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At the John Hay Library, a mystery is unearthed

Two summers ago, Reem Yusuf '09, an archeology concentrator, participated in a dig in Palestine along the West Bank. But her latest discovery was unearthed right on campus - with members of the class of "VISA 1250: Art of the Book," held in the Walter J. Feldman book arts studio in the basement of the John Hay Library.

Two weeks ago, Visiting Lecturer in Visual Art Elias Roustom, who teaches the class, decided to spend the class cleaning and organizing the studio. Roustom, with the help of a student, moved the book press, which was placed on top of a pedestal. When they moved the press, Roustom realized there were shelves on the other side of the pedestal, hidden by the wall. He had found all sorts of "junk" that day in the studio, and on first glance, the artifacts inside of the black shoebox looked like rocks, he said. But when he looked closer, he saw they were much more than rocks.

He told the class he had found something, and the class gathered around the shoebox, heavy with bits and shards of rocks.

Inside the box, the rocks were carefully shaped - some were pointed, still sharp enough to cut; others were rounded, perhaps to fit comfortably in a hand, Roustom said. One of the stones, about eight inches long and three inches wide, according to Roustom, was made from a shiny black material, possibly obsidian. Some had tiny tags with tiny French letters with a year and the names of cities, which Roustom recognized as in various regions of France.

The origin of this shoebox of artifacts is still a mystery. Roustom said he thinks the box may have been lost because the space in the library was transformed into a classroom.

"I'm wondering if they were sent down there for some sort of packaging or storage," Roustom said. "And (when) the bindery changed over to a classroom ... they just got put against the wall, and that was it."

"I could see how easily it would happen, if someone put something on a shelf and just decided to push it in," Roustom said. "It takes two minutes to do that, (and) with your mind on different things, (they) would have been out of sight and out of mind."

While Roustom discovered the artifacts, he says he doesn't want any recognition - simply knowing more about the origin of this box is enough for him.

"I'd love to learn more about them - did someone give them to the library?" Roustom said. "Somebody may have had a private interest in it, maybe they found them themselves. It would be cool to find out where they come from and why they're there."

Yusuf was also interested in finding out more about the history of these artifacts and how they had ended up on a shelf in the studio. Yusuf had spoken to Professor Emeritus of Art Walter Feldman, who had previously taught the book-making course, about his interest in archeology and as a collector. She thought it was possible he might know how the box ended up in the studio.

Unfortunately, after tracking down the origins of the book press shelf where the box was found, Ann Dodge, coordinator of reader services at the John Hay Library, discovered that someone had donated the press to the classroom when it was converted from a storage room about two years ago. The shoebox and the artifacts it contains actually belong to a private owner and not the library, Dodge said.

"We think it was sent here by mistake," Dodge said. "We will be contacting the former owner and returning it to the person we believe is the rightful owner."

Roustom said he enjoys teaching a course about book making in the library, surrounded by the library's rare collections.

"It feels like an underutilized resource," Roustom said. "Above me (are) billions of dollars of rare books, and I'm teaching people how to make beautiful books and how to take care of books."

While the class has not had many opportunities to take full advantage of the library's resources, Routsom said he hopes to do so in the future.

Before knowing the origins of the press, Roustom had speculated that the artifacts may be part of a larger collection at the Hay. "The library has a collection of similar things of tools and tablets," he said. "That's what the Hay does. They're one of the few libraries of the world that will collect things. They seem to collect everything."

As an artist, Roustom said he is also intrigued by the possibility of an art project based on the discovery.

"Maybe someday I'll use them (as) inspiration. ... They had some interesting shapes, and as an artist, I'm far more interested in shape than in historical value," Roustom said.

"It might be fun to photograph them, make a book or print involving their shape and image. Maybe a story of how they were found could be involved."

An archeology student, Yusuf said she was concerned with preserving these artifacts, many of which were dated to what may be prehistoric times. This discovery, she said, should be of interest to other students and professors in archeology as well as classics, and she said she hopes the library will find some way to preserve them and share them with the public.

"They (say) something mysterious about these people who made them," Yusuf said.


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