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The Antiquities Game - Behind the Trial of the Century

Editors note: It is with great sadness that we report the untimely passing of Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld on Thursday, July 10, 2014 in a car accident near Jerusalem.

The IAA rejected our conclusions out of hand and scolded the GSI for even allowing tests on unprovenanced antiquities. The major criticism was not against the scientific validity of our research, but that the very testing of unprovenanced items would encourage looting at many of Israel’s archaeological sites. We were accused of sensationalism, naivety, and branded as intruders into the domain of biblical scholars and archaeologists.

See Also: Essays on the James Ossuary and the Temple Tablet from Bible and Interpretation

By Amnon Rosenfeld
(Emeritus) Geological Survey of Israel
Jerusalem, Israel
July 2014

Over the last century, Israel and the West Bank have yielded countless archaeological artifacts, increasing our knowledge of the biblical world of both the Old and New Testaments, studied by both Jews and Christians. Only a small percentage of the items originated from official excavations. The vast majority are unprovenanced antiquities found in private collections and museums or for sale in antiquity shops.

Two of the most notable unprovenanced objects are the Jehoash Tablet and the James Ossuary. The Jehoash inscription tablet is a commemorative tablet relating to King Jehoash, who, according to the Old Testament, renovated King Solomon’s first Temple 2800 years ago. If genuine, the tablet would be the most important find related to the Old Testament and the temple of Solomon to ever to have surfaced in the world of biblical archaeology.

Even more spectacular is the ossuary, or bone box, inscribed with the names “James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” For Christians, this would be the most significant archaeological evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. It is no small matter that the bone box might have once contained bones of Jesus’ brother James.

Both of these artifacts surfaced from the shadowy world of Israel’s legal antiquity market. These items, along with clay seal imprints, a stone lamp with a Menorah carved on its surface, a ceramic decanter and other lesser-known objects were at the center of a seven-year trial that ended in March 2012. The owner of several of these items, Oded Golan, along with other antiquity dealers, was accused of forging biblical artifacts. The trial ended in the acquittal of all the defendants charged with forgery and fraud. Golan was found guilty of lesser offenses, possession of possible stolen objects and selling antiquities without a license.

Unfortunately, the trial also demonstrated that archaeology in Israel is a combat sport occasionally guided by archaeologists’ tendentious and biased theories rather than those based in accord with scientific findings.

During the years of the trial (2004-2012), over 130 experts testified in Jerusalem Criminal Court, an unlikely place for a true and free academic debate. Scientists from all over the globe from an array of disciplines ranging from archaeology, epigraphy, ancient languages, archaeometry, geology, geochemistry, and carbon-dating examined the artifacts and testified during more than 120 court sessions. Often the court was turned into a primer on science.

In his verdict, Judge Aharon Farkash did not rule that Mr. Golan's artifacts were genuine, but rather, the prosecutors did not have the evidence required for a conviction.

“For certain items, I decided that it was not proven, as required in criminal law, that they were fake,” wrote Farkash. “But there is nothing in these findings which necessarily proves that the items were authentic.”[1][2][3]

A few times during the long-lasting trial Judge Farkash suggested that the prosecution should drop the charges, but they refused to do so. As a team of experts who testified in this case, we (S. Daren, S. Ilani, J. Kronfeld, W.E. Krumbein, and A. Rosenfeld, author of this article) spent many hours examining several of the items, including both the Jehoash Tablet and the James Ossuary. Based on our scientific research,[4][5][6][7][8] and on other epigraphic and philological studies, we believe these objects and their inscriptions are likely to be authentic.

