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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Limitations of Camels

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

The old joke that the camel is the creation of a committee points mainly to the more than bizarre physiognomy of this animal, but in truth it has been for mankind a highly useful creature, though, like the more elegant horse and the less bizarre donkey, its usefulness in modern society has sharply declined. In 1926 camels were still a useful form of transport and they were employed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's expedition to carry team members from Akko to Montfort, to transport equipment to the site, and at the end of the excavations to carry back the equipment and finds. But they had their limitations.

At the bottom of the fallen debris in the vault we are now excavating is an enormous carved architectural piece, an attraction to graffiti artists of the lower order who have decorated its exposed upper surface with the usual variety of names, dates and hearts. We estimate its weight to be in the region of four tonnes. In the adjacent vault is a huge keystone, fallen from the Great Hall above, which once displayed a splendid carved boss designed in the form of a cornflower (mentioned in an earlier post). Further to the east, in a vestibule between the great keep and the central domestic part of the castle is a beautifully carved tripartite capital. Probably William Calver, the director of the MET expedition, never gave much thought to the stone in our chamber. It was simply untransportable. Nor is there any reference to thoughts of removing the tripartite capital, also too heavy for a camel. It unfortunately remained on the site, exposed to the elements and to vandalism. The fine beaded decoration at its base has vanished. More regrettably still, so has the carving of a bearded angel that once decorated its side. As for the third piece, the keystone with the cornflower design, a convenient solution was found, not by any means a satisfactory one, but one which at least has preserved for us the beautifully decorated boss. It was neatly sawed off by the excavators and thus easily carried away, eventually finding a home in the medieval gallery of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The keystone itself remains today on the floor of the vault, stripped of its beauty, a heartrending illustration the limitations of a nonetheless remarkable creature.

Sawing off the carved boss, 1926 (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority archives and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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