Contributed by Tristan Barako, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Providence Pictures
When The Bible’s Buried Secrets premiered on PBS this past November, it was NOVA’s most watched show in the past five years, attesting to the enduring interest that biblical archaeology holds for the general public. The two-hour special was produced by Providence Pictures, where I now work as senior researcher and writer. The president/producer/director of Providence Pictures, Gary Glassman, took the unusual step of hiring me –”someone with absolutely no prior experience in film production –on the strength of my background in archaeology and biblical studies. He and NOVA wanted to make sure that the film was as accurate as possible. To that end we enlisted the support of more than 30 ASOR members, who generously gave of their knowledge and granted us complete film access to their excavations and artifacts. Through their participation and the collective effort of all our staff and crew, we’ve shown that a documentary about biblical archaeology can be both a popular and scholarly success.
To give the readers of this blog some sense of the filmmaking process, here are a few behind-the-scenes peeks of the challenges we faced while making The Bible’s Buried Secrets. Most of what follows relates to my uncredited cameo appearances. In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that Michael Homan, the moderator of the ASOR blog, also appears in the film. It was originally a more substantial role, his big line went something like “Ron, you better come down here; we just found something that’s going to make your day!”but that part of the scene, unfortunately, ended up on the cutting room floor.
A reenactment of the discovery of the Tel Zayit abecedary.
Idol smasher: The climax of the destruction of Hazor was a close-up, slow motion shot of a statue of a seated male being decapitated. We had originally planned to shoot this scene in Israel, so we had our Art Director there, Gal Oren, make three replicas of the statue, but we ran out of time so we had to do it in the U.S. instead. The location we ended up using was Gary’s garage in Providence, where we clamped the statue (made of plaster, not the original basalt) to a low table and positioned a Duraflame stick in front of the camera. Then we smoked up the garage and I put on a robe, dirtied up my arm and hand, and grabbed the mallet. I was a bit nervous because I wanted to make sure that the head came off cleanly, similar to how the original was found at Hazor. To stay in the frame I had to approach the statue at an odd angle, but this did not get in the way of a near perfect strike: the head flew off and crashed against the back wall. Good thing, because I shattered the next two replicas.
Smashing idols in Gary’s garage.
German scholar: This was my most challenging role given the amount of time on camera and the task at hand — channeling Julius Wellhausen. To prepare for it we bought a nineteenth-century German Bible and rented a three-piece suit from a costume company in California (surprisingly we couldn’t find anything on the east coast). I also let my beard grow out a little. Finally, I found a section in my Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia that contained clear J and E passages. Despite all these preparations we overlooked something, as pointed out to me by a friend who is a German historian: the wedding band was on my left hand, whereas Germans typically wear it on the right. There goes the Emmy for best research.
Playing Julius Wellhausen
Gilaâ€™s assistant: In this scene, a recreation of the discovery of the Tel Dan Stela, I played only a supporting role: the guy holding the stadia rod for Gila Cook who found this famous inscription in 1993. We followed her recollection of events throughout, which included loading her up like a pack mule, while I ambled off the tell empty-handed. I felt especially insensitive because she was battling laryngitis that day and we made her go up and down the hill with all that equipment a few times on multiple takes, but she was a real trooper and the scene turned out beautifully.
Loading up Gila
Dead Israelite: We used Nazareth Village for many recreations including the scene where one of the Jerusalem priests rescues scrolls from a building set aflame by the Babylonians. Again I donned a robe and got smudged up, but this time all I had to do was lay sprawled out in the background. I’m really not visible because of all the smoke. Our Director of Photography, Nick Gardner, inhaled so much of it that he woke up that night with a splitting headache.
Tristan as a dead Israelite
YHWH: In one of the many scribal scenes, we wanted an extreme close-up of someone writing the personal name of the Israelite god, YHWH. Most of our recreation actors were modern-day sopherim, whom we casted for their ability to write Torah scrolls. The problem was, though, they refused to write the divine name. I volunteered to do it, but I write left-handed and all our scribes were righties. So we pressed into service our thoroughly secular, dread-locked soundman, Amir Liani, who did a great job considering that it was his first time writing in paleo-Hebrew.
YWHW in Paleo-Hebrew
For more information about Providence Pictures and The Bible’s Buried Secrets, including additional behind-the-scenes features, visit:
www.providencepictures.com and www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/bible.