The students were like detectives, lining both sides of a narrow room in the basement of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, gloves on, gingerly examining ancient objects.
They created sketches and drew upon what they learned in lecture and from readings to answer a series of questions, on the way to figuring out what purpose these treasures once served.
“We saw that there was a hole in it so it would be hung on a wall,” student Sarah Cunningham said about the object she and her class partner examined. “We knew it was in the shape of a shrine, and we learned about columns in class so we could tell that it had Greco-Roman influence.”
The professor, a postdoctoral research fellow and a graduate student made their way around to each group, probing to help the students figure out what they were examining, and offering a few hints, but only volunteering information about the object’s history or purpose when the trail went cold.
“The issue is the question of usage. What did they use it for?” Yaron Eliav, associate professor of rabbinic literature and Jewish history of late antiquity in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, LSA, asks one group that looked at a bowl-shaped object. “Why put so much effort in having someone, a scribe, writing all the way around?”
This is “The Land of Israel/Palestine Through the Ages,” a course Eliav has taught for 13 years, but seldom the same way twice.
“It’s a course about that region that is so volatile and so important, even in current affairs and world politics. We survey the history of that region from early times to the present,” Eliav said, describing his approach to the course as experimental and evolving, as he tries to move beyond the stereotypical history course that is heavy on lectures.
“We want to engage students more in producing the data and the information in the course, and turn them away from being passive listeners and observers and note takers, and into active participants,” he said.
The course website describes it as an exploration of geography, literature and archaeology from “the dawn of writing until the mid-20th century,” using various readings, videos from the region, and the museum experience.
Back at the Kelsey, Cunningham and her classmate figured out they were looking at an amulet that once held a mirror, designed to ward off evil spirits.
“Every week for our readings we get to go and maybe look at a sarcophagus or an inscription, and the questions help us and push us to connect with the material — again, to think like an archaeologist. We have to think of why things may have been portrayed as they were, or what it might have said about the people in power and who made the objects,” she said.
Jared Robins and his team first thought they were looking at a planter or container for something that had been wet. There was a line a little more than half way up on the inside of the 24-by-12.5-inch rectangular, open-top box, and the stone below the line was darker.
Justin Winger, postdoctoral research fellow at the Kelsey Museum, agreed that something wet had been inside but likely it was dirt from the object being buried for thousands of years. After probing the group about the intricate etchings that were on only one side, and the container’s possible uses, Winger filled in some gaps. The pot was a burial container that would hold bones of the deceased, once flesh and other organs had decayed.
Unprecedented access. That’s how Eliav describes the opportunity the students have in his course.
“This is a huge risk. As far as I know, something like this does not take place anywhere in the world. Museums — and for right reasons — are very guarded of their treasures. Here, hundreds of students every semester get to touch the real objects with their hands.”
But not bare hands. The list of rules reviewed before class begins is long but necessary: Gloves must be worn at all times and don’t touch your face or hair while wearing them, to avoid transferring oil to the objects. Pick up the artifacts as little as possible, make sure they are returned securely to the white pad that cushions them from the hardness of the table, and never pass the pieces one to another. Don’t grab them along any obvious cracks or around potentially fragile edges.
The privilege is not lost on the students.
“It’s one thing to read a book and see some images but, really, anyone can do that from home. It’s another thing when you’re getting access to videos and being able to actually touch artifacts from that time, and it really helps you understand that time more,” Robins said.
Students have been given access to these ancient treasures because of a 1964 U-M alumnus who wanted to share his collection of pottery, glass, coins and jewelry.
“We then decided it was time for something like this to be accessible to the general public,” Lawrence Jackier, a Bloomfield Hills attorney, explained in a video that announced his pledge of The Lawrence and Eleanor Jackier Collection to the museum and a loan of 30 pieces for use in the course.
“I said to myself: ‘It’s obvious. I graduated from the University of Michigan. Why wouldn’t I want my collection to go there?'”
The couple also has sponsored a Jackier Prize, awarding cash and book prizes to students who write the best essays about the artifacts. The inaugural awards event was held April 27 at the museum.
One of the five winning essays, “Narrative Vase Painting of the Classical Period,” focused on a couple of pieces, including a decanter-style vessel that had a handle, was round at the bottom, narrow at the neck and then opened up a bit more at the top. An ancient wine bottle was the first guess of students in the most recent class.
“I think you’re in the right direction because we would drink wine like that, but people in the ancient world were drinking wine from open cups. Wine was more like water,” Eliav told them.
“It needs to be something you want to pour in very small portions,” he said, adding that the narrow neck likely meant the contents were something to be poured slowly. One option might be olive oil, used for anointing the body and for food.
Beyond its use, the professor asked, what does the art suggest? Who is the manlike being on the front with no clothing, a tail and uniquely shaped ears?
“That’s a clue, absolutely.”