“[W]hereas an ancient text may seem inscrutable, the idea that it may contain a mystery, an ancient cooking pot can speak for itself.”
In 1977, Dr. O. Kenneth Walther joined the Ashland Theological Seminary faculty as a professor of Greek and New Testament studies. Little did he know the treasure he would ultimately encounter—boxes and boxes of stored-away artifacts, dating from the Paleolithic Period (c. 8000 BC) up to the Byzantine Period (c. 636 AD).
The story of the boxes is a good one. Robert H. Smith, a professor of religion at the College of Wooster, spent over seven years (late 60s to early 70s) leading expeditions in Pella, the city in the foothills of the Jordan River where Jesus’s followers sought refuge during Jerusalem’s destruction. During these trips, Smith became an avid collector of biblical antiquities, purchasing over 1,200 pieces—lamps made from common pottery (400 plus) and other household objects made of clay, stone, metal, or glass, as well as coins.
He married subsequent to building his collection, and the story goes that his wife didn’t appreciate the collection, and wanted to make room for her own antiques. Smith thought of the seminary, because he had met faculty member Dr. Delbert Flora, and his wife Romayne, during one of his trips to Israel. So in 1974, the seminary accepted the opportunity to acquire Smith’s collection, but it had no plan for what to do with it.
In one of Smith’s articles published in The Biblical Archaeologist in 1964, he wrote about his affinity for ancient lamps: “Although less impressive than monumental remains, lamps are among the most important artifacts of the ancient world...to scholar and layman alike lamps impart, to an extent hardly matched by any other common ancient objects, an impression of the reality of life in times long past.”
Ironically, Dr. Walther read Smith’s article back when he was attending seminary in Berkeley, California. He was naturally interested, because he majored in archaeology and Latin in undergraduate school and had excavated in Israel his junior year. But he never imagined he would someday be the curator of Smith’s private collection!
Upon arriving at Ashland Theological Seminary, Dr. Walther understood the value of the Smith collection and led the effort to put it on display as part of a permanent teaching resource. Over the years, Dr. Walther acquired numerous additional pieces, and the Floras donated their own 82-piece pottery collection, put together during their six trips to Israel between 1952 and 1974. This ever-growing collection was dedicated as the Flora Archaeological Center in 1993. The seminary was thrilled to have Smith in attendance at the ceremony. Having retired earlier that same year from the College of Wooster, he traveled all the way from California to be part of the momentous occasion.
Also in 1993, through a generous gift of Doug and Jean Sherman, the center acquired several examples of ancient writing and portions of early biblical manuscripts. The center has added to this collection and dedicated it in 2013 as the Doug and Jean Sherman Manuscript Library (housed in a special climate-controlled glass room).
Though Dr. Walther retired from the seminary in 2009, he has remained as the volunteer curator of the center. He thoroughly enjoys giving tours to school, church, and community groups. “I love sharing what we have here. We shouldn’t be a best-kept secret. ...Our emphasis is on teaching. Those who visit get to study up close, even hold, many of the objects.” His volunteer assistant, Beth Hoffman, (Seminary alumna who dug at Tel-Gezer in 2011) added, “I’ve seen people get really moved when holding our pieces, especially those things that are similar to what Jesus would have used. They say the experience brings the stories of the Bible to life for them.”
Dr. Walther enthusiastically named some of the items that are wonders to all who visit: hieroglyphics that are 5,000 years old; a 4,000-year-old clay tablet; a lamp collection that is the largest outside of Israel; an Egyptian scribe’s box; a Torah scroll; an early King James Bible; and artifacts from the times of Jesus and his disciples.
“But the center is not about the things themselves,” Dr. Walther said. “We’ve displayed them in context so that they give a real sense of what it must have been like to live in biblical times. And seminary students, especially, have a keen interest in that!”
Are you interested in touring the Flora Archaeological Center? Are you feeling a pull to attend seminary? Whatever your interest, we welcome a conversation. Call us at 866-287-6446 or connect with us here.