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6000 year old Copper Age mysteries at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum

Wadi Feynan, Jordan. 6000 year old habitations where copper was mined.
Wadi Feynan, Jordan. 6000 year old habitations where copper was mined.
©Diane LeBow

text and photos by Diane LeBow

6000 year old woman carrying urn
Diane LeBow

There’s a mystery being exhibited at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. It’s a spectacular collection of 6000 year objects that were created during a culture about which we know very little.

We’re familiar with references to the Stone Age and Bronze Age but what about The Copper Age? Also known as the Chalcolithic period (ca. 5500-3500 BCE), during what was apparently an era of great social and technological development, an advanced culture lived in lands that now include Israel, Jordan, and surrounding areas.

Long before the pyramids were built in Egypt, these people had a sophisticated and well organized society. They mined and processed copper, creating metallurgy, elaborate textiles, and created beautiful objects from stone, terracotta, ivory, as well as metals.

An interesting note is that a few years ago the author of this article visited the ancient copper mines and the surrounding villages of this 6000 year old era in what is now Wadi Feynan, Jordan. The ore mined there was smelted in what is now southern Israel. It was an interesting surprise to see artifacts from that era displayed in a San Francisco.

This exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, entitled the Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land is the first exhibition in the United States focusing on this unique period and some of its artifacts. In 1961, 429 of these objects were excavated in a cave near the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert, hidden in a crevice and wrapped in a reed mat. They include intricately carved and worked copper ritual objects such as crowns, scepters, mace heads (metal balls attached to a club which were used as weapons or in religious ceremonies), and a beautifully carved crescent out of hippopotamus ivory.

A number of ossuaries, or containers of deceased person’s bones, displayed are fascinating for their representations of everyday life of this distant period: a very anatomically correct female figure carrying a large churn and a man with a large nose and prominent ears.

Another part of the exhibit is taken from the cave of a probable warrior. His broken tibia, linen shroud, cowhide sandals, bow and arrow, and braided rope and coiled basket made of palm fiber and reeds are all there from 6000 years ago.

After visiting the Masters of Fire exhibition, be sure to have a look at Parmigianino’s “Schiava Turca” a masterpiece from 1531-1534 Parma, Italy. Sometimes compared to the Mona Lisa for the lady’s elegance and subtle smile, it is on a rare loan from the Galleria nazionale di Parma and will be in San Francisco until October 5, 2014.

An additional treat at the Legion of Honor is the recently completed renovation of the Salon Dore from Hotel de la Tremoille. Designed during the reign of Louis XVI as the main salon de compagnie, or receiving room for guests, this sumptuous 18th century period room, with its precise details and furniture is said to set “a new standard for American period rooms.”

So travel back in time to the Copper Age as well as 16th century Italy and 18th century France, all at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum.

Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.

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