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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: And now for the returns...

Department of Anthropology Pottery Lab, NMNH.
Photo courtesy of Dave Rosenthal.
No, I’m not referring to election returns.  This month the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology will begin the return of a vast collection of archaeological artifacts collected from excavations conducted by former curator Gus Van Beek (1922-2012) at Tel Jemmeh, Israel.  The return of the artifacts to the Israeli Antiquities Authority is part of the original agreement between Dr. Van Beek and the government of Israel.  His excavations at the site located in the southwestern region of that country near its ancient border with Egypt began in 1970 and continued for 11 years.  Israel allowed the removal of the artifacts found at the site by the Smithsonian Institution for processing and research at NMNH.  Dr. Van Beek set-up a pottery lab in the east basement of the museum where a dedicated staff of SI Behind-the-Scenes Volunteers sorted and assembled the ceramic sherds into the original vessels.  Some  loyal volunteers worked with Dr. Van Beek for more than 10 years at the task. The final report of this valuable collection is being produced by Dr. David Ben Schlomo of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is due for publication in the fall of 2013 (  

In advance of this return a large amount of the unidentifiable ceramic sherds from the site were donated to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for educational purposes in conjunction with their exhibition “Dead Sea Scrolls & the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures” (  Dr. Van Beek, whose career at the Smithsonian spanned nearly 50 years from 1959 to 2008, was a former student of the renowned biblical archaeologist William F. Albright. The Tel Jemmeh site is known to have been occupied between 1700 B.C.E. and 200 B.C.E. The donation of the sherds was by mutual agreement between the two institutions and with the full consent of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.  You can read more about this project at:  (  

During his 1970 to 1973 fieldwork seasons, Dr. Van Beek was accompanied by a Smithsonian Institution cameraman to document the excavations at Tel Jemmeh with motion picture film.  The footage forms the Human Studies Film Archives collection
90.14.1 [Smithsonian Institution Excavations at Tel Jemmeh, Israel, 1970-1973].  The nearly 2 hours of silent 16 mm original color reversal film provides useful visual documentation of the site’s organization to aid researchers in understanding the written analysis of the finds. Upon his retirement in 2008, the National Anthropological Archives formally accessioned the Papers of Gus Willard Van Beek.  Along with his work at Tel Jemmeh, Dr. Van Beek conducted research and published extensively on the traditional earthen architecture of the Middle East region.

Sadly, Dr. Van Beek passed away earlier this year. The Department of Anthropology will host a memorial event on Monday, December 3, 2012 at the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium from 2:30-4:00 pm.  The event will also celebrate the lives and careers of his two colleagues from the department: Dr. Betty Meggers, Curator of South American Ethnology and Dr. Don Ortner, Curator of Physical Anthropology.  Please join us on that day in honoring the unforgettable contributions of these Smithsonian scientists.

Mark White,
Human Studies Film Archives
With contributions from Dave Rosenthal and Jim Krakker, Department of Anthropology, NMNH
and the technical assistance of Daisy Njoku, HSFA

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