Professor Ben Wright and Lehigh student Stephanie Balavitch discuss a Canaanite dipper juglet dating back to between 1730-1550 B.C.
A fortuitous exchange in early 2005 between Ben Wright, professor of religion studies, and Nancy Berman, a member of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees and daughter of the late noted art collectors Phil and Muriel Berman, has led to a rare learning opportunity for a group of students in Wright’s “Jewish Scriptures/Old Testament” class.
Wright’s class of six students was given access to Ancient Near Eastern pieces of pottery that date back to the Bronze and Iron Ages as part of a research project for the writing-intensive class. The artifacts were part of a larger collection donated to Lehigh by the Berman family, also the benefactors for the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies
“I was at the Berman home last spring for an event and I commented on how wonderful the artifacts were that they had,” recalls Wright, an internationally recognized expert on the origins of Christianity and the Bible. “Nancy asked me if I would like to have access to some of them for teaching purposes and, of course, I said ‘yes.’”
Late last summer, Wright returned to the Berman home to select several objects, which Nancy Berman donated to the university. The artifacts arrived on the Lehigh campus early in 2006, and Wright quickly adapted his course assignments to incorporate the study of them.
Wright assigned each student a piece of pottery to study intensively, and he asked them to identify its type, research its age and likely use before presenting a report on their findings back to the class.
“They knew nothing about the pieces at all,” says Wright. “They were allowed to handle them, photograph them and then research various publications to learn about each one. The only information they really had to draw on that I provided was an appraisal from Sotheby’s that supplied a possible date and location for some of the objects. Beyond that, we have no certain knowledge of how or where these pieces were acquired, or where they might have been found.”
Ultimately, Wright says, he hopes to inform the investigative process further by accessing the papers of the Berman family, which were donated to Lehigh last year and are in the process of being cataloged.
“We don’t have all the information,” he says. “This is really first-level research that could be refined with further examination. But the opportunity these students are having as a result of the Berman’s generosity is something undergraduates don’t always experience.”
His sentiments were echoed by at least one of the students who presented their findings in late April.
“I do feel that this was a rare opportunity to work with such ancient artifacts,” says Stephanie Balavitch, a freshman who is pursuing a double major in religion studies and history.
The artifact assigned to Balavitch was a Canaanite dipper juglet that she dated to roughly 1730-1550 B.C., based on her research and consultation of definitive guides on antiquities.
As someone intrigued by ancient civilizations, she adds, “I’m hoping that such an opportunity won’t be my last.”