Our team studied and tested the Menorah oil lamp,[4] The Jehoash Inscription Tablet,[7] and the James Ossuary[5][8] for authenticity while working for the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) in Jerusalem between 1999 and 2002 and after. We testified during the trial for approximately 100 hours and endured questioning that was often grueling. We studied the items and their patinas by carrying out a marked number of archaeometric laboratory examinations. Archaeometry is a pure science that integrates the “soft” social science of archaeology with the “hard” sciences of chemistry, microbiology, and geology. We found nothing that could attest to the assumption that the artifacts were forgeries. Quite the opposite was true: a large number of our findings prove the antiquity of these objects and, furthermore, indicate the authenticity of the inscriptions.[4][5][6][7][8]

A detailed reference citing arguments both for and against the authenticity of the Jehoash Tablet can be attained in the bibliography of Regalazi.[9]

The results of our investigations angered a number of prominent biblical scholars and archaeologists who believed that Golan and others had produced these items and thereby threatened the discipline of biblical studies by flooding the antiquities market with fakes and forgeries. Moreover, if found to be authentic, the Jehoash Tablet and the James Ossuary might have had profound religious and political repercussions. For example, Christians are eager to encounter any artifact indicating the existence of Jesus. Further, to our surprise, our tests and results on the Jehoash Tablet encroached on arguments among biblical scholars on the historicity of the existence of the First Temple, the reign of Solomon, and the ability of scribes to accurately record the events that appeared in the Books of Kings.

Behind the forgery/fake accusations that were slapped onto these antiquities are my personal observations, stemming from my investigation and experiences over the last few years and personally attending many of the trial's sessions and reading almost all the protocols of the testimonies.

Upon first glance, archaeologists dismissed the authenticity of these artifacts under the common adage of “too good to be true.” Several scholars distanced themselves because the artifacts were “unprovenanced,” meaning their origins could not be verified as discovered at a particular archeological site. But essentially this translates to a bias against any artifact found independent of a controlled archeological excavation. No science should have any such prior agenda, including Archaeology – its theories should be based in accord with findings or upon the artifacts themselves.

Strangely, an earlier artifact, the ivory pomegranate with the inscription “Holy to the Priest,” possibly from the first Temple period, was dragged into the trial, although no specific individual was accused for its forgery. Although the pomegranate was authenticated by archaeologists and epigraphists during the 1970s and again in 2006[10][11] archaeologists Y Goren et al.[12] concluded that the inscription was forged. Rosenfeld and Ilani[13] criticized Goren for using an unproved and unreliable archaeological authentication method of stable isotopes.[14] The pomegranate was re-examined in 2006-2007 by Lemaire[10] and Shanks,[11] who re-authenticated its inscription.

In January 2003, the discovery of the Jehoash Tablet was leaked to the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz under the headline: “SENSATION OR FORGERY? RESEARCHERS HAIL DRAMATIC FIRST TEMPLE PERIOD FINDING.”[15]

Included in the page-one story was most of our research on the tablet, conducted under the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI). Journalist Nadav Shragai reported that the tablet was found in or near the Temple Mount. The inscription was attributed to Jehoash King of Judea, who ruled Jerusalem at the end of the 9th century BCE. The inscription describes “House Repairs” ordered by King Jehoash, and it strongly resembled an account of temple repairs described in 2 Kings 12:5-16. This was a most sensational discovery indeed. Gabriel Barkai, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan, noted that if the inscription proved to be authentic, the finding was a “sensation” of greatest importance. It would be one most significant archaeological discovery in Jerusalem and Israel.

“It would be a first-of-its kind piece of physical evidence describing events in a manner that adheres to the narrative in the Bible,” Shragai added.[15]

Sources indicated that the tablet surfaced in the Temple Mount area as a result of widespread excavation work done in recent years by the Muslims. During the trial, Golan testified that he was told that the Jehoash Tablet was found in a secondary building of a Muslim gravesite, located next to Lion’s Gate.

Israel is in a strange position: despite many decades of excavations, there are very few examples of ancient writings confirming biblical text. Thus, these findings from an unprovenanced excavation aroused many objections.

