Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel


On March 22, 1961, Pessah Bar-Adon lowered himself into a cave in the cliffs high above the Dead Sea. “Looks like objects of copper!” he underlined in his journal. His team began to investigate what would later become known as the “Cave of the Treasure,” located by the Nahal Mishmar, a dry riverbed. Excavators first discovered fifty copper vessels, then textiles, and then the number of copper vessels exploded to more than four hundred. Bar-Adon struggled to even describe, much less comprehend, all that he was finding. But while he claimed to have found the first hoard dating to the Copper Age (4500–3600 BCE), many scholars did not believe that a society just learning to smelt copper tools could produce such finely crafted objects of ancient art.

Scepter with grooved shaft decorated in a human head and three elongated bossesFor the last five decades, archaeologists studying the sites and material culture of the Copper Age in the Southern Levant have concluded that these spectacular findings not only further our knowledge of ancient metallurgy but, more importantly, of the cultural and political milieu that produced them. Archaeological evidence attests that it was during the Copper Age that families moved to organized villages headed by tribal chiefs. By pooling their resources and diversifying the workforce, they created structured communities formed by highly advanced specialists in agriculture, crafts, and rituals. They learned how to exploit the environment, no matter how naturally hostile to human settlements, by irrigating fields and, for the first time, by generating wool, cheese, olives, and dates on a large scale. They dedicated sanctuaries, creating spaces and architecture devoted to cults and rituals, and imported raw metals from great distances to forge tools for everyday subsistence as well as to create objects of status. This innovative society invented a way of life that would sustain the entire Near East for six thousand years.

Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel investigates this formative period in the history of humankind by exhibiting a comprehensive group of objects that illustrate the most diverse aspects of the life and death of Copper Age communities in the Southern Levant.

Ossuary with Painted and Sculpted Facial FeaturesIf the objects comprising the hoard found at the Cave of the Treasure prove that ancient artisans mastered sophisticated techniques to mix different metals and cast them in a wide array of utilitarian and symbolic tools, Copper Age funerary art speaks for a society that developed all aspects of its life, even those extending beyond the final moments. The most complete evidence for the existence of specific funerary traditions comes again from a chance discovery. In 1995, in the village of Peqi’in, located in the shadow of Galilee’s tallest mountain, a contractor excavating the foundation of a new building broke through the top of a natural burial chamber. The cave contained hundreds of burials in ornate clay containers, or ossuaries. These objects— displayed outside Israel for the first time in this exhibit—show that the elites of the Copper Age not only had access to rare copper scepters and “crowns” such as those assembled at the Cave of Treasure, but they were also treated differently in death. Indeed, the bones placed inside the ossuaries deposited inside this cave belong primarily to adult male individuals who constituted a social group that was distinct from the rest of the population, whose members were instead interred in the ground. Votive objects—ivories, figurines, pottery, beads, and shells—inserted inside the ossuaries and set around them, were brought from great distances to add prestige to the scene.

Many of these prestige objects, especially figurines and miniature vessels, have also been discovered within cultic complexes, large enclosed areas where rituals seemed to have primarily taken place around symbols of fertility connected to an early pantheon of partly anthropomorphic, partly zoomorphic divinities. On display at ISAW are objects from two of the main religious centers of the Southern Levant: En-Gedi, on the shores of the Dead Sea, and Gilat, in the sands of the Negev Desert in the south of Israel. Both sites suggest that architecture played a key role in the development of ritual traditions, and that the same elites who controlled resources and technological knowledge may also have been in charge of the religious life of the communities they ruled.

The idea of elites or chiefs was a concept new to the Copper Age, and no one is sure how a special group of people began to be treated in this exceptional way. Was this just an elaboration of family or tribal ties? Were these the most successful merchants or entrepreneurs? Or is it possible that control over the discovery of copper technology itself allowed certain individuals to gain power as chiefs and attract a retinue? Masters of Fire attempts to address these questions by assembling the full range of objects, materials, and iconographic motifs that characterized the lives of the communities settled in the Southern Levant. We are all aware that technological changes are often accompanied by social upheaval. As modern as this sounds, it also is the background for a prehistoric Copper Age that transformed the ancient world.

Image 1: Scepter with Grooved Shaft Decorated in a Human Head and Three Elongated Bosses
H. 13.2 cm; Diam. (Shaft) 1.9 cm
Naḥal Mishmar, 4500–3600 BCE
Israel Antiquities Authority: 1961-84, exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Photography by Elie Posner © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Image 2: Ossuary with Painted and Sculpted Facial Features
H. 62.5 cm; W. 35 cm; D. 48 cm
Peqi’in, 4500–3600 BCE
Israel Antiquities Authority: 2007-1850, exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Photography by Elie Posner © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem