Story By: Christine Mitchell.
After 47 years of living in Israel, Dr. Jim Fleming wasn’t ready to leave. As an archaeologist and longtime teacher, he’d created and operated the World of the Bible Archaeological Museum and Pilgrim Center near Jerusalem. It was a conglomeration of his life’s work, the pinnacle of his career, and what he’d sacrificed never having a family for. But in 2006 violence was increasing in the Gaza Strip due to the Second Palestinian Uprising and lack of tourism made it impossible for Fleming to stay.“I tried to keep it open,” Fleming said. “I used all my savings. I had to let it go.” He took the closing of the museum in Jerusalem as a sign telling him, “It’s time to bring the Holy Land to the United States.” In the beginning God said, “Let there be light.” It may not have been what he expected, but Fleming found that the “light” just so happened to be shed upon a lot nestled off of Gordon Commercial Drive in small-town LaGrange, Georgia. And so there the Explorations in Antiquities Center was founded and built.
The Explorations in Antiquities Center is an interactive museum of daily life in historical biblical times. Fleming and co-founder Dr. Hannaniah Pinto stress that the museum holds no religious agenda and is open to people of any or no faith background. The museum welcomes all visitors interested in learning about the roots of the various traditions that grew out of classic biblical narratives.
“We don’t have the word ‘Bible’ in the title on purpose,” Fleming said. “We don’t want any aspect of the museum to come off as too churchy.”
The goal of the museum is simply to help people better understand the heritage and culture of people living in Israel over 2,000 years ago. It does this through a variety of interactive programs for the young and the old.
The museum depicts the daily life of people in biblical times from the tents they wove from dark goat’s hair to the tombs they buried their dead in.
But, why all of this in LaGrange, Georgia?
The Callaway Foundation was the only sponsor to offer matching grants, and a museum like this could not be possible without financial support. The only condition the Callaway Foundation had was for it to be built in LaGrange.
Fleming recalls the process of finding a spot to build the museum. One night he was eating at a local restaurant and struck up a conversation with the waitress who was serving his table. After hearing what he was doing there, the intonation in her voice was no exaggeration of her surprise. “Let me get this straight, you have an office in Jerusalem, Israel and LaGrange?!”
Since opening in LaGrange, the museum has added to the small town’s tourism scene.
“It’s very hard not being in a big city,” Fleming said. Although he uses the Internet to spread word about the museum, Fleming said the main form of advertising is still word of mouth.
Laura Jennings, the Exploration in Antiquities Center’s director of development, is primarily in charge of handling funds for the museum.
“Donations are essential for the continuation of a place like this,” Jennings said. Only 49 percent of the museum’s funds come from ticket sales.
The central feature of the entire complex is the Scripture Garden, where the tour begins in a very appropriate place: under the shade of a tent woven with thick, dark goat’s hair.
The museum acquired the tent from a village on the border of Iraq and Jordan, where a few nomads still use tents of its kind. Goat hair swells when it is wet, which prevents from water leaking through during rainfall.
When the tent is dry, the hair shrinks enough to let a breeze run through and to let the sun shine in the top of the tent in starry, dotted patterns, which is why such tents are described in the Bible as the night sky or “the tent of the heavens.”
The Scripture Garden is organized into three sections: The Life of the Shepherd, the Life of the Farmer, and the Life of the Village. Replicas of buildings and everyday activities give visitors a genuine impression of what life may have been like for people living in Israel 2,000 years ago.
“It’s almost frightening to realize how ways of life evolve with time,” said Nancy Drose, who has visited the museum three different times. She takes every chance she gets to show the museum off to family who come to visit.
Drose said she is most impressed with the opportunities the Explorations in Antiquities Center offers children. Her grandchildren have participated in the Kids Dig Excavation Sight, where four trenches are filled with rock and sand and kids can dig up actual (however, not considerably valuable) ancient artifacts. Fleming recalls a proud moment when a previous participant had declared the dig “more fun than PlayStation 3!”
“There’s something special about seeing how excited the children get when they think they’re discovering actual artifacts,” said Pinto, who transplanted his entire life when he moved from Israel to LaGrange. “I really believe we’re molding the next generation.”
The museum offers occasional overnight opportunities for children where they sleep in the Scripture Garden.
“The girls sleep in the tent. Can you guess where the boys sleep?” asked Michael Propst, a history student who voluntarily guides tours for the museum. After his question, he usually gets an animated response from the crowd when they discover the boys choose to sleep in the replica of the tomb, where a skeleton lies in a stone vault wrapped in faded cloth, still wearing a golden band on his left ring finger.
Fleming and Pinto are involved in every stage of building the antiquities center.
“I wouldn’t be in America if it was just for a job,” Pinto said in his thick Middle Eastern accent. “I really feel like I’m needed here. I have a purpose.”
As co-founder, Pinto enjoys spending his available time guiding tours and the presentation of the biblical meal, which is a main attraction of the museum. Two dining rooms feature full-scale replicas of dining tables designed to eat while lying down, as it was done in biblical times.