Following the publication of this article, the Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA) cast doubt on the authenticity of the Jehoash Tablet. The IAA became suspicious of the owner Oded Golan, an engineer and a successful businessman, whom they believed manufactured these and other items. Remarkably, Golan was the owner of not just one important biblical artifact but many other significant items. Some archaeologists and the IAA announced in the press and on Bible and Interpretation[16] that these antiquities must be fakes because these items were not discovered in controlled excavations but on the black market and the shelves of collectors. The IAA also suspected many artifacts belonging to Shlomo Moussaieff, a major private collector of biblical antiquities, to be forgeries as well, all generated from a circle of skilled forgers.

Other objects, such as the “Three Shekels” and the “Widow’s Plea,” also owned by the famous wealthy collector Shlomo Moussaieff, were called into question as well during the trial. These had been sold to Mr. Moussaieff by Robert Deutsch, also named as a defendant in the trial." (Editors note: We have been informed by Robert Deutsch that this was incorrect and that Moussaieff testified that he purchased these items directly from Oded Golan.)

On the other side, officials from the GSI defended the results of the battery of examinations carried out by our team and considered them conclusive. It’s inconceivable that such extensive testing would fail to reveal a forgery.

And so rose a great tumult among archaeologists, who were angry at hearing that such an important discovery had slipped away from them and was found in private hands. The tablet seemed to offer archaeological proof of King Solomon’s temple built in 10th century BCE.

Epigrapher Avigdor Horowitz wrote: “If the epigraphers—the specialists in the writing itself or the philologists who are experts in the text—say that the inscription is bogus, this means that the geologists have been duped and that the forgers have invented methods of bypassing them.” [17]

Frank Moore Cross also “suggested that by its text and style the inscription is a modern forgery, including a puzzle of syntax and letter styles from various published epigraphic sources."[18]

Professor Neeman, a biblical scholar of Tel Aviv University, assumed in a Dutch periodical just before the Jehoash Inscription was found that the writer of 2 Kings 12 had relied on royal inscription: “The `Jehoash inscription,' whose authenticity was verified this week by the GSI, is too similar to the theory I explained in my study," said Neeman, and concluded: "one of two things - either I hit the nail on the head, and my theory was confirmed fantastically, or the forger read my theory and decided to confirm it. In any case, if in the near future another inscription turns up, the `Ahaz inscription,' I will be convinced that it's a forgery. At present I'm only suspicious."[19]

According to Neeman, ancient Near East inscriptions “usually end with a curse on anyone who harms the inscription, or sometimes with a blessing for the person who wrote the inscription, whereas here - `Yitzav hashem et amo bivrakha' ? (May the Name command his people with a blessing). There is nothing else like it.”[19] Neeman believes that those who will be the deciding factor in the authenticity debate of Jehoash Inscription “will be the geologists, using the tools of natural sciences, we will be obliged, perhaps, to accept their edict. Only after them will come the linguists and the archaeologists who are familiar with the inscriptions of the ancient Near East. He continued: ‘I don't suspect the geologists who examined the stone in the GSI, but we have to hear additional opinions, and this inscription, whether it's a forgery or an original, has to be open to examination by any scholar, and cannot be hidden with a private collector.’”[19]

Additional harsh reservations about our decision regarding the authenticity of the inscription came from Prof. Ed Greenstein, an expert on the language of the Bible and ancient Semitic languages, also of Tel Aviv University. Greenstein suspects the Jehoash Inscription to be a forgery. He contends that the way in which the expression "bedek bayit" was used in the inscription shows that the forger apparently did not understand what it meant in biblical Hebrew. "In the language of the Bible, `bedek' is the cracks in the building," explains Greenstein. "You reinforce the `bedek habayit' [the cracks in the building]. If you do `bedek bayit' you are making a crack in the building and ruining it. `Bedek habayit,' in the language of the Bible, is the problem that must be repaired. Someone who understands biblical Hebrew would not have used the later expression (in modern Hebrew, it means making repairs or renovations) that was derived from this expression."[19]

