. The ninth century B.C.E. fragment is a source of continuing controversy because it provides historical corroboration of a figure that some biblical scholars had argued was a mere legend. After 25 year toiling over an excavation in Dan, an ancient city of upper Galilee, an Israeli archaeologist spotted the ancient writing on a reused building stone used in a foundation wall in 1993. Since the finding, some skeptics have claimed the inscription a forgery.
The basalt stone is engraved with 13 lines of square Aramaic letters, a Semitic language also known as Old Hebrew, that are clear and unmistakable. It refers to a "king of Israel" and a king of the House of David. Archaeologists surmise this probably was a victory stele erected to commemorate a military victory of the king of Damascus over these two ancient enemies.
"Exhibiting it will settle the debate for many doubting Thomases," said Eric M. Meyers, a professor of Judaic studies and a biblical archaeologist at Duke University, who is one of the speakers featured during the Bowers' exhibit which begins Oct. 6 and runs through Jan. 9, 2002.
"The artifact has its own integrity," Meyers said, though translation of the broken inscription remains a subject of interpretation by scholars.
The relic, along with two of the better-known Dead Sea Scrolls and a portion of a collection of rare original lithographs of biblical landscapes sketched in 1838 by Scottish-born artist David Roberts, are on loan from the Israel Museum. "We decided to participate in this exhibition, as we participate in other projects, as we believe it is important to share our treasures," said Silvia Rozenberg, the Israel Museum's chief curator of archaeology.
Ran Boynter, who organized the exhibit's blend of antiquities with "modern" lithography, sought the artifacts to provide a historic anchor for what had been expected to be the exhibit's primary focus: one of the world's best-preserved sets of Roberts' hand-tinted lithographs. (Unfortunately, only 50 of the collection's 123 prints will be on display. The Bowers lacks adequate exhibition space to display them all.)
The collection in its entirety was first exhibited in 1996 by the Duke University Museum of Arts, which acquired the set from St. Luke's Gallery in Washington, D.C. Since then, the exhibition has traveled to New York's American Bible Society.
The Roberts' scenes follow the biblical account of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt. They include depictions of every important historical site along the route, from the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre to an overview of Jerusalem. Even the caves in Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, are depicted a full century before the ruins were excavated and the scrolls discovered there between 1947 and 1956. The scrolls were all determined to have been written from 200 B.C.E. to 68 C.E. by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that was at odds with the religious establishment in Jerusalem.
When published in 1840s London, Roberts' illustrations of monuments, architecture and people of Egypt and the Holy Land were hugely popular. In its day, the work provided the public with its first glimpse of biblical scenes and places known in name only. Today, Roberts' work is sought after by collectors and is widely sold throughout the Middle East. Its interpretive perspective, though, is somewhat controversial by contemporary standards. While Roberts could distill the majestic sweep of landscapes, he also reveals an Anglo-European bias by negatively depicting the indigent population of Jews and Arabs, Meyers said.
The Bowers Museum is at 2002 North Main St. in Santa Ana. Exhibit tickets are: $12 for adults; $9 for seniors 62+ and students; $7 for children 5-18; and free for children under 5. Call (877) 250-8999 for more information.