Accommodations have been made for modern comfort, allowing people to eat while sitting up, but the absence of silverware means eating with your bare hands. Many of the groups that participate are from church tours. They have the option of learning about the biblical meal as a replication of what Jesus and his disciples may have experienced at the Last Supper.
Traditional foods are served, such as charosaeth, a mixture of chopped fruit, nuts and cinnamon that is essentially a jam that looks like mud. This was used in biblical times as a reminder of the slavery when Egyptians used the Hebrews for to make mud bricks.
But with time the food became a symbol of freedom from bondage. For this reason the charosaeth is made sweet like a dessert.
During the meal children also have to undergo the “torture” of eating a bitter herb dipped in salt water, which was used to represent the tears of the angels for the Egyptians who lost their lives in the Red Sea.
Fleming finds the biblical meal presentation an important element of the museum because visitors can not only hear and see, but touch, smell and taste as well.
“Perhaps the more senses we appeal to, the deeper the learning experience will be,” Fleming said.
The most recent addition to the museum is the Biblical Life Artifacts Gallery. The gallery exhibits over 250 artifacts on long-term loan by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The artifacts are shown in life-like settings in chronological order of the time periods they’re from. Oil lanterns and pottery are displayed in an ancient home, and anchors and net weights are recreated to look exactly as they were found at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee.
The artifacts gallery is tornado-proof, earthquake-proof, climate-controlled and is under video surveillance. Although these natural disasters are not as prone to occur in Georgia, the gallery’s security requirements exactly match those of the national museum in Israel.
Fleming and Pinto still like to dream about the potential the museum has to teach people. There is 10 acres of land adjacent to the property where Fleming has made plans to build a 450-foot walk of a map layout of Jerusalem.
This “walking path through Jerusalem” would demonstrate historical and influential sites that Fleming and Pinto have studied.
The Exploration in Antiquities Center has become not only the gem of Fleming’s career but an unexpected gem in Lagrange.
“It’s great to have a place where we can help people get excited about ancient history,” Fleming said. “There are all sorts of things I’d still love to work on, to teach people.”
Dr. Fleming’s Relief Maps
Dr. Jim Fleming grew up moving around due to his father’s work as a pilot. While pursuing his graduate degree in historical geology and archaeology in the United States, he was still declared as a dependent of his father and was able to fly for free.
“I remember one time in the middle of an archaeology class my professor made an announcement to the class that caught me off guard,” Fleming said. “’Jim Fleming makes me sick!’ I was so confused. ‘He goes to Israel like I go to the corner drug store!’”
And it was true. There were weekends when Fleming couldn’t find the books he needed in the United States for specific projects he was interested in so he would fly to Israel for the weekend to check out a book.
“Yep, it was that easy for me,” Fleming said. “I’d check out the book, fly back to the states, and when I was done with the book I would fly back to Israel over the weekend to return it!”
Fleming was fortunate to have found his love early on in life—Israel. He completed his doctorate degree in the United States and moved back to Israel almost immediately, where he’d live for the next 47 years. It was during this time that he was then fortunate to find a second love in creating relief maps.
Relief maps are three-dimensional representations of the geographical elevations of land on a flat surface. It took Fleming three years to create one relief map of Israel that is only about 7 feet tall by 3 feet wide.
“My parents and brothers and sister called it my ‘stupid map project,’” Fleming remembers with a smile on his face. “They couldn’t believe the amount of research I put into measuring the land just to imitate it on an incredibly small scale.”
He notes now that it’s probably a good thing his parents are no longer around for what his siblings refer to as the “really stupid map project,” a 450-foot scale of Jerusalem that he plans on adding to the current layout of the Explorations in Antiquities Center in LaGrange, Ga.
While Fleming was building these maps he had an idea for the purpose they would serve. He imagined educational opportunities, easier understanding, a visual learning experience.
A phone call one day is when he realized his work was a new model for learning.
A German family had heard about the learning tools available at the Explorations in Antiquities Center and arranged for a visit. They had a son, Michael, who was born both blind and deaf. As he’d grown up, Michael had miraculously learned to form words and understand language via sign language performed in the palm of his hand. And even more miraculously, he’d developed an interest in biblical studies.
Fleming met the family in the museum’s spacious classroom that boasts a wall where the three-dimensional maps hang on a wall, with the tips of the mountains pointing out toward the center of the classroom.
Michael didn’t hesitate to get right down to business. He turned to Fleming and stated with his muffled voice “Ask me a question.”
Fleming responded with “Find Mt. Zion.”
Michael then proceeded to drag his fingertips from the top of the map toward the middle, covering every nook and cranny representing the hills and the valleys. His fingertips met Mt. Zion in a matter of minutes.
“Too easy,” Michael said.
Fleming then instructed him to find the Mt. of Olives, a much smaller elevation near the Dead Sea.
It did take Michael longer this time, but to Fleming’s astonishment, he found the tiny spot wedged in between two bigger mountains, just a pinpoint compared to the extension of elevations that the relief map represents.
“That was really a pinnacle moment in my life, realizing the kind of learning opportunities I was providing for someone,” Fleming said.