The popular imagination often paints the entire Eastern Mediterranean as politically fractured and war-laden. This is a representation that the Penn Museum offers in its new gallery, “Crossroads of Culture”, which highlights the social, commercial and political innovations from the region.
At the entrance to the exhibition, we see the hull of a cargo ship that sank in the Mediterranean Sea in the 14th century BC. It is a replica full of genuine artifacts excavated from the wreckage, which are among some 400 pieces in the gallery covering a period of 4,000 years. Pieces of pottery and precious metals on display in the hull firmly establish the importance of the region – made up of Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Syria – as a promoter of international trade.
Interactive elements throughout the gallery highlight the connection between the region’s contributions, such as the world’s first alphabet, and its application in our daily lives. Parked near a cuneiform clay tablet made in 500-400 BCE and excavated in Iraq, is a digital tablet where visitors can follow how the Egyptian hieroglyph for beef was adapted by the Canaanites 4,000 years ago into a simpler alphabet which led to the Phoenician alphabet we use today.
“Culture of Crossroads,” which opens today, is the only gallery in North America that contextualizes digging in the region as a colonial practice. A digital screen in the gallery shows a map of the Eastern Mediterranean carved out by the British and French governments after World War I, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It was a colonial claim to the area that opened the possibility for foreign excavation teams, including from the Penn Museum, to enter the area in search of antiquities. The excavations that made up the museum’s collection took place from 1921 to the 1980s, during “six decades of contentious and violent intervals, including a world war, and the drawing and redrawing of borders” in the eastern Mediterranean,” said co-curator Eric Hubbard. in a report.
Museums often overlook the contributions of local community members that lead to the success of an excavation and therefore distort the public memory of an area by portraying archaeologists as explorers of the unknown. Tucked away in a corner of the gallery are three Manila folders that provide insight into contributions from community members. These are labeled: Beth Shean, Kourion and Gibeon – the names of three major excavations carried out by the Penn Museum throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
The files contain reproductions of primary documents that detail the relationship between Penn’s excavation team and community members in the area who, in many cases, performed the excavation and administrative work necessary to get the artifacts to Philadelphia. A payroll dated 1960 shows that the Penn Museum team paid local farmers in Jordan the equivalent of $10 a day to dig in Gibeon. A receipt to local landowners shows damage to crops and land caused by the work, signifying the crew’s disruptive presence.
A letter from Asia Hallaby, a local Gibeon excavation volunteer, details how the artifacts from this excavation could not have arrived in Philadelphia without her help. Hallaby was left to return the artifacts “once the foreign archaeologists had returned home to their families and academic responsibilities,” according to an email to The Inquirer from Virginia Hermann, the gallery’s co-curator.
As part of the gallery’s two-day celebration today and Sunday, the Penn Museum Archives Department will give visitors access to more photos and other primary documents that continue to tell the untold stories behind the success of the excavations at Kourion and Beth Shean.
The gallery opposes the stereotypical still-warring depiction of the Eastern Mediterranean by showcasing antiquities acquired through disruptive and exploitative practices. Providing access to documents detailing these practices acknowledges a harsh reality: “The archeology in this region is not just taking place in an ivory tower, it is also involved in empire-building practices,” Lauren said. Ristvet, the gallery’s senior curator, in an interview with The Inquirer.
“Crossroads of Culture” sets the record straight on how the region served as a nexus for commercial activity and social innovation, while also addressing the colonial enterprise that prevented this recognition from being granted in the first place.