Digging for the biblical Shechem

20 April until 17 September 2013

Tell Balata, start of the digging, 1926. Photo: Franz Böhl. Tell Balata, start of the digging, 1926. Photo: Franz Böhl.
Tell Balata, summer of 1927. Photo: Franz Böhl.Tell Balata, summer of 1927. Photo: Franz Böhl.
Working at the excavation, Tell Balata 1927. Photo: Franz Böhl.Working at the excavation, Tell Balata 1927. Photo: Franz Böhl.

Digging for the biblical Shechem is a small photographic exhibition about an early twentieth-century archaeological project. The negatives of these unique photographs were recently discovered by accident in the museum archives.

< Click on the photographs for enlarged versions. Click on the arrows to move between photos.

In search of Shechem

In the 1920s, the German biblical scholar Ernst Sellin conducted an excavation on Tell Balata, a mound in Palestine. He was in search of the town of Shechem. According to the Bible, this was the first place where Abraham stayed after arriving in Canaan (the Holy Land), and he is said to have built an altar on the mound. Little is known about the excavation; Sellin published little information about it. To make things worse, a bombardment during the Second World War destroyed all the excavation reports, drawings, inventories, and photographs. For many years, it was assumed that virtually no trace of the Shechem excavation remained. Then, just last year, dozens of black-and-white negatives were found in a cardboard box in the archives of the National Museum of Antiquities. They turned out to be photographs taken by Franz Böhl, a Leiden professor who participated in the excavation for several years.

  • The photographs can be found behind the Egyptian temple in the entrance hall.

Franz Böhl

Franz Böhl (1882–1976) was a professor of Hebrew and Jewish antiquities in Groningen. In 1927, he moved to the University of Leiden, where he held a professorship in Babylonian and Assyrian linguistics and literature. From 1926 to 1928, he participated in Sellin’s excavation in Tell Balata, working as an epigraphist, a reader of inscriptions. He oversaw the publication of the contents of two clay tablets found in the 1926 season. Thanks to his support, some of the objects found in Tell Balata ended up in the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.

Collection piece

Those objects are still in the museum collection: beads made from precious stones, glass bottles, small spinning wheels made of stone and bone, metal coins, and much more. You will find a selection of them in the exhibition.

This exhibition has been organized with the support of Dr Gerrit van der Kooij (Leiden University), the Tell Balata Archaeological Park Project, and the Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO).