The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit N

Jacobovici next takes viewers to the “shaft graves” at Mycenae, first excavated in Henry Schliemann in 1876. These graves are located inside a circular enclosure, and the whole site is appropriately called “Grave Circle A.” “Surprisingly,” Jacobovici says, “they contained a treasure-trove of swords and Egyptian gold.” Schliemann himself connected these treasures, as Jacobovici correctly informs viewers, with Agamemnon and the heroes of the Trojan War. But then Jacobovici pulls another chronological sleight-of-hand, claiming that “scholars soon discovered that the people who were buried in the tombs lived about 300 years before Agamemnon. They lived around 1500 BCE.” There’s that date again. At the risk of telegraphing the punch a little, I’ll go ahead and tell you what I’m sure you’ve already guessed: Jacobovici will soon try to draw a connection between the corpses interred Mycenaean shaft graves and his (imaginary) Minoans who left Egypt with Moses “around 1500 BCE.” Unfortunately for Jacobovici’s scenario, he has the cart before the horse. According to William Taylour, The Mycenaeans (Praeger, 1966), 78, “The last interment in Grave Circle A is dated to about 1500 BC.” Oops. If the last shaft grave interment dates to around 1500 BC, then the entombed corpses predate Jacobovici’s 1500 BC exodus. Jacobovici also fails to tell his viewers that another group of shaft graves—this one called “Grave Circle B”—was discovered in 1951, and although its tombs are in the same style as Grave Circle A, they are older than those in Grave Circle A. The grave styles obviously represent a local tradition that dates back significantly before 1500 BC. Once again, Jacobovici ignores pertinent facts and treats chronology like Silly Putty, and the results are unconvincing when the actual facts are considered.

In order to connect the dearly departed in Grave Circle A to followers of Moses, Jacobovici ventures an idiosyncratic interpretation of the artwork found on some of the stelae—collectively marked as Exhibit N—associated with the shaft graves. Jacobovici grandly claims that “the meaning of the images on the gravestones has never been deciphered—until now.” This would undoubtedly come as a shock to professor Schliemann, the original excavator, who devoted six pages of his massive excavation report to “deciphering” the images! See Schliemann, Mycenae: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns (Blom, 1967 reprint of the 1880 edition), 80–85; see also the work of one of Schliemann’s early admirers, C. Schuchhardt, Schliemann’s Discoveries of the Ancient World (trans. Eugénie Sellers; Avanel, 1979 reprint of the 1891 edition), 167–176. By this point in the film, Jacobovici’s false claims to be making unprecedented discoveries have grown quite tiresome.

When he actually turns to examine the stelae from Grave Circle A, Jacobovici examines only one of the three stelae treated by Schliemann himself. This remarkable selectivity has an important impact on the case, because Jacobovici dismisses the standard interpretations of the other two stelae as if they were interpretations of the stela upon which he focuses his attention. Here’s what Jacobovici has to say:

If you ask scholars, “What is it?,” they say “Well, it looks like a a hunt”—but there’s no animal. Or, “It looks like a battle”—but there’s no two people fighting. Let’s look at it and let’s see what in fact do the grave stelae of Mycenae actually testify to if we just look at it very simply, without any prejudice and without any preconceptions.

Astute readers are no doubt laughing out loud by this point, or perhaps weeping, for there is no reason at all to look at the Mycenaean grave stelae in connection with the exodus unless you are doing so with some pretty incredible preconceptions. Even the idea that they “testify to” something—something other than the artist’s skill and range—is itself a preconception. Jacobovici is no neutral observer! Note also the slippage between the plural “do the grave stelae … testify” and the singular “it” in the quotation above. There is not just one grave stela from Grave Circle A; there are several. Schliemann famously found three of these in a row, north to south, above a grave that he labeled as Grave V, and for convenience I’ll start on the north and call them Grave V Stela 1, Grave V Stela 2, and Grave V Stela 3, moving toward the south.

Stela 1 from Mycenae, Grave Circle A, Grave V

Grave V Stela 1 from Grave Circle A, Mycenae (photo from Schuchhardt [1891])

“They say, ‘Well, it looks like a hunt’—but there’s no animal.” Well, there certainly is an animal worthy of a hunt—on Grave V Stela 1, which Jacobovici does not show on-screen. If you find it difficult to see the photo shown here, which I scanned from Schuchhardt’s 1891 book, click on the photo to see a larger version. The stela is framed by lines and swirls. On the left you can see a chariot wheel, and above that—above the large crack—the charioteer, who holds the reins in his left hand and a sword in his right hand. Directly beneath the chariot wheel, you can see an animal apparently chasing an ibex or some kind of deer. Schliemann himself thought the animal on the left was a dog, and interpreted the entire panel as a hunting scene. Schuchhardt demurred from this opinion, and more plausibly identified the animal on the left as a lion. Schuchhardt also disagreed with Schliemann’s opinion that the entire stela showed a single scene; Schuchhardt thought that the lion and the deer were a separate scene—really just filler—from the chariot scene. Thus Schuchhardt preferred to see here a battle scene.

Stela 3 from Grave Circle A, Grave V

Grave V Stela 3 from Grave Circle A, Mycenae (photo from Schuchhardt [1891])

Jacobovici focuses the majority of his attention on Grave V Stela 2, but he does briefly show Grave V Stela 3 on-screen. Since Jacobovici knows about Grave V Stela 3, it is quite remarkable that he introduces the stelae with “‘It looks like a battle’—but there’s no two people fighting.” The upper register of Grave V Stela 3 (again, the photo is from Schuchhardt, 1891, and you can view a larger version by clicking on the picture) clearly depicts a charioteer racing headlong toward an infantryman wielding a longish spear. At least, that’s clear to Schliemann, and to Schuchhardt—but not to Jacobovici, who sees not a spear, but a staff. Yes, you guessed it: Moses’s staff, with which he parted the waters and then bid them return to their place.

Grave V Stela 2 from Grave Circle A, Mycenae

Grave V Stela 2 from Grave Circle A, Mycenae (photo from Schuchhardt [1891])

In order to understand Jacobovici’s chain of reasoning, we now need to focus our attention on Grave V Stela 2. Grave V Stela 2 is the best preserved of the lot. On Grave V Stela 2, you can clearly see a bunch of whirligig patterns in the upper register, while the lower register features a charioteer pursuing—or accompanied by—a man holding something in his left hand. It is not very easy to see that thing in the small image shown here, but if you click on the small image to get a larger version (again from Schuchhardt, 1891), you can see that the object is curved on both sides, that it seems flat on the end where it touches the man’s hand, and that it comes to a point at the top. This slim, “sharpened” ovoid shape led both Schliemann and Schuchhardt, and almost all other interpreters, to consider this object a sword. Whether the charioteer is pursuing or accompanied by the sword wielder is unclear, but Schuchhardt reasons thus: “There is nothing to show whether the second man wishes to attack the charioteer or is merely running along as an escort; but the analogy of the preceding relief, as well as the raised sword, leads us to look upon him as a foe rather than as a friend [to the charioteer].”

By the way, George Mylonas, “The Figured Mycenaean Stelai,” American Journal of Archaeology 55.2 (1951), 134–147, rejected both the “hunt” and “battle” interpretations, and argued that what is pictured on all three stelae is a chariot race in which the men on foot are umpires. Neither the identification of a hunt, nor of a battle, nor of race is absolutely secure, but Mylonas’s arguments ought to be considered (not lightly dismissed, as Jacobovici does on-screen when presented with the race scenario by one Constantinos Paschalidis of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). Mylonas points out that we only see one charioteer and one horse, whereas chariots in battle would normally have two horses (in fact, when Jacobovici later animates the stela using computer graphics, he adds a second horse), and also two charioteers—one to guide the horses and one to fire his bow. Yes, as Jacobovici points out, the charioteer on Grave V Stela 1 is armed with a sword, but it is not brandished in a position to be used, and wouldn’t be very effective against someone in front of the horses in any event. The weapon of choice to be used from a moving chariot is a bow or spear, as artwork from Greece, Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia readily attest. See Mylonas for more on this point: the charioteers’ swords, on all three of the stelae, aren’t ready for use.

Now that you have seen the three grave stelae for yourself, and have begun to form your own tentative opinions about them, and have read brief explanations of Schliemann’s and Schuchhardt’s interpretations (and an even briefer description of Mylonas’s), let’s turn to Jacobovici’s reading of the stelae. I’m going to quote Jacobovici at length here, with interruptions:

I almost want to whisper, like it’s some kind of secret, because nobody realizes that they have a 3,500-year-old movie, if you will, three frames of the parting of the sea. And they don’t know it. They don’t know it. But look at it. Just look at it. It’s so clear. Frame number 1 [grave stela 2—RCH] we see waves on the top and waves on the bottom—we actually literally see the parting of the sea. And this guy is on a chariot, chasing Moses, who is holding a staff. [As he says the word "staff," Jacobovici is pointing to the reins in the charioteer's left hand.—RCH] That’s frame number 1. And right over here, this have [at least, that's what it sounds like on the videotape—RCH] frame number 2 [grave stela 3] in the movie. The water is gathering into whirlpools, and look what’s happened over here! Everybody thinks the man with the staff is the loser but he’s actually turned around. He’s turned around. He’s facing his enemy. He’s occupying higher ground, and this guy is occupying lower ground. And look, there’s walls of water coming. In the third frame, which is in another museum, even more hidden, we see this guy’s been overturned, the water is engulfing them, the horses are upended, and the story is complete. [Long pause while the camera fixes on "frame 3."—RCH]

Jacobovici’s animation of Grave V Stela 2

Jacobovici’s animation of Grave V Stela 2, from The Exodus Decoded

The Exodus Decoded then illustrates Jacobovici’s interpretation of the stelae using CGI wizardry. His special-effects team tilts a reconstruction of Grave V Stela 2 on its side, then treats the images like a “pop-up book,” turning the two-dimensional relief into a three-dimensional diorama. Then, in Jacobovici’s diorama, the figure who stands on the right in Grave V Stela 2—whom Jacobovici identifies as Moses—spins around to face toward the charioteer in a pose similar to that on Grave V Stela 3. The whole effect is really quite impressive and fun to watch, but the interpretation that Jacobovici gives to the stelae is bogus.

To begin with, the idea that Grave V Stelae 2 and 3, and the other stela from “another museum, even more hidden” (a museum that Jacobovici doesn’t bother to identify) form a three-part series is a wildly gratuitous assumption. Schliemann found three stelae above Grave V in Grave Circle A, but Jacobovici uses only two of these in his reconstruction. To these he adds a third that apparently comes from somewhere else (more on that later). But why should Grave V Stela 2, Grave V Stela 3, and this other stela not from above Grave V form a sequence? If there is a sequential narrative on the grave stelae, rather than just individual, decorative scenes, doesn’t it stand to reason that the the three actual stelae from Grave V would go together? And if Jacobovici is correct that Grave V Stela 2 and Grave V Stela 3 tell a story in that sequence, then shouldn’t Grave V Stela 1 be included in that sequence (as either the first or the third, if we have the numbering backward)? Yet Jacobovici completely ignores Grave V Stela 1; viewers would never even know that it existed, based solely on what is presented in The Exodus Decoded. Scroll back up and look at Grave V Stela 1; the top is broken off, but even so the charioteer and chariot wheel are clearly visible, as is some sort of deer or antelope and another animal that most interpreters seem to regard as a lion, though Schliemann apparently thought it was a dog. Why does Jacobovici exclude this stela from consideration? It was found right beside stelae 2 and 3—unlike his third “panel.” Grave V Stela 1 is the one that Schliemann and others have interpreted as a hunting scene; if the three are a group, this would suggest that the others might relate also to hunting scenes. Mylonas disagrees; he things that the lion and deer/antelope on Grave V Stela 1 are just “filler,” like the swirly patterns (more on that immediately below), and that all three stelae depict a chariot race.

Cup from Grave V, with swirly designs

Cup from Grave V, with swirly designs

Cup from Grave VI, with floral designs

Cup from Grave VI, with floral designs

Second, Jacobovici’s interpretation of the stela requires one to suppose that the decorative swirls are meant to represent water, but there is no real basis for this claim. Decorative swirly patterns are exceptionally common in Bronze Age Mycenaean artwork. Licia Collobi Ragghianti, The Magnificent Heritage of Ancient Greece: 3,000 Years of Hellenic Art (Newsweek, 1979), 38 refers to the spirals on Grave V Stela A as “the ancient motif of interlocking spirals.” The art historians’ notion that the spirals are simply a finely-wrought decorative motif is supported by the ubiquity of these patterns across the ancient Aegean, but even more specifically by the finds from Grave Circles A and B at Mycenae. Consider two cups, recovered from inside Grave V (beneath the three stelae) and Grave VI in Grave Circle A (click on any picture for a larger image).

The cup from Grave V has interlocking swirly patterns all over it that are almost identical, though more skillfully done (the Bronze Age Mycenaean artists were masters at metalworking, but less skilled with stone), to those on Grave V Stela 2. One might, I suppose, still try to argue that the swirls represent liquid, since one drinks liquid from a cup, but the cup from Grave VI puts this notion to rest, since one doesn’t drink plants from a cup! The floral/herbaceous artwork on the cup from Grave VI and the swirly geometric artwork on the cup from Grave V are both decorative, not representational.

Box from Grave V, with swirly patterns and hunting motifs

Box from Grave V, with swirly patterns and hunting motifs

Close-up of another panel from the same box

Close-up of another panel from the same box

Take another look at Grave V Stela 1, which shows a charioteer, a dog (Schliemann) or lion (most subsequent interpreters), and some kind of deer or antelope. On the left and right of the main scene are skinny swirls, exactly of the sort that appears to the immediate left of the charioteer’s shoulder on Grave V Stela 2. Lions and antelopes have manifestly nothing to do with the exodus story; Mylonas also argued that they have nothing to do with the charioteer, but are just filler, while other interpreters take the whole central scene together as a hunt. The use of swirly patterns alongside nature patterns is further attested on a small box found within Grave V (with those three stelae above; again, click for larger images).

At least two sides of this hexagonal box were decorated with scenes of lions and game animals (the picture on the right). Another side of the box featured a swirly pattern. I suppose one could argue that it is supposed to be the animals’ watering hole, but there aren’t any animals “drinking” from this “water.” Once again, the swirls are in fact just a geometric decoration beloved by the Mycenaeans.

Dagger handle from Circle B (?)Pectoral from Grave V

Dagger handle from Grave Circle B (?) and Pectoral from Grave V

Two more exhibits should close this case (as usual, click for larger images). The item on the left is a dagger handle that, if memory serves, came actually from Grave Circle B. From bottom to top (in the picture), the handle is decorated with swirls that end in lions’ heads where the dagger blade meets the handle. Here two popular motifs, geometry and nature, come together again as on the decorated box. It is unthinkable to suppose that the Mycenaean artists thought lions were made out of water; the swirls are decorative, not representational. The item on the right was a pectoral (complete with nipples) “worn” by one of the corpses in Grave V—Schliemann believed the corpse to be that of Agamemnon, though others have disagreed with this optimistic assessment. In any event, the pectoral is covered with decorative swirls. Surely the artist did not think the corpse was made of water; the swirls are not representational.

Hittite relief with a chariot and swirls

Hittite relief with a chariot and swirls

Incidentally, the Mycenaeans were not the only ones fond of this motif. Consider this Hittite relief, executed with much greater skill than the Mycenaean grave stelae but exhibiting a strikingly similar scene. Unless we are to believe that the Hittite relief also depicts the exodus, the conclusion that the Hittite and Mycenaean reliefs both stand in a widespread Aegean artistic tradition of stereotyped chariot scenes is more or less inescapable. When you combine the use of swirls as a common geometric motif in Mycenaean artwork with the patent non-uniqueness of the scene on Grave V Stela 2, the idea that the stela specifically depicts the Hebrew exodus from Egypt becomes utterly implausible.

Third, Jacobovici’s identification of the figures on Grave V Stela 2 and Grave V Stela 3 as the same people is a bit of a stretch. Unless you presuppose that the charioteers and the pedestrians are the same, there wouldn’t be any reason to think this. Also, although Jacobovici wants the pedestrian figure to be Moses with his staff, the objects in the hands of the two pedestrians don’t really look the same. The rightmost figure on Grave V Stela 2 holds something that looks rather like an elongated football, while the object held by the rightmost figure on Grave Stela 3 is much longer, thinner, and straight. Aegean archaeologists and art historians have usually interpreted the object on Stela 2 as a sword and the object on Stela 3 as a spear or staff. This is obviously an aesthetic judgment call, so click on the small images above and examine the larger images for yourself.

