June 2002 [oberlin online]
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The Religion Department Goes Digging

by Sue Kropp '99

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, viewed here from the southwest side of the city, was built on the platform of the ancient Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish Wars. The site was left in ruins until the seventh century, when Muslims built the Dome to honor the prophet Mohammed.

Oberlin's religion department observed its 50th anniversary this year, and in preparation for the big event, Danforth Professor of Religion Grover Zinn dug deep into the department's past.

What he unearthed was a collection owned by the department of more than 300 glass lantern slides - images of the archaeological dig at Megiddo, Israel, as well as photographs of the surrounding area - some of which are shown here.

The images of Megiddo were taken by Herbert G. May, who taught Old Testament language and literature at the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology (GST) from 1934 to 1966. In 1966 the GST was transferred to Vanderbilt University, and May held a joint professorship at both institutions until his retirement in 1970.

Editor of the Old Testament portion of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, May participated as a graduate fellow in the University of Chicago's archaeological expedition to Megiddo in the 1930s. The walled city was located on the plain where the ancient Jewish people believed the final apocalyptic battle would be fought at the end of the world.

Using May's slides - along with the talents of Joseph Romano, the College's visual resources curator, and Ed Vermue, special collections librarian - Zinn created an exhibition in Mudd Center that chronicled the department's connection to the Megiddo excavation, its expedition to Tell el Hesi, and Near Eastern archaeology in general. During the 1970s and 1980s, more than 50 Oberlin students volunteered at Tell el Hesi under the direction of the late religion professor Tom Frank. Oberlin is the U.S. repository for the artifacts recovered during the Hesi excavation.

An aerial view from the 1930s of the Megiddo excavation, taken from a balloon anchored above the site.
photo: Herbert G. May

The display also included ancient pottery from Bab edh-Drah, a site located on the southeast side of the Dead Sea. These items were donated to the Religion Department Archaeological Collection as a memorial to Paul Lapp, who delivered the Haskell Lectures at Oberlin in 1967. Lapp excavated the Bab edh-Drah site in the 1960s and found a city and a cemetery.

The exhibition coincided with this year's Haskell Lecture Series, titled Digging Up the Past: Oberlin and Biblical Archaeology. Three archaeologists, including two alumni, were featured as speakers.

"Oberlin has a long history of biblical archaeology," Zinn said. "This year we were able to celebrate that by recognizing the Hesi project, which engaged many Oberlin students and which contributed significantly to the teaching of biblical archaeology and literature in higher education." ATS

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