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,"
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. …