Chaim Cohen from Ben-Gurion University who believes that the Jehoash Inscription coincides with Biblical Hebrew offered his opinion to the contrary: “ regards the authenticity of the Yehoash Inscription, I wish to emphasize at the outset that I do not know whether or not this inscription is genuine. I do contend, however, that it cannot be proven philologically to be a modern-day forgery. I would also add that if nevertheless the Yehoash Inscription does turn out to be a forgery, then it is a most brilliant forgery.”[20]

Archaeometry has the potential to be a most exciting inter-disciplinary and unbiased science, one that integrates the research of ancient history and archaeology with chemistry and geology. In this framework, we expected that the intriguing question of the authenticity of these antiquities would gain a quick and indisputable verdict. Our team presented a prodigious amount of archaeometric evidence from which we concluded that the items before us, almost certainly, were authentic. However, even after the trial, these important artifacts might never be exhibited to the Israeli public. This stems from two reasons: first, the non-cooperation between archaeologists and scientists; and second, from the sad reality that in Israel archaeology is periodically driven by politics.

After the January 2003 publication of the discovery of the Jehoash Inscription in Ha’aretz, Yuval Goren, the head of the Department of Archaeology of the Tel-Aviv University, along with several other archaeologists and Bible scholars, declared the inscription to be a forgery. As far as we can establish, this declaration was made without consulting our research, or without examining the Tablet directly. Incredibly, the IAA rejected our conclusions out of hand and scolded the GSI for even allowing tests on unprovenanced antiquities. The major criticism was not against the scientific validity of our research, but that the very testing of unprovenanced items would encourage looting at many of Israel’s archaeological sites. We were accused of sensationalism, naivety, and branded as intruders into the domain of biblical scholars and archaeologists.

The GSI provides professional consultation to the public on geological issues from both private and government bodies. The GSI has performed geological examinations for the last 65 years without obtaining permission from any other authority and without knowledge of the origin or the character of its owner. When the Ha’aretz article was published, the head of the IAA, Yehoshua (Shuka) Dorfman, paid a visit to A. Bein, the head of the GSI. After the meeting between Dorfman and Bein, we were told, in writing, that in the future, we should not study any unprovenanced artifacts without the permission of the IAA.

In addition, the IAA moved to establish a scientific committee on its own behalf to examine the authenticity of the antiquities. All members of the examining committee were employees of the IAA or connected with them. After the committee was formed, the IAA “suggested” the results they expected, and revealed details about the “background” of the ossuary, including the police investigation, thus biasing the appointees and dictating their forgery agenda.[21] Several scholars charged the committee with bias.[22] Rather than present our studies, the GSI director nominated two isotope geochemists, A. Ayalon and M. Bar-Matthews, for the IAA material examination committee. Ayalon and Bar-Matthews contradicted our work by using oxygen isotopes, a method untested and unreliable with antiquities.[14] This method for authentication of antiquities was not and is not being used elsewhere in the world. We can only assume that the GSI director had to find some method to dismiss our results.

All fourteen Israeli scholars of the committee ignored our research and unanimously stated that the Jehoash Inscription and the James Ossuary were forgeries.[23] In my mind there was no need for governmental examining committees but rather the need for free research and an academic discussion, as customary with every other scientific problem. Governmental dictation of any scientific issue is first and foremost damaging to the image of Israeli archaeology. Secondly, and more important, pressuring researchers towards a predetermined outcome is an unethical political act that might certainly twist the historical truth.