Finally, there is a smooth but ultimately deceptive bit of CGI trickery involved in Jacobovici’s treatment of the third stela. Before I continue along this line, I should note that I have thus far been unsuccessful in identifying this stela or the museum in which it is housed. To my eyes, the stela certainly looks like it is carved in the same style as the stelae from Grave Circle A, and one of my colleagues who teaches art history and is actually a specialist on ancient Mediterranean art agreed but is not familiar with the specific stela or it provenance. I will proceed with this analysis on the assumption that the stela is genuine, and that it comes from Grave Circle A, though in the absence of additional information (which Jacobovici does not provide in The Exodus Decoded) I am not willing to assume that the stela was atop Grave V with the others shown above. Even so, it is telling that after first showing the stela—which for some reason has a large rectangular hole in it—Jacobovici later substitutes a CGI reconstruction that differs from the original in important respects.

The original “third frame“ stelaJacobovici’s CGI reconstruction of the “third frame” stela

The “third frame” of Jacobovici’s “3,500-year-old movie.” The original stela, as shown in The Exodus Decoded, is on the left; the right shows Jacobovici’s CGI reconstruction.

Mycenaean daggers bearing leonine artwork and swirly patterns

Mycenaean daggers bearing leonine artwork—note the curve of the lions’ tails—and swirly patterns

The large rectangular hole in the middle of the original stela is quite odd, and since I have not been able to identify the stela and its history I have no explanation for it. The top register of Jacobovici’s reconstruction, which simply fills in the central swirl pattern that has been obliterated by the big gap in the stela, is indisputably correct. His treatment of the animals, though, is a problem, on two counts. First, the identification of the animals as horses is almost certainly incorrect, and this identification is enhanced in the reconstructed stela by an alteration in the actual artwork of the real stela. In the original stela, the animals’ front legs and faces are missing due to the large rectangular hold in the middle of the stela,but their tails are clearly visible, and they curve toward the animals’ heads, over the animals’ backs. (Click on the small images above for larger images that are easier to see, or visit Scott Romesburg’s web site for a larger and better image than I was able to obtain—I assume that Scott’s images are screen shots from The Exodus Decoded). In Jacobovici’s reconstruction, however, the tails are turned outward, away from the animals, curling toward their hind legs. The reversal of the tails is not a mere incidental detail or an aesthetic faux pas by the CGI artists; rather, it is an absolutely necessary move if Jacobovici wants the audience to follow his reconstruction.Tails that curl toward the head, up over an animal’s back, are characteristic of lions (and other leonine animals, like the mythical griffon) in Mycenaean art. To see evidence of this, just scroll back up and study Grave V Stela 1 and the decorated box from within Grave V (where the lions are quite stretched out in order to fit on the panels, but the curve of the tail is still evident). As further evidence, consider the lions illustrated on these daggers recovered from inside Grave V. Then compare to those lions’ tails the horse’s tail on Grave V Stela 2, as well as the tails of the deer/antelope on Grave V Stela 1 and the tails of the game animals on the decorated box from Grave V. The reversal of the tails on Jacobovici’s reconstructed stela isn’t just an innocent mistake; it completely changes the type of animal from a lion into a horse!

Detail of the “third frame” stela

Detail of the “third frame” stela

There is one more serious flaw in Jacobovici’s reconstructed stela. Take another look at the bottom register of the “big rectangular gap” stela, just below the bottom of the rectangular gap (photo from Scott Romesburg’s site, with better resolution than my little screen shots). Just below the bottom of the big gap, you can see two marks that strikingly resemble the legs of the leftmost animal, strongly suggesting that the gap has mutilated a third animal that originally occupied the destroyed space. Jacobovici’s reconstruction ignores this third animal. Most likely, this scene originally featured three lions, which Jacobovici’s CGI wizardry transforms into two horses.

On balance, Jacobovici’s suggestion that the grave stelae from Mycenae’s Grave Circle A, Grave V (plus the third stela) depict the crossing of the sea in three panels, “a 3,500-year-old movie,” simply doesn’t hold water. The only way that Jacobovici can support his scenario is by creating faux digital versions of real artifacts, transforming the actual carvings in the process so that they yield what Jacobovici wants to see.