A rare find exhibits rarer finds at Presbyterian seminary
For those with an interest in Near Eastern archaeology, a trip to the neighborhood of East Liberty may be in order to unearth the hidden gem that is the Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology.
Signage is scarce, so if you don’t know the museum is there you will miss it. But tucked away on the lower level of the Presbyterian Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a noteworthy collection of artifacts from ancient Israel and Jordan dating back to the Early Bronze Age, as well as photographs and films of archaeological expeditions of the early 20th century.
The Kelso Museum in its current incarnation — two moderately sized rooms and a workshop — opened in 2000, but its roots go back to 1924. That’s when Melvin Grove Kyle, president of one of PTS’s predecessor institutions, Xenia Seminary, and W.F. Albright, arguably the leading biblical archaeologist of his generation, organized a survey of the Dead Sea Plain in search of Sodom and Gomorrah.
That survey resulted in the discovery of a town and cemetery site on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. It was from that site — Bab edh-Dhra — that the museum acquired its first artifacts, which form part of the museum’s Dead Sea Plain Exhibit.
The museum’s exhibits help illustrate daily life in the ancient Near East world, as far back as 3300 BCE. Pottery, jewelry, and other artifacts give visitors a sense of domestic life, food preparations, religious observance and other communal practices.
In addition to the Bab edh-Dhra artifacts, the findings of PTS archaeologists on expeditions from 1926-1932 at Tel Beith Mirsim, an hour southwest of Jerusalem, are displayed. Those artifacts date back to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
Other exhibits include artifacts from expeditions in Beth-El dating to the Chalcolithic through Roman times, as well as discoveries from the excavation at Tel Zayit in southern Israel, where current museum director Ron Tappy has unearthed an early version of the Hebrew alphabet carved into stone.
One of the most unexpected articles on display is a timeworn Torah, unrolled and under glass, behind a wall that displays other artifacts. The parchment is a deep brown and the script varies throughout, as if it had been re-done by a second or third hand at some point in time.
“We believe the Torah is Yemenite, but we have no clear records of how we got it,” said Karen Bowden Cooper, the museum’s curator. “We found it in storage when the [expanded] museum opened in 2000, and we put it on display.”
Someone at the seminary suggested that a previous faculty member brought it in the 1950s. When that man was contacted, however, “he said he didn’t know anything about it,” Cooper said.
The Torah was examined by a scribe from New York in 2003 or 2004, according to Cooper. It was the scribe who identified it as Yemenite, and estimated that it was about 350 years old. It is not a kosher scroll, she said, and noted that it is on deerskin and “not tanned thoroughly.”
Rabbi Mark Staitman, a former faculty member at PTS, said he has seen the Torah, and does not believe it is on deerskin.
Prior to displaying the Torah, Cooper said she consulted with staff from the Jewish Museum in New York as to the propriety of exhibiting it at the Seminary.
“They had to think about it,” she recalled, “because it’s open. But they thought the opportunity to see something like this is important.”
Although the Torah is under glass, Cooper acknowledged that it would be better protected in a different type of case.
“We need a micro climate to protect it,” she said. “We are looking into it.”
The museum is open during the academic calendar year, Monday-Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. About 35 to 40 groups come each year to tour. Private tours outside of regular hours can be scheduled by calling 412-924-1394.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.