Throughout the trial, it was apparent that the IAA was certain of a conviction. Both the IAA and the police investigated only the forgery aspect of the artifacts. They never questioned us about our positive results, which were solely based on our scientific examinations. In my opinion, the IAA used the investigation and trial to send a message to antiquity dealers and collectors. The IAA acknowledges that the vast majority of looted artifacts are from the West Bank. They undoubtedly believed that they could quell collectors' desire for antiquities, the primary source of income for looters, and slow the massive archaeological looting occurring in the West Bank. However, according to an article that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2013, merchants who trade in antiquities "continue to enjoy a thriving business, with both casual foreign tourists and more serious antiquities collectors," and the trade does not appear to be slowing, despite a 1978 law making “all ancient objects discovered in Israel from then onwards state property. The trade in newly discovered antiquities was...equivalent to the trade in stolen goods. Ever since, the state has been trying to rein in the antiquity merchants. In recent years, the law and official oversight of the dealers have become stricter."[24] The policy has simply not been successful.

But the IAA’s obsession to stop looting and intimidate collectors was not the only purpose for this trial. The IAA was and has been equally determined to deter scholars from studying unprovenanced items. The IAA has long argued that without knowing the origin of any archaeological item, the research and conclusions cannot be determined with any certainty. Even if the sale and purchase of an artifact is legal, the collector, they argue, cannot be certain that the artifact is authentic without provenance. The Golan trial provided a convenient vehicle for these arguments.

The Jehoash Tablet intruded into the Palestinian-Israeli struggle over historical issues regarding the Temple Mount. The claim to the holiest site in Israel is a very sensitive and explosive matter. The question of sovereignty over the Temple Mount was and is today a major obstacle in the peace process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. As an integral part of Palestinian nationalism, the Palestinians have created the myth of Temple denial, which has now become a foundation of Palestinian propaganda. In an attempt to rebuff Jewish history and control the Temple Mount and even the Western Wall, Palestinians have asserted that the Solomonic Temple never existed in Jerusalem. The Jehoash Inscription is the first archaeological evidence of the existence of Solomon's Temple and obviously counters Palestinian claims.

For many people, our studies were not solely about the high probably of authenticity. They serve as physical evidence in support of the Bible. Jehoash Tablet’s importance spotlights the struggle among biblical scholars on the dependability of biblical text. The Tablet's authenticity and inscription is a direct contradiction to theories embraced by a group of biblical historians called “minimalists.” Although these biblical scholars hold diverse views on the validity of the biblical text, most concur that while the Bible may contain some historical reliability dating to the First Temple period, its history as a whole is more ideal rather than actual.[25]

Many minimalists believe the historical writing during the period of the First Temple was negligible, the existence of a Temple as depicted in the Bible unlikely, and Judah's grandeur and size greatly exaggerated. They also question whether the sort of information contained in the Book of Kings would have been available to scribes in Judah in the ninth and tenth centuries BCE. Yet the Jehoash Inscription seems to indicate that written accounts from the early history of Judah "may have served as sources for the biblical histories of monarchical Israel and Judah. Scholars have long believed that, although the biblical writers and editors may have lived long after the pre-exilic events they narrate, they were able to use sources that were contemporary (or nearly so) with the events themselves."[26] The authenticity of the Jehoash Tablet and the Ivory Pomegranate would be a blow to the minimalist school, which is popular in Europe and at Tel-Aviv University. Interestingly, the ostracon uncovered in Qeiyfa (Elah Fortress in biblical Sha’araim), by director Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is dated to the 10th century BCE, another piece of evidence of writing that also erodes the minimalism theory.

Bubbling under the surface during the entire investigation of Golan was the question of what to make of unprovenanced antiquities. The trial ignited the debate on the study of unprovenanced archaeological material to such an extent that one biblical scholar said, "The implications of these indictments, especially if followed by convictions, are enormous. It is not an overstatement to say that biblical archaeology may require a generation of disciplined, rigorous re-examination of all unprovenanced epigraphic material in order to be regarded again as a scientific discipline.”[27]

