We know that people living in the Middle East more than 6,000 years ago raised livestock for dairy, crafted exquisite vessels out of copper, and took great care in burying their dead. But what did they believe? How did they view the world? Did they conceive of the beautiful objects they made as art?

These are the questions at the heart of Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art From Israel, a current NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World exhibit displaying 157 items from the Chalcolithic Era (4500-3600 BCE)—otherwise known as the Copper Age. Over the past eight decades of archaeological discovery, scholars have determined that this was the period in which the people of the Southern Levant first settled in organized villages headed by tribal chiefs; first imported raw metals from great distances to forge tools; and first dedicated sanctuaries for cults and rituals. For the first time, workers specialized in agriculture and particular crafts, and wool, cheese, olives, and dates were produced on a large scale.

But mysteries still remain. To look at these artifacts is to confront a distant, and yet recognizable, ancestor—foreign, and yet somehow familiar.

Thanks to loans from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, this exhibition presents the fullest array of Copper Age material to ever leave Israel. Be sure to check it out in person before June 8—but first, explore our virtual tour below.

Video: Were people 6,000 years ago “just like us”?


Jennifer Y. Chi, ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator, introduces Masters of Fire.

Treasures on Display

A scientist rappelling down the sheer cliffs above the Dead Sea happens upon a remote cave filled with ancient treasures: Though that might sound like the plot of an Indiana Jones film, it’s actually the true story of how archaeologist Pessah Bar-Adon discovered on March 22, 1961 what would become known as the Nahal Mishmar Horde. Preserved in the cave were more than 400 copper vessels dating to 4500-3600 BCE—a collection that would further scholars’ knowledge not just of ancient metallurgy, but also of the customs and lifestyle of the people who crafted them.

Among the items displayed in ISAW’s Masters of Fire exhibit are Nahal Mishmar finds—intricately crafted scepters and mace heads—that were made using the relatively advanced lost-wax casting technique, in which a mixture of copper, arsenic, antimony, and nickel is poured into a mold. One highlight is a circular metal object with decorative horns and vultures protruding from the top—but don’t let its shape fool you, notes curator Michael Sebanne of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. This “crown” was probably too heavy, and too small in circumference, to be worn; it’s more likely a model of a temple or a tomb, Sebanne says.

Browse the slideshow above to view more “treasures” from the Nahal Mishmar Horde, as well as painted clay ossuaries and sacred figurines found in a burial chamber discovered in 1995 in northern Israel’s village of Peqi’in. And for more on Copper Age burial practices and religious beliefs, read our interview with curator Osnat Misch Brandel, of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, below.


Q&A: Bones, Burials, and Beliefs

Curator Osnat Misch-Brandl discusses ossuaries and a striking pair of god and goddess statues.

Osnat Misch-Brandl

What is an ossuary?
It’s kind of container, made mainly with clay, though sometimes with stone as well. The ossuary comes in different shapes, like a house, or a silo, or just a jar, and it contains certain bones—mainly the skull, and the legs and the hands—of the person who died. It was used in what we call the “second burial,” a custom for burying people, but not right away. The [Copper Age] people would put the body outside, and a bird of prey would eat the meat off it. Then, after a while, they would collect certain bones and put them in ossuaries. This is a very unusual habit; the second burial custom only existed in the Chalcolithic period and then much later, in the 1st century B.C., among the Jews of Israel.

What makes the ossuaries displayed here unique?
What you see here are mainly ossuaries that were found in a cave in the very north of Israel in an area we call Peqi’in. In that cave were found something like 6,000 ossuaries of very different shapes. What is very special is that some of them had a three-dimensional head—the clear shape of a person. So we assume they represent the person who was actually buried in these ossuaries, and that he was an important person in the clan or the family.

How did the people making these ossuaries view the afterlife?
The relationship between the people who lived and the people who died was very, very important. The people who lived needed their ancestors to help them to do the right thing. They were sure that their ancestors were continuing to take part in everyday life. That’s why they put so much effort into these beautiful, outstanding ossuaries. It’s hard work to shape each one differently.

The Lady and Ram of Gilat


Can you describe the significance of The Lady and Ram of Gilat, the two statues featured in ISAW’s Focus Gallery?
In the sanctuary at Gilat, in the Negev, these two very unusual statues were found. We call them a god and a goddess. They’re very unique because in other sanctuaries we only have parts of a figurine, and not a whole one. You’ll see that the goddess is actually a lady who is sitting on a birthing stool. She’s holding a churn, a vessel for milk products, in which yogurt or butter was made. A churn is a very typical vessel which exists in the Chalcolithic period and onward, but not before. And the other statue is a ram—the most important animal of that time, because in the Chalcolithic period he was an animal of burden. Later on, we know of the donkey, of course. You can see that on his back he has three cornets, a typical drinking vessel from that period. He actually represented a fertility god, because as an animal of burden he had a lot of strength.

What might Chalcolithic religious rituals have entailed?
From the Chalcolithic period we know of three sanctuaries. It’s in this period where you start to see a home for the god, a place where you show devotion to the god or goddess. We also have what we call domestic shrines. These are not exactly sanctuaries, but rather houses that have frescoes—wall paintings, very special ones. They were found mainly in a site east of the Dead Sea in what is Jordan today. The main drawing is of the sun, in many colors, and a procession of people wearing masks and garments walking toward the sun. So it seems that celestial bodies were a very important part of cultic rituals that took place during this period. We have drawings and we have objects, but we don’t have anything written in that period—so we have to imagine how things could have been done.