8 October 2019

Sorting, understanding and enhancing an archaeological heritage collected during years of excavations in the Holy Land: the project to catalogue the collections of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the archaeologists of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum have dedicated themselves to rediscovering the holy sites of the New Testament and the early Church in the Holy Land through archaeological excavations in the territories of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. With the advent of digital technology, it became necessary to collect the immense heritage found during several years of excavations in an online database accessible to researchers.

A first step towards digital cataloguing was taken in 2009 when Professor Fulvia Ciliberto, now a professor of Greek and Roman Archaeology at the University of Molise, and Dr. Daniela Massara, archaeologist and doctor at Milan State University, arrived in Jerusalem.

They arrived in the Holy Land to advise Father Eugenio Alliata, archaeologist and newly elected director of the Studium’s private museum, in creating the structure and identifying the characteristics of a database that would contain the descriptive files of the discovered works.

From then until 2012, the scientific cataloguing project, known as the “Conservation, study and enhancement of a museum heritage,” was continued by Dr. Massara as the first digital cataloguer with the financial support of ATS, the “Association pro Terra Sancta“. In 2013, thanks to the commitment of Professor Ciliberto, the project was co-financed by the Department of Human Sciences, Education and Social Sciences at the University of Molise and by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (Directorate General for the Promotion of the Country System, Office VI—Archaeological, Anthropological and Ethnological Missions).

Father Eugenio Alliata, director of the archaeological and multimedia section of the Terra Sancta Museum and professor of Christian Archaeology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem. As an archaeologist, he has participated in important excavations in Israel and Jordan.

Fulvia Ciliberto, professor of Greek and Roman archaeology at the University of Molise

Over the years, the Monastery of the Flagellation, the headquarters of the Studium Biblicum located along the Via Dolorosa of the Old City of Jerusalem, has seen many students and professionals come to the city to participate in the project and make a contribution. Students from the University of Bari were also involved as cataloguers thanks to the Italian National Civic Service and the efforts of Professor Paolo Ponzio, Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Bari.

The cataloging process, which is still ongoing today, is meticulous: first the inventory number of each work is checked and, if it is missing, a number is assigned; an exhaustive photographic documentation is then produced, the available archive data is retrieved, the relevant information is collected and all are inserted into the Custody database.

The digital cataloging process may appear dry, but it is essential for conserving the artworks and enabling them to be scientifically studied, allowing them to be appreciated by the highly diverse audience visiting the Terra Sancta Museum, from the curious passerby who arrived by chance to the specialized researcher and even groups of pilgrims. To date, the project has led to the cataloging of roughly 13,000 archaeological remains.

The fruits of this labor arrived quickly and made it possible to start a series of restorations, scientific updates, and studies, the results of which were incorporated into the proceedings of a conference held in Isernia, Italy in 2011 which was the first public presentation of the project. Very rarely, in fact, has the participation of students and young researchers in the cataloging process come to a halt. Indeed, the cataloging has served as the foundation for many doctoral theses and publications.

This project is a golden opportunity for young archaeologists,” Fulvia Ciliberto tells us. “On one hand, we are professionally trained with a methodology, that of Italian national cataloging, which is very useful upon our return to Italy. On the other hand, we have the chance to perform field studies in a specialized subject such as eastern Mediterranean archaeology which is rarely discussed in Italy. Thus, it is a unique experience for everyone’s professional and personal development: you come into contact with a complex geopolitical reality that only arrives in Italy filtered by the media, you meet people from all over the world, you broaden your horizons. Last but not least, I know that in the past, the project has also been used to get interesting jobs!

The strength of the project lies in the continuous dialogue between institutions, professors and students, the latter being a real driving force for heritage cataloging. Daniela Ferrini, a recent graduate of the University of Molise who just arrived in the Holy Land, shares with us her aspirations as a new archaeologist: “The project encouraged me to come here to challenge myself, to live in a world very different from the one I’m used to and to come into contact with a more complex way of working. It’s a great leap from Campobasso to Jerusalem! I hope to receive training that will allow me to develop an area of expertise and find a job related to what I studied.

Daniela Ferrini, Doctor of Archaeology at the University of Molise, while cataloguing the findings of the Studium Biblicum

 

The path to the end of the project is not straightforward given the logistical and bureaucratic difficulties involved, but publications and conferences held every four years continue to publish the results and progress of the work. “We have a long way to go, at least another five years,” says Professor Ciliberto. “But, all in all, despite the many problems faced, I’d say it’s really worth it!”.