Yet many of the significant discoveries in biblical archaeology have been unprovenanced: The Moabite stone, Dead Sea Scrolls, Baruch seal, and many others do not originate from controlled excavations. Unprovenanced artifacts are not simply a curse for experts engaged in the study of archaeology and biblical text. A large percentage of the antiquities traded on the world market do not derive from controlled, scientific excavations. They are lacking in documentation and are often looted from unguarded excavations or tombs, and appear in antiquity shops or are smuggled abroad for sale at auctions. Consider the Egyptian antiquities market, which "represents 16% of the total sales of antiquities for the period 1998-2007, fetching some US$42.826 million." What percentage of these items can be verified? Over 95% of these antiquities "have no stated find-spot.”[28]

Consider the fact that over the course of the last hundred years, only a small portion of ancient populated areas abundant in antiquities has been excavated in an orderly way. The resulting conclusion is that anyone who ignores antiquities found in the antiquity market and collections ignores a large percentage of the history of the people who populated those areas. This history cannot be written based only on well-documented artifacts; we cannot and should not discard the unprovenanced antiquities by pretending they do not exist or pronouncing them fakes. On the contrary, the truth should be pursued continuously in spite of the difficulties.

In addition to the IAA committee’s mandate[29] “to arrive at the truth…in order to:

1. Prevent the contamination of science,

2. Avoid causing offense to religious sensibilities,

3. Prevent monetary benefit based on deception, and

4. Impede the increasing trend towards forgery spurred on by the high price of antiquities,”

the IAA claimed they were trying to prevent “cultural contamination.”[29][30]

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the disciplines of biblical history and archaeology have been contaminated to such an extent that no unprovenanced written source seems to be reliable anymore,” Goren wrote. “To put it even more bluntly, the sciences of Hebrew epigraphy and philology are nothing but a fools' paradise.”[30]

In my opinion, the IAA's attempted exclusion of unprovenanced material is the equivalent of restricting free speech and scientific examination in an open debate. Simultaneously, by declaring all looted artifacts as fakes or suspected fakes, the IAA is covering itself from its own inability to prevent antiquities’ theft.

Some archaeologists unequivocally stated that all antiquities in private hands should be considered fakes. Citing the “Jerusalem Syndrome”[30] and the "James Bond"[31] phenomena, they claim it is easy to be fooled by forged antiquities. Our team of geologists was accused of falling into a trap set by the forgers, or worse, perhaps we were bribed? “A century after Sir William Matthew Flinders-Petrie established the scientific methodology of biblical archaeology, the discipline is still controlled by dilatants and charlatans?” wrote Yuval Goren. The deputy director of the IAA ( Uzi Dahari) also opined the following about our team, "As we all still hope that most of the scientists involved in this saga were motivated only by true scientific purposes, we must ask how some of them could be so naïve, ignore any sense of objectivity, and be trapped in the crude pitfalls set by the forgers? Considering the nature of the fakes in question, the answer to this question may lie in the domain of psychology.”[29]

Professor Goren wrote “for those of us who care about the future of biblical archaeology and the integrity in writing the pages of history, the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ is a question of life and death – either we will fight it or we will lose our profession.”[30] The answer is crystal clear to the question of what was behind the antiquities “trial of the century.”

Uzi Dahri publicly accused Golan of forging the James Ossuary and many more: “Oded Golan works in the following system: he is the owner and the seller of the antiquities, and, I would say, also the forger, but I leave that for you to decide. He went to André Lemaire to publish his forgeries and then to Ilani and Rosenfeld for geological expertise, who agreed that the patina contains calcium carbonate, and the stone is calcium carbonate, which means this is genuine. This is not sufficient geological expertise, but never mind. Next came Hershel Shanks who published the forgery in BAR. If it is published in BAR, then many people, especially Americans, read the BAR and [trust] the expertise of the publisher, and then we come to the last phase: selling the forged item for a lot of money. Are Lemaire, Ilani, Rosenfeld and Shanks naïve? I couldn’t say yet, but within a few months we will know, after the trial against Mr. Golan.”[29]

Though I am not an archaeologist, it appears to an outsider that Goren and Dahari’s pleas were the beginning of an inordinate amount of hostility directed at those who argued for the authenticity of these items. In fact, the animus directed at us seemed like standard operating procedure in biblical archaeology. The name-calling and unprofessionalism quickly surfaced in the press over the inscription on the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription. It intensified when it was revealed that the ossuary was in the possession of Oded Golan. He was accused of selling phony antiquities, manufacturing a faked patina, forging Hebrew inscriptions, and a host of other artifacts, "including clay seal imprints, a lamp, and a ceramic decanter." The stakes were high. The entire episode fixated scholars and the religious communities of both Jews and Christians.

