Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jewish Archaeology in Europe: Upcoming Conference and an Overview

Lorca, Spain. Medieval Synagogue (15th century?) and three of the dozens of handing glass oil lamps excavated, as reconstructed. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009.

Jewish Archaeology in Europe: Conference and Overview
By Samuel D. Gruber

A major conference about the archaeology of Judaism in Europe has been organized in Paris by Paul Salmona of the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (INRAP). The conference will be held at the Musee d'art et d'histoire du judaisme on January 14-15, 2010.

INRAP was founded in 2002 under the French Law on archaeology of January 2001. It replaces Association for the national archaeological excavations (AFAN), established in 1901. INRAP is administered jointly by the French Ministries of Culture and Research.

The full program can be consulted at the INRAP website or downloaded here.

This conference comes on the heels of another big conference “Medieval Jewish archaeology in the Iberian Peninsula,” for archaeologists about recent excavation of Jewish sites in Spain held in Murcia in February, 2009. The 133-page proceedings of the conference can be accessed at:

Both conferences are signs of the quickening pace of “Jewish archaeology” in Europe, and the increasing variety of sites encountered, and conflicting views on their excavation, interpretation and presentation.

The systematic and planned archaeology of Judaism in Europe is a relatively new phenomenon that has evolved from several trends that even today are not always easily reconciled. Since I will not be able to attend the Paris conference, and I doubt that many of readers will be there either, Ipresent here a brief overview of the topic of "Jewish Archaeology."

Jewish Archaeology in Europe: History

The roots of “Jewish Archaeology” lie in the 19th and early 20th century German scientific study of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentum), an academic movement that advocated intensive study of ancient, medieval and post-medieval source material and created more nuanced history of Jewish settlement and community. The movement mostly saw traditional Judaism as an historic relic, rather than as a dynamic religion, and was thus rejected by most observant Jews. The Wissenschaft movement was particularly attentive to texts, but was also cognizant of the possibility of the new field of archaeology in providing new information.

A similar movement developed in England, led by the Jewish Historical Society of England (founded 1893), that identified Jewish settlement sites in England from before the expulsion of 1290, and details about the names, occupations and wealth of many Jewish individuals. This effort has continued for more than a century and recently led to archaeological excavations in York, Guildford and London. Nearly contemporary with the Jewish Historical Society was the publication by Israel Abrahams (1858-1925) of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, a work about the everyday life of Jews as much as about religion. It gave extensive coverage to material culture.

Along with the development of “Biblical Archaeology” in the Near East, Jewish scholars supported excavations in Europe. Archaeological investigation into ancient Judaism was deliberately developed in the Holy Land, first by Europeans in the late 19th century. In the early 20th century Jews resident in Palestine supported this work, and continued after 1948 the new state of Israel. The Israel Exploration Society (originally Society for the Reclamation of Antiquities) was founded in 1914. Among many discoveries – that continue today – are the remains of synagogues and Jewish villages of late antiquity. Parallel to this, were accidental discoveries in Europe of signs of ancient and medieval Judaism in the form of inscriptions and synagogues. One of the earliest was the uncovering of the Jewish cemetery of the rue de la Harpe in Paris in 1847 (thanks to Max Polonovski for this information).

In the second half of the 19th century Jewish scholars joined the study of texts and material culture by studying Jewish funerary epitaphs, including those from the catacombs in Rome, but also cemeteries dating from the 12th through 16th centuries in Worms, Prague, Vienna, Lvov and many other cities.

In Palestine there was a growing interest and professionalism in “Jewish archaeology,” while in Europe there was growing evidence – but not widespread interest – in the potential of archaeology to expand historical horizons. Unfortunately, many finds explicitly linked to the European Jewish past have languished in storage and the potential link to Jews and Judaism of other finds have received little scrutiny. One of the few publicly accessible collections of medieval Judaica in Europe was that of the Musee Cluny in Paris, assembled in the mid-19th century by Joseph Isaac Strauss (1806-1888) who displayed 82 items at the Universal Exhibition in the Trocadero Palace in Paris and exhibited part of the collection at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition in London in 1887. The collection, which is mostly comprised of synagogue and household ritual objects was later purchased by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild and presented it as a gift to the French nation.

Archaeology of Judaism in Europe as we know it today developed directly out of the destruction of European cities in the Second World War. Post-war urban renewal developed opportunities for archaeological excavation in bombed out city centers. Documentation of standing Jewish structures – mostly synagogues – had begun in earnest in Germany and Poland during the interwar years, but most of these buildings were subsequently destroyed in the Holocaust. After 1945, however, remains of extensive medieval Jewish settlements in German cities could be fully exposed and investigated. These sites – previously known mostly through documentary evidence – gave a new physical dimension to the medieval presence in Europe. Unfortunately, limitations of archaeological technique as well as post-War political issues, financial constraints, and pressure for urban rebuilding, restricted the results of excavation and analysis. Otto Dopplefield’s work at Cologne was the most extensive; where he revealed the remains of a medieval synagogue that he dated to the 11th century. An impressive multistory mikveh (ritual bath), a monument of early medieval engineering was also revealed. New excavations carried out by the City of Cologne on the site since 2007 have confirmed much of Doppelfield’s analysis, but has conclusively pushed the date of synagogue and mikveh back to the Carolingian period and most likely – at least for the synagogue – to late antiquity. Other excavations took place in Worms and Speyer.

Cologne, Germany. Medieval Mikveh, looking up. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

The aftershocks of the destruction of Jewish communities in the Holocaust continued to influence Jewish scholarship in Europe. Two generations of scholars were lost – precisely those great teachers and their promising students who were most interested in the medieval Jewish past. Those that survived moved to American and Israel, far from the physical remains of European Jewish culture. Jewish medieval studies became again concerned almost totally with texts and movable objects. The methodology of the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University, for example, emphasized iconography over physical context.

