By Stephanie Hernandez and Gordon Franz
Born and raised in the Upper Galilee, conservator Orna Cohen has had an accomplished career. Currently restoring the Late Bronze Age palace at Tel Hazor, Cohen has used her expertise on the ancient Galilee boat and has given her expert opinion to the Israel Antiquities Authority regarding the James Ossuary. Educated at Hebrew university and the London University – Institute of Archaeology, Cohen is also responsible for cleaning artifacts found at the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
This interview was conducted at the “ceremonial palace” at Hazor. For a more technical account of the excavation of the palace, see Ben-Tor and Rubiato 1999:22-39.
Stephanie Hernandez: Why is it important for archaeologists to restore the structures that they have excavated?
Orna Cohen: It’s very simple. As with a modern or new building, you have to take care of it. Just think of a building that’s been covered for thousands of years. After you have excavated it, there are a lot of unstable structures that you have to stabilize. There are elements like broken stones and things that you have to fix. Also, not just stability, but you also have to show it to the public, to visitors. You have to share it with others and restore it in such a way that visitors can understand the structures that were uncovered during excavation.
Stephanie: What is a conservator? How does one learn to be a conservator? What kind of education do you need?
Orna: It is the best job in the world! It is the most interesting thing. The archaeologists are excavating and dealing with all the stuff, with pottery, but the interesting thing, the sugar / cherry on the cake that I have to deal with, are the small finds. I have to prepare them for exhibition, or publication. If it is the structure on the site, it is the most fascinating and challenging part of the excavation. I feel very lucky to have an opportunity to do this thing. Basically I started as an archaeologist. I studied archaeology, then I studied chemistry and then there are special courses on conservation. But still you need a lot of experience to be a good conservator, to understand the value, the meaning, and the rules. It means a longer period of experience and education. I went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but when I decided to specialize in conservation I had to go and study in England at the London University – Institute of Archaeology and then some courses in Norway and Italy.
Stephanie: You have almost single-handedly, along with Ina from Sweden, restored the “ceremonial palace” near the top of the acropolis of Hazor. Please tell us about the excavation of this structure, the objects found in the excavations and the burn layer of the violent conflagration that brought the palace to its end.
Orna: I was lucky to start working on this project when they started digging the main hall of the palace. So they called me when they found a few broken statues and it was the most exciting excavation I have ever visited and took part in. It was amazing. They excavated a layer of about one meter of thick ash all burned. The people used to come out like a coal miner at the end of the day. They were dark, but with big smiles on their faces because they were so happy to take part in this experience. Every minute someone would find something, a seal, a big statue, fragments of pottery, of course cuneiform tablets. It is the most rich excavation. So it was very exciting. Of course later I had to treat all the objects for publication so I twice had the pleasure of dealing with these objects. But the excavation itself was amazing. Everyone was very excited. It was a sure thing you’d find many figurines. On the corner of the treasure room were two beautiful bronze statues that were buried so they were intact. The other statues, the large stone ones, were mutilated. Whoever burned down the palace cut off the heads and hands of the statues. Early on, it was a really special experience, very exciting.
Stephanie: How intense was the fire? How do you know this?
Orna: The temperature reached at least 1300 degrees centigrade (2350 degrees Fahrenheit), which is huge. But just imagine, it melted pottery and some of the mud brick, so they ran like water. You can see this material running on the walls. For this kind of fire you need a lot of organic materials. We know there was a lot of wood in this palace, all cedars of Lebanon, according to the charcoal that was tested. But it is a huge room. We have not found remains of any pillars that supported the roof. You need a lot of large beams of cedar to roof it. Also, there was wood combined in the walls, and of course, the very rare and unique find of the wooden floor. These are all charcoal remains that we are talking about. All these helped to accumulate this one meter thick layer of ash which is very rare. The most you see on an excavation is one or two centimeters. One meter is very unusual. There was no need to bring in wood from the outside for this fire. There was enough organic material. Beside that, all the large pottery jars in the area also contained organic material, probably oils, which are expected in such a place. Altogether, with the strong wind that we have here in the afternoon can bring the fire to this degree. That’s what cracked all the stone panels at the bottom of the walls. The orthostates were all cracked and crushed because of the fire. Also, it caused me a lot of work to puzzle and glue them together!
Stephanie: Who burned the place?
Orna: We can not tell exactly. But the only historical evidence is from the Bible that tells about how Joshua conquered Hazor and since the king of Hazor organized all the cities against the Israelites, they gave the order to burn it down to ashes (Jos 11:11). Here we see it, is it this story or not, we don’t know.
Gordon Franz: Permit me to change the subject. You have made some excellent replicas of objects that have been found at Hazor for various museums. How easy, or hard is it to make a replica? What is the process?
Orna: It depends on what the object is. Today there are excellent materials for making replicas. If you know how to do it right, it is a lot of work, but you can get beautiful replicas that almost look the same. As a professional who does it for museums, I always make sure I made a difference and mark down that it’s a replica, so we won’t find it on the market later in Jerusalem (which already happened once!). I did some kind of bronze keys from the Second Temple period and I saw them later on the market. They were sold to the Tower of David. So I have to be very careful. I label them as replicas. It’s something I make and it is difficult to see but I mark them as replicas. If it’s the same material I always put “R” or replica somewhere on it.
Gordon: Could someone make a fake archaeological artifact and sell it on the antiquities market?
Orna: It’s been done for many years. We have heard stories about that. It is possible, but to do it you have to know what you want, but today it is all possible. There are the materials and there is information that you can find everywhere. It’s possible and it happens. Some of it is good, so people should not buy antiquities on the free market. There is no need to deal with antiquities. I think today if you want to show antiquities you can show beautiful professional replicas in museums. If you want to make your own collection, make a collection of replicas because collecting antiquities means you are sending someone to rob them, to steal them, to destroy knowledge from archaeological sites. So we are against all these fakes and I wish people would stop buying them and start going to replicas. I only do replicas for museums, not for the open market.
Gordon: How easy is it to fake patina?
Orna: It is possible, but it is not easy to fake patina. You need the knowledge, but it has been done. There is research going on about it for historical buildings. For instance when you are renewing part of a building you want to repeat the patina, so there is research about these things. I had the pleasure of looking at and checking the James Ossuary and I gave my comments on it. I think the ossuary is authentic and a real one, but the inscription on it, I am convinced there are two hands that wrote the inscription. To my opinion, part of the inscription is faked, part is original. Of course, there are things that go on in trial now. They are still trying to figure out what is faked and by whom it was made. To my opinion, the name Joshua [on the ossuary] is real. The inscription reads: “Ya’acov bar Yosef achi Yehoshua.” [Translation: Jacob, or James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus]. So the first part, I think is added. My professional opinion is almost against all the others that think the last name [on the inscription]; “brother of Jesus” (Joshua) is a fake. So my opinion was against the others [at the trial]. I checked and it’s according to the patina in the letters. There was a fake patina of just dirt that was put in these letters on purpose so I cleaned part of it and underneath there was the original, yellowish patina that based on my experience, was the original one. It was not on the first part of the inscription but it was on the last part of the inscription. That is what I gave as my opinion.
Gordon: How prevalent are fakes on the antiquities market today and can a discerning eye spot one?
Orna: I do not deal with the market much. I do not go into these stores of course. But from time to time, I have been asked [about possible fakes]. Working in the Bible Lands Museum I saw many fakes that these expert people bought. There are fakes and you can fool the experts for a while. But eventually people figure it out with the new ways of testing and inspecting of things like that. I think all the fakes are coming out as fakes. So it is better not to buy from the market in my opinion.
Stephanie: Thank you for your time.
Orna: Thank you.
Ben-Tor, Amnon; and Rubiato, Maria Teresa
1999 Excavating Hazor. Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City? Biblical Archaeology Review 25/3: 22-39.