Have professional forgers flooded the antiquities trade? Most biblical scholars know of questionable objects presented as verifiable but lacking evidence as part of a controlled archaeological context. No major scientific theory or historical conclusions could survive based upon forged artifacts. However, we believe that it would require a team of highly professional forgers to produce the James Ossuary, Jehoash Tablet, the Ivory Pomegranate, the Seal of Baruch, and many others items some scholars claim to have compromised biblical archaeology. Moreover, to accomplish such a forgery, the forgers would have needed to invest a lot of money and skills and to keep silent for a long time without betraying one another.

It was apparent that there was a rush to judgment to declare these antiquities as "unequivocal" forgeries and Golan and the others as guilty as charged. The degree of expertise in biblical languages, ancient writing and antiquity restoration makes for a formidable conspiracy. During the trial, Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, stated that archaeologists must "believe the items are fakes and say archaeologists should avoid any item not found in a supervised excavation.”[32]

We cannot agree that every unexcavated item that appears suddenly in an antiquity shop or from a collector ought to be rejected as a forgery. It is difficult to see how a gang of forgers could plan and concoct all the sophisticated philological, chemical components and manufacturing skills used in the above-mentioned items. Joel Kronfeld, emeritus professor of the department of geophysics and planetary sciences at Tel Aviv University, testified at the trial and said, "If it was forged, maybe it was forged 2,000 years ago," and "There are just no compelling results that show us there is any forgery.”[32]

The IAA before and during the trial opened a propaganda campaign promoting their forgery idea. All newspaper and TV programs that dealt with the forgery side of the story excluded the participation of opposing scientists. Government officials of the IAA were interviewed by prominent international newspapers like the Washington Post (February, 21st, 2005, USA Today, Nature (March, 3, 2005, 434:13-15) and The New Yorker (April, 12, 2004). They mocked and humiliated the scholars and the publisher of BAR who supported the view that the artifacts were probably genuine. According to Golan[21], “The IAA allegations against me are a mixture of intentional manipulations and blatant lies …which were published on hundreds of websites, TV programs and items appearing in the press in Israel and over the world.” When the indictment was filed in December, 2004, the IAA claimed the defendants were part of a large forgery conspiracy, “the tip of the iceberg,” charged IAA director Shuka Dorfman.

The government's ossuary forgery claim was partially based on the interrogation of an Egyptian craftsman/jeweler Marco Samah Shoukri Ghatas by Egyptian authorities. The IAA claimed he "confessed to manufacturing many items for Golan, including the Jehoash inscription, but will not be coming to Israel to testify."[33] Marco had also appeared on the American television program 60 Minutes. The program claimed Marco appeared to have produced several of the forged items, including the Jehoash Tablet for Golan. For the accusers of Golan, Marco’s appearance on television settled the case. Even though IAA could not bring Marco to testify in court in Jerusalem, his “admission” before the cameras was enough evidence in the court of public opinion. However, others claimed Marco’s statements were not translated correctly. Hershel Shanks, editor and owner of Biblical Archaeological Review, was suspicious of the interview. He requested the transcripts and outtakes from 60 Minutes to check the accuracy of the Arabic/English translation. However, 60 Minutes refused to make the material available. In January 2011, Shanks was in Cairo, found Marco, and interviewed him. "Marco was very clear. He did not confess to forging the Yehoash tablet. He did not make any forgeries. He denied forging the Yehoash Inscription. He had never written a sentence in Hebrew letters, he said.”[34] Shanks insisted that "There is no question that Marco denied to me that he ever said he forged the Yehoash tablet. He was firm and clear, as was his anger at 60 Minutes."

