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'Masters of Fire' at the Legion of Honor

Masters of Fire is the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the art of this formative period
Masters of Fire is the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the art of this formative period
courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem

While much of the media attention has been focused on Parmigianino's charming "Schiava Turca," now showing the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, "Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land" an exhibit just two galleries over is a far more historically important show.

In 1961, Israeli archaeologists discovered an extraordinary treasure in a cave near the Dead Sea known as Nahal Mishmar. There were over 400 copper objects wrapped in a straw mat and hidden in a natural crevice that would be called the “Cave of the Treasure.” One of the greatest hoards of antiquity, these objects were so spectacular that they define an important era in Southern Levantine (modern-day Israel and surrounding lands) history now called the Chalcolithic (copper-stone) or Copper Age (5500–3500 BC).

"Masters of Fire," now open at the Legion of Honor, is the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the art of this formative period and features oddly shaped zoomorphic ossuaries, basalt stands with human faces, hoards of copper ritual objects, linen and wool textiles, carved ivory human figures, and other hauntingly beautiful objects that illustrate how the technical, social, and aesthetic developments of this period laid the groundwork for later cultural expansion. The exhibition examines four distinct regions, each with its own set of independent traditions: the Golan plateau, the north-central plain, the Beersheba Valley/northern Negev, and the Jordan Valley. Together, their collective production reveals the lives of the people who inhabited the ancient Near East in its early stages of cultural formation.

The Chalcolithic period (Copper-Stone Age, ca. 5500–3500 BC) was an era of great social and technological development. Long before the pyramids were built in Egypt and writing was introduced in Mesopotamia, people in the Southern Levant—dwelling in the lands that today include Israel, Jordan, and their surrounding areas—were the first in the region to create metallurgy, temples, elaborate textiles, cash crops for export, and stratified societies. As early as the fourth millennium BC they employed sophisticated methods of smelting, alloying, and casting to produce small copper objects as ornaments and simple tools. In villages ruled by chiefs, artisans sponsored by this powerful emerging elite developed specialized skills in agriculture, ritual, and the creation of remarkable objects made from stone, terracotta, ivory—and metals, thanks to newly invented metallurgical techniques that were the most advanced of their time in the entire Near East.

Although some of the San Francisco exhibition's ossuaries (clay containers of human remains) may strike the visitor as very modern, they are actually vessels to honor the dead. Covered with abstract decorations representing faces (they think), it is hard to believe that these powerful rounded shapes are over 5000 years old. The difficulty with interpreting these objects is that the collection is absolutely unique, and some of these objects are like nothing ever seen anywhere else. The round knobs are usually said to be mace heads, but there is no evidence that any of them was ever used in combat. What is one to make of the hippopotamus ivory object, essentially a slice from a hippo's tooth drilled with holes from top to bottom?

“The copper crowns and maces, or standards, found here testify to the amazing technical skill of the ancient smiths and artists who already knew the lost-wax process of casting,” said curator Renée Dreyfus. "It's not known whether the people who created these objects considered them as art or ritual objects."

Dreyfus continued, "Of the 80 copper standards found in the Cave of the Treasure, no two are identical, proving that each was cast separately in an individual mold. This astonishing hoard of 429 remarkable objects also reveals the growth of prestige, status, and social rank.”

“The term “Copper Revolution” has been used by scholars to describe the changes in social organization that occurred at this time,” explained Dreyfus. “Archaeologists have tracked the fragments of ore that were mined in Jordan and traced how they were carried almost one hundred miles into southern Israel to be crushed, repeatedly heated, and carefully smelted into small ingots. Once the copper was extracted, it was heated again and cast in open molds to make simple tools or weapons.

"However, the extraordinary discoveries in the Cave of the Treasure at Nahal Mishmar represent a very different path in metallurgy. The copper objects found there were made using the complicated lost-wax casting technique. These works are far more elaborate than any other copper creations known from this period. Whatever the original source of this hoard—whether a major religious or political center—the intricate scepters, crowns, and other copper objects must have been the accouterments of an elaborate ceremonial display. The Copper Age is therefore an early example of a society in which the ruling elite could afford prestige objects that were produced as symbols of its power.”

The meaning of the remaining objects are even more obscure but it is speculated that the artifacts point to a change in Near Eastern Society, from more egalitarian order to social hierarchy. Scepters and weaponry, like beautifully crafted copper mace heads, point to a ruling class that had the resources to employ skilled, creative artisans. "It's a complicated form of burial," Ms. Dreyfus said—and a demonstration of power. "Elites were the ones who were buried, not the ordinary person." The technological advances and shifts in social division pointed to the next step in civilization: the Bronze Age.

Virtual tour of the exhibit:

The exhibition is organized by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) and the Israel Antiquities Authority in collaboration with The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

"Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land" runs from June 28, 2014-January 4, 2105

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