Soon you will be able get an unprecedented look at how millions of artifacts from myriad cultures and eras of history are unearthed, restored and displayed.

Treasures never before seen by the public will be just one of the attractions at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel — an open, interactive center for the collection, conservation, study, explanation and presentation of two million Holy Land antiquities.

The 36,000-square-meter complex designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, expected to open within a year, sits on Museum Hill in Jerusalem between the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum.

Both these institutions display archeological artifacts, as will the new center. However, it is not a museum in the classic sense, emphasizes Jacob Fisch, executive director of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“The IAA National Campus is a complex that highlights the wealth of the archeological discoveries in Israel but also brings to the public the work behind some of the finds that you never see when you walk into a museum,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

“On this campus, visitors will be able to take part for the very first time in the fascinating process of archaeological conservation that up till now was carried out behind the scenes,” said IAA Director Israel Hasson.

A courtyard in the public wing of the complex enables visitors to sip coffee while watching conservationists cleaning Dead Sea Scrolls fragments or gluing ancient shards of pottery and glass back together.

In the Gerson Courtyard, visitors can peer into the conservation labs below. Photo by Jacob Fisch
In the Gerson Courtyard, visitors can peer into the conservation labs below. Photo by Jacob Fisch

“Then, when you walk into the gallery you will have a new perspective on what you’re seeing,” says Fisch. “Hopefully this will also create a passion for the archeology of the land of Israel. You’re not just going down a hall and seeing a beautiful piece, but the entire wealth of the archeology and the work itself.”

Photo of pottery conservation by Clara Amit.
Photo of pottery conservation by Clara Amit.

Designed like a dig

Safdie designed the IAA National Campus like an archaeological excavation site, covered by a tensile transparent roof to evoke the canopies used to shade archaeological excavations.

Faced with Jerusalem stone, the complex has three levels descending like the strata in a dig, containing courtyards, galleries, climate-controlled storage and footpaths overlooking labs and artifacts, as well as the National Library for the Archaeology of Israel and the IAA’s offices.

The National Campus for the Archeology of Israel, in Jerusalem. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama
The National Campus for the Archeology of Israel, in Jerusalem. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

Visitors will be able to walk on a suspended bridge while watching an audiovisual exhibit projected on thousands of artifacts. The eastern rooftop is dedicated to mosaics, many of which have never been displayed.

Mosaics on the roof of the IAA National Campus. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama
Mosaics on the roof of the IAA National Campus. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

A large nave of a Byzantine church with a colorful mosaic in it, excavated east of Ramle, was restored in its entirety in one of the open courtyards of the campus.

The main entrance display cabinet is dedicated to the newest discoveries. The first exhibition in this cabinet presents bronze figurines unearthed last May  from an ancient shipwreck near the Caesarea harbor. There will be an explanation of marine archaeology and how the underwater artifacts were excavated.

Exhibit of ancient objects found off the coast of Caesarea. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama
Exhibit of ancient objects found off the coast of Caesarea. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

Right on trend

Though the IAA’s concept for the campus has been developing for 12 years, Fisch says, the fruition coincides with a strong global trend as museum-goers want to see conservation behind the scenes. This wish is being accommodated at museums including Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Cincinnati Art Museum and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, among others.

“We were one of the first in the world to focus on building a place that showcases the work itself in addition to the archeology, and we are the first in Israel to combine objects and viewable conservation centers,” says Fisch.

Roman and Byzantine glass in an exhibition showing discoveries as well as ancient furnaces and raw materials used in the producing glass. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama
Roman and Byzantine glass in an exhibition showing discoveries as well as ancient furnaces and raw materials used in the producing glass. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

Archeology is of great interest around the world. The website of the Archeology Institute of America gets more than 1.8 million unique visitors per month. Periodicals such as Biblical Archeology Review, with 115,000 subscribers, testify to the popularity of ancient finds.

Marrying that interest to technology is a natural for Israelis, who live in a country with some of the oldest and most significant archeological treasures. Friends of the IAA, for example, developed the “Dig Quest: Israel” games app for children, in iOS and Android versions.

Dead Sea Scrolls

In keeping with another trend sweeping Israel’s museums – spicing up gallery exhibitions with digital interactive technology – the center will offer multimedia options such as an activity where visitors puzzle together virtual pieces of Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Lunder Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center. Photo by Erez Harodi
The Lunder Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center. Photo by Erez Harodi

The IAA is custodian of roughly 15,000 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, discovered in 11 Judean Desert caves between 1947 and 1956. Many of the 2,000-year-old fragments are digitized and available online, and displayed on a rotating basis at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book. A number of the fragments are still being conserved.

“The conservation process will take place eventually in the complex, and the Bernard Osher Dead Sea Scrolls Gallery will focus on the conservation process in the past and future, and the digitization process,” says Fisch. “From there, visitors can cross the parking lot to see the scrolls in the Shrine of the Book.”