Jewish Archaeology in Europe: Contemporary

Nowhere was there any planned effort to identify Jewish sites, nor to further exploit of the opportunities afford by unexpected finds. Throughout the Jewish world “Jewish archaeology” became almost synonymous with the uncovering of ancient Jewish remains, primarily in Israel, but also throughout the Mediterranean littoral, where a number of finds such as those from Ostia (Italy), Sardis (Turkey) and Stobi (Mecedonia) attested to Judaism’s widespread acceptance in the ancient world.

Medieval archaeology itself as a serious discipline with its own rationale and developed methods continued to evolve, especially in Britain (where the influence of the “New Archaeology” was strongest), and in Germany and Italy. Many of the favored archaeological conceptions such as urban archaeology and regional settlement surveys that should have brought more attention to the medieval Jewish component, however, tended to ignore it completely. A close reading of the archaeological literature from Europe between 1960 and 1990 would suggest that Jews were hardly present on the continent – despite their ubiquity in religious, historical, and legal sources as well as historical toponyms in many countries. Thus historians and archaeologists have different perceptions of the place and role of Jewish in the European Middle Ages.

From the 1960s through the 1990s most identification of Jewish materials in Europe was almost entirely accidental. The most spectacular instance was the discovery of a massive Romanesque structure in Rouen, France, in 1976, that may have been a synagogue, but was more likely a yeshiva (Talmudic school) and possibly a scriptorium. In 2002, excavations in Lorca, Spain uncovered the entire plan of a 15th-century synagogue as well as remains of eleven houses of the Jewish quarter, where previously no Jewish settlement was known. Houses contained distinctly Jewish features, including ceramic Hanukah oil lamps. The synagogue included original architectural and decorative features and fragments of more than 50 glass hanging lamps – previously only known from manuscript illuminations and later similar types from North Africa.

Archaeology of Jewish sites has centered on religious and ritual sites. These were the most prominent structures of Jewish communities, especially synagogues and mikvot (ritual baths), building types that are also most likely to incorporate distinguishing features allowing them to be identified as Jewish. These structures have usually been found in the course of building renovation or construction, or as part of other excavations. Recently, as in Regensburg (Germany) and Vienna (Austria), large planned excavations have been carried out at sites where ancient synagogues were known have existed before they were deliberately demolished, and the remains of those buildings and adjacent structures have been exposed. Similar excavations have been advocated for other known sites, such as the medieval synagogue in Budapest.

Vienna, Austria. Preserved remains of the medieval synagogue after excavation and creation of the Judenplatz Museum. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

In Spain, a more sensitized archaeological profession is now more adept at identifying Jewish sites discovered by accident, and historians and archaeologists are also seeking Jewish remains. A rich array of documentary sources, as in Jaén, can help locate former Jewish settlements in towns and cities throughout Iberia, where medieval juderie are still remembered in local lore and toponyms.

For centuries, traces of many Jewish cemeteries have been found, mostly sites which Jews were forced to abandon during periods of expulsion, or which were expropriated from them by authorities. Commonly, inscribed stone gravestones (matzevot), often in only fragmentary condition, have been found; mostly discovered in locations of re-use, incorporated in later structures, roads, city walls, river embankments, etc. where they served as ready building material. This is true in Spain, Italy, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

In a few cases, such as York (England), Prague (Czech Republic) and Lucera and Tarrega (Spain) previously forgotten and long unmarked Jewish cemeteries have been discovered in the course of urban development. In the past, such cemeteries might have been entirely destroyed without careful examination. Now, such finds are usually reported to cultural heritage authorities and they are carefully excavated by trained archaeologists. In some cases their Jewish character has been perceived when excavations began, but archaeologists did not consult with present-day Jewish communities. In almost all cases when the burials were identified as Jewish – either before or after excavation – some Jewish organizations, especially representative of Jewish religious communities, have protested the excavation and especially the exhumation of human remains as a violation of Jewish religious practice and law. In cases where the location of medieval Jewish cemeteries is known, Jewish communities have generally encouraged non-intrusive archaeological methods as a means of investigation. Jewish communities and archaeologists are still developing procedures to lessen conflict over cemeteries. So far, in some places, there seem to be irreconcilable differences of opinion and approach.

Maribor, Slovenia. Fragments of medieval Jewish gravestones now in Municipal Museum.
Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

Medieval treasures have been uncovered, mostly as accidental discoveries. The two most famous medieval treasure “hoards” are those of Colmar, discovered in 1863 and one from Erfurt found only in 1996. These hoards of money and precious objects were probably hidden in time of persecution and mass murder of Jews, and not recovered. The Colmar treasure contained an elaborate early 14th century wedding ring. Nothing is known of the individuals or groups who hid the treasures other than their apparent wealth, but it is assumed that they died in the massacres of 1348. Similar accidental discoveries of caches of documents and many artifacts of everyday life have been found in genizot, (plural of genizah), storage spaces in synagogues used for discarded texts and ritual items. But with the exception of the famous Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, whose documents have helped rewrite the Jewish and economic history of the Mediterranean region in the Early Middle Ages, these genizot have produced materials only from the 18th century on. In the case of genizot, after a series of accidental discoveries in the 1980s an 1990s in former synagogue south German synagogue buildings, more systematic investigations have been undertaken.

Note: The above text is adapted from two larger articles on “Jewish Archaeology” in press and preparation. I always appreciate new information – historic or contemporary – about all types of investigation of Jewish heritage sites.

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