Exhibitions Museums Israel

Herod blockbuster puts control of West Bank site into spotlight

Israel Museum says loans respect international law

Handle of a footed marble basin decorated with Silenoi heads. The basin was probably given to Herod as a gift from Emperor Augustus or his second in command, Marcus Agrippa, first century BC. On loan from SOAJS. Photo: ©Israel Museum, Jerusalem/by Meidad Suchowolski

King Herod of Judea, who was notorious for his violence and whose appetite for building resulted in the Second Temple in Jerusalem and other monuments, is getting his first museum tribute, 2,000 years after his death. The Israel Museum has organised “Herod the Great: the King’s Final Journey” (13 February-5 October), its most complex and expensive archaeological exhibition to date. Controversy surrounding key loans for the show has not deterred the museum.

Three years in the making, the exhibition will include a first showing of the tomb believed to be Herod’s final resting place, discovered at Herodium. Excavating the site, located in the West Bank’s Area C, has been controversial. In the 1993 Oslo Accords and annexes, Israel was given temporary control of archaeological sites in Area C until archaeological issues were negotiated and control turned over to the Palestinians. But no control in Area C was ever returned, as negotiations stalled.

In 2008, the archaeologist Ehud Netzer invited the museum staff to Herodium, where he had been working for 40 years and had just found what he believed to be the burial tomb. When Silvia Rozenberg, a co-curator of the exhibition with Dudi Mevorach, saw the largely intact paintings on the surrounding walls, she stopped the excavation to involve the conservation team in saving the recently discovered seccos (an ancient and delicate dry painting technique), that would have crumbled from the air and light. The team arrived at sunrise several days a week for months to apply special preservation techniques, at the museum’s cost. One day, with museum staff nearby, Netzer fell to his death after he had leaned on a barrier at the site. The exhibition went forward in part as a testament to his life’s work.

Palestinian and international archaeologists argue that Israel’s West Bank archaeology digs and loans of artefacts from them are illegal. Hamdan Taha of the Palestinian National Authority’s Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, says: “[The] cultural history of Palestinian areas—Islamic, Jewish, Christian or prehistoric—is an integral part of Palestinian heritage the way it is in any other country.”

According to archaeologists Lynn Swartz Dodd of the University of Southern California and Raphael Greenberg of the Tel Aviv University, Israel’s loan of West Bank artefacts, without the co-operation of Palestinian officials, contravenes article nine of the Hague Convention.

Israel’s West Bank Civil Administration maintains that, according to Jordanian law, which Israel inherited in the West Bank, it has the right to lend finding outside the area. The administration also argues that according to international law, it has the duty to maintain and preserve the findings,which it is doing in contract with the Israel Museum.

Israel Museum officials say they are safeguarding the artefacts as required by international law by restoring them to the highest museum quality and then returning them to their rightful place at Herodium, after the exhibition. Items in the Herod exhibition include first-century BC sarcophagi, frescoes, mosaics, stone carvings from the Second Temple and a Roman bath from Herod’s Cyprus palace in addition to the Herodium Tomb.

James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum, says that the 250 artefacts, restored from thousands of fragments weighing 30 tons, were selected to focus primarily on Herod’s architectural legacy in the region, importing Roman style with local influences. Other sections of the exhibition will also illustrate the Jewish king’s lifestyle, including his diplomatic relations with Roman rulers and nobility, from Anthony and Cleopatra to Augustus.

The 300-page publication being produced by the museum, including articles from Israeli and European scholars, one of whom is unconvinced that the tomb is indeed Herod’s, will be the first published material on the Herodium findings.

The south western corner of the Royal room at the theater at Herodium when it was discovered. The wall was decorated with a tromp l'oeil painting depicting an open window, with open shutters overlooking a hillside with animals and the figure of a faun. Photo: ©The Herodium Expedition, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem/by Gabi Laron
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