Image: Golden leaf
Oded Balilty  /  AP
A golden leaf, part of an ancient piece of jewelry, is displayed at a warehouse holding Israel's National Collection of Antiquities in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.
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updated 1/19/2004 12:45:55 PM ET 2004-01-19T17:45:55

The spartan warehouse near Jerusalem looks like a factory outlet or cash-and-carry store, but the crates and boxes lining the aisles hold archaeological treasures such as ancient stone tools, Bronze Age bowls and Roman jewelry.

The warehouse is the new home of Israel's National Antiquities Collections, housing close to 1 million artifacts unearthed in excavations in Israel since its founding in 1948.

The Beit Shemesh warehouse was unveiled Sunday. Previously, excavated items were stored in a cramped old building in Jerusalem, said a curator, Galit Litani.

Among the artifacts are the oldest discovered outside Africa — skillfully worked prehistoric basalt hand-axes and flint knives found in the upper Galilee region, dating back 1.5 million years.

Roman oil lamps are stacked across from Iron Age urns, while a Napoleonic cannon lies on a corner shelf, a reminder of the French general's failed attempt to take the Ottoman-ruled port of Acre in 1799.

Stack after stack of burial boxes called ossuaries — hundreds of them — from around the first century are tastefully decorated with uncluttered geometric designs carved into their sides. Particularly moving is a plain, rough-hewn box with a single word, "Mother," scratched on it in spidery Hebrew letters.

Jewelry and coins for the dead
Some of the most breathtaking items are in smaller, climate-controlled upstairs rooms.

A bronze lion's face, one of a set of Byzantine coffin-handles and exquisite pieces of gold jewelry from various historical periods are stored near delicate Phoenician glassware, molds used to shape early Christian communion wafers and delicate flakes of gold, some of which Litani said may have decorated the diadems of noblewomen.

Other gold pieces, however, had a very different purpose in the myth-filled Hellenistic culture of 323-30 B.C.

"They were put in the mouths of the dead," she said, "to pay the ferryman of the underworld to take the deceased person across the river Styx to the afterlife."

The Beit Shemesh facility only holds artifacts excavated since 1948. Items dug up under pre-state British or Ottoman rule or in the West Bank or Gaza Strip before Israel captured those territories from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Mideast War are kept in various museums and international archaeological institutes in Jerusalem and abroad.

An archive, not a museum
The building is an archive, not a museum, and the boxes of history lining the aisles will not be on view to the general public, Litani said, but scholars and museum staff will be able to borrow items for research or display.

In addition to the nearly 1 million objects held at Beit Shemesh, a similar number are currently out on loan. Litani said the goal was to have as much of the collection as possible on public display.

"If the public doesn't see it, there's no point," she said.

New excavations in archaeologically rich Israel take place all the time, and there is enough material in the Israeli Antiquities Authority labs still undergoing testing and classification to fill another warehouse, said storerooms director Michael Sebanne.

"It's a bottomless pit," Litani said. "It just keeps coming."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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