Friday, November 20, 2009

T 'n' me do the 'muzee'

Tristan and I made a trip to the ROM on Tuesday, his last day before going to Hong Kong. What a kid, he gets to spend two weeks with one of his many grandmothers at her home in Hong Kong!


Tristan has a new camera to take to Hong Kong, so he got to test it at the ROM. He took many photos of all the exhibits we visited. I told him to be careful of using the flash because if he photographed something behind glass all he would get was a photo of the reflection of the flash. So he was careful about that. He also managed to photograph me on the streetcar from 18" away without blinding me (whew!).

We alternated between stuff he wanted to see (dinosaurs and mummies of course!) and stuff I wanted to see. The Dead Sea Scrolls are in Toronto now, in the basement of the ROM, and one of my favourite galleries, the Triple-AP (Africa, Americas, and Asia-Pacific). Tristan had mixed feelings about those but I think I managed to keep him sufficiently interested for me to soak up what I wanted out of it.

Tristan started to take a photo in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit but a security guard stopped him. The guard was very nice about it, he carefully explained to Tristan that he was welcome to take pictures of anything the ROM owned, but unfortunately the ROM did not own the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit, and the people who did own it forbade photo-taking for copyright reasons.


The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 in caves around the Dead Sea in Israel, or what would soon become Israel. They have been dated to around 800 BCE (Before Common Era); they are some of the oldest written documents yet found. Some were well preserved in pottery jars, others were disintegrated into tiny fragments on the cave floors. But expert archaeologists flocked to the area to salvage as much as possible, going into those caves with tweezers to pick up every shred they could find. In those days the area was a dangerous battleground, so it was all high drama. But they gathered up as much as they could and attempted to piece the fragments together, like a massive archaeological jigsaw puzzle.

In the 1940s and '50s the methods and technology for preserving ancient documents were rudimentary, and in many cases counterproductive. For example, the scrolls were manipulated in rooms brightly lit by sunshine streaming in from big windows, a disaster for materials hitherto kept in the dark for thousands of years. They bound the pieces together with ordinary adhesive tapes and glues; chemicals leached from those adhesives into the parchment and papyrus fragments, disintegrating them further. So it has been a massive job to recover the scrolls from their initial "preservation" in the 1950s.

Ironically the librarians and original creators of those scrolls used far superior methods and technologies to preserve their documents than we moderns were capable of. The religious community of Qumran had the sole responsibility for storing religious documents created in the ancient state of Israel. They were a sect that put heavy emphasis on physical and spiritual purity, so ritual baths were an important part of the community. They had elaborate waterworks to draw precious water from local mountains into their many baths. They stored their documents in earthenware jars, so another feature of the community was its many kilns to fire the jars. Archaeologists say that in its heyday, Qumran would have had air thick with smoke from those kilns.


The Dead Sea area is hot and dry, the caves in the surrounding cliffs cool, dark and dry. This was a perfect location for preserving almost anything for many millenia. Almost certainly the scrolls were not all created on site, but were brought here for storage as precious religious objects. Writing was a holy activity, only a few trained religious experts would have been able to do it. The written word was about as holy a thing as you can imagine. So it was exceedingly important to preserve written scrolls as well as possible.

The content of the scrolls was almost entirely religious, they contained scriptures of virtually all of our modern Christian Bible (with the exception of the Book of Esther) and many more religious texts outside of the modern Bible. They revealed an interesting biblical secret, that the texts vary and conflict, multiple versions of the same stories exist. Abraham, the father of both the Jewish and Islamic religions, and by extension the Christian religion, is the subject of many stories and legends, often contradictory. For example, according to the Qu'ran Abraham was directed by God to sacrifice his son Ishmael, not Isaac, and Ishmael was the father of Islam. But according to Jewish tradition, it was Isaac, the father of Judaism, not Ishmael that was to be sacrificed.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the ROM had actual examples of the scrolls specially preserved and displayed in a darkened room, at the end of a long display giving context to the scroll fragments. I was wondering before I went how seeing fragments of ancient documents was going to be spun into a whole exhibit, but the information about how the scrolls were discovered, translated and preserved, and what has been learned about the ancient community of Qumran in the process was indeed fascinating.


The ROM also had an exhibit about The Ten Commandments that had ended before we got there, but in fact it was still mostly in place. A security guard told me that they had removed the original artifacts but left the surrounding and background exhibits in place. So, according to this exhibit, The Ten Commandments were actually The Ten Words. They were not so much commandments or laws as they were the clauses of a contract or treaty between God and the Israelites.

The language used in the original texts followed the form and content of other treaties and contracts from the same place and time. God states his identity, and then why this contract or treaty is being proposed. The clauses that follow stipulate the requirements for being part of the treaty community. The first and most important of course is recognizing the authority of God in the community. It does not deny the existence or power of other Gods, but simply states that this community must turn away from those other Gods and pay attention only to the one God named in the treaty.

If you want to be a member in good standing of this treaty community, you must follow certain rules, among them being not committing murder, theft or adultery. Honouring your parents is simply good insurance: you look after your parents and your children are likewise required to look after you, and in this way everyone has a shot at a long life.


The last commandment---the one about not coveting your neighbour's wife or ox---is the most interesting, it cautions against even thinking of doing bad things. It shows that in those days religious leaders were aware that Desire was at the root of wrongdoing and must be guarded against.

You can imagine that an eight year old boy, particularly an eight year old boy with no knowledge of holy scriptures would find these exhibits rather boring. However he was quite interested in the many films and I tried to give him a historical context of why this stuff was important.

The Triple-AP gallery is fascinating to me because it lumps together many arts and crafts from all over the world. These are mostly "soft" crafts, artifacts made from wood, fibre, shells and feathers. Consequently most of them are relatively recent, they are made from materials that do not survive well over the millennia. In a previous posting I speculated that we get a biased view of the history of our species when we look at the ancient record of preserved artifacts, they appear to be created predominantly by men and are such things as religious objects and weaponry, even the pottery objects are often ascribed to masculine creative genius. But in the Triple-AP gallery you get to see so much of what women create: clothing, basketry, and elaborate ornaments for both everyday and special occasion use. These are beautiful creations that do not survive the test of time, they do not preserve well. So when we look at archaeological artifacts we often get a very biased view of who was making what.

1 comment:

Barbara Anne said...

What an interesting tour you and Tristan had! Sounds like the perfect send-off for an 8 year old headed to such an old city. That must be another amazing experience for Tristan!

Thanks for telling the story of the Commandments and the Dead Sea scrolls.

Hugs!