It's Ancient History-And He Loves It Book Hooks Judge on Archaeology, World Travels

Article excerpt

When a federal judge stepped into a rarely seen, prehistoric stone chamber in Malta recently, a little boy from Springfield, Ill., was inside.

No, not inside the chamber.

Inside the judge.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn of Collinsville has been fascinated with archaeology and history since he was 5 or 6 years old and his father gave him a book called "The Wonders of the Ancient World." Although Cohn followed the expected family course and became a lawyer, he never lost his love for archaeology.

"I read that book a hundred times," he remembered during an interview in federal court in East St. Louis.

And now, at 56, he has visited almost all of the sites described in that book.

"I haven't been to the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon," he said. "It's near Baghdad in Iraq, and it's off limits."

But he hasn't given up all hope.

"I didn't think I'd ever see Syria, and I was there last year," he said.

And, during his two-week trip to Malta and Sicily in May, Cohn was able to get into what is believed to be the oldest man-made structure in the world - an underground vault, called a hypogeum, in the Maltese city of Hal Saflieni.

The structure, hewn out of solid rock, dates to 3300 B.C. As Cohn notes with a look of wonder in his eyes, that is almost 1,700 years before Moses led the Exodus from Egypt and 1,600 years before construction of the Great Pyramids.

Fearing excessive wear from visitors, the hypogeum has been closed to the public for some time by the Maltese government. Cohn wrote at least six letters to the director there, invoking Cohn's credentials as a director of the American Institute of Archaeology and seeking admission to the chamber.

He was turned down each time.

But when he was in Malta, he couldn't resist visiting the site that is marked only by a heavy door in a wall and a sign explaining that it is closed. The caretaker agreed to take Cohn's renewed request to the director, who relented because Cohn was standing outside the wall.

Led only by flashlights, Cohn and his wife, Marsha, toured the hypogeum and soon found themselves inside the domed room Cohn had seen only in drawings in the most current book on Maltese archaeology. Through the doorway in the wall of the domed room - also shown in the drawings - Cohn could see into the interior room called the "Holy of Holies."

Expecting to get little in return for the effort, Cohn aimed his camera into the room he could not enter.

The result was a startlingly beautiful photograph with enough light to see, darkly but clearly, the decorated wall in the interior chamber. The photograph makes trophies from most safaris pale by comparison.

"We don't know exactly what this hypogeum was used for," Cohn said, "but there were 7,000 skeletons found in it. We know nothing about this civilization. They had no writing."

Standing in the chamber was an awe-inspiring moment.

"We know of no structure earlier," he said. "This predates anything Chinese, Egyptian or Mesopotamian. . . . It is called Stone Aged, but it is too sophisticated for that period."

Experts have concluded the chamber was dug out by tools made from volcanic stone called obsidian; the closest deposits of obsidian are in Lipari, north of Sicily, Cohn said.

The visit to the chamber was a highlight for Cohn, who has spent his vacations for years traveling to archaeological sites and active "digs" all over the world. For many years, he worked on the digs and specialized in doing the official photography for the groups performing the work. …