Furthermore, Marco was interviewed by the Israeli police and by the Israeli newspaper Ma’arive and in both instances, he denied he was involved in forgeries. During the trial the prosecution kept promising the court that they would bring Marco to testify, but they did not. They could have questioned him via video conference session (permitted by the judge) from the Israeli embassy in Cairo, still under the Mubarak regime. How he could have helped the prosecution is unclear.

The trial itself never failed to produce interesting characters. The billionaire Shlomo Moussaeiff, a private collector whose collection has been described as "six hundred thousand Bible-era relics...collected over the years and which he stores in warehouses in Geneva and in his London townhouse" (and in his penthouse in Hezelliya) spent four days testifying. He described "scenes where dealers, professors, and even Israeli diplomats came to his home, produced rare antiquities from their pockets and negotiated sales worth thousands of dollars."[35]

Moussaieff admitted that he had "sent his personal banker with Golan to buy some rare seal impressions from a Palestinian villager. They parked their car on a dirt road near the border with the West Bank and when the Palestinian arrived they gave him a bag containing $150,000 in cash.”[36]

He was absolutely sure he had not been duped or cheated. Referring to his First Temple ostracae (an exhibit in the forgery trial), Mr. Moussaeiff said, "Listen, I'm a big boy. In my business, if I bought a fake, I can only blame myself. If I fail, I fail. I do not think that these are fakes. I have more than 70 years of experience in antiquities; I think I've had enough knowledge to avoid buying fakes. I also use international scientific laboratories in Europe to check my artifacts for forgeries.”[37]

In response, Jonathan Pagis, the leading police investigator of the trial, said: "People want very much to believe that what they bought is genuine, and they cannot be cheated. The buyers’ faith is unshakable, as they want to believe that they have a genuine piece of history in their living room.”[37]

The seven-year trial ended (March, 2012) with acquittal of the collector and the dealers, and all the artifacts have been returned to their owners. In his ruling,[1][2][3] Judge Farkash went out of his way to say that the fact Golan had been found not guilty did not mean the artifacts were real. "My conclusion," Judge Farkash told the court, "is that the prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment: that the ossuary is a forgery and that Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it. This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written 2,000 years ago," he said. "This matter is expected to continue to be researched in the archaeological and scientific forum and the future will tell."[39a]

The trial’s purpose was not to decide whether the James Ossuary or the Jehoash Tablet was genuine but to prove they were forgeries. The Judge agreed with Professor Cohen’s philological study on Jehoash Tablet, and he added in the lengthy text of his decision: “All that has been established is that the tools and the science currently at the disposal of the experts who testified were not sufficient to prove the alleged forgeries beyond a reasonable doubt as is required by criminal law.” This applies to all of the artifacts in question.

The judge’s decision to clear Golan of forging the inscription on the James ossuary “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago. This will continue to be studied by scientists and archaeologists, and time will tell. …Moreover,” he wrote, “it was not proven in any way that the words ‘the brother of Jesus’ necessarily refer to the ‘Jesus’ who appears in Christian writings.”[2][38]

The Times of Israel reported that the verdict did not establish whether the James Ossuary, the Jehoash Tablet, or any of the artifacts in questions were historic discoveries or slick fakes.[38]

The verdict will not make a difference to the archaeologists arguing that the artifacts are authentic, says Matthew Kalman,[39] the only reporter to cover the entire trial. However, I believe it is important to state that according to the indictment, this was not the mission of the trial. The trial was initiated by the IAA in order to broadcast to the world their claim that these artifacts were forged by Golan.

The judge very clearly let it be known that he found some points in favor for authenticity of the artifacts. First, he accepted both Dr. Steve Daren’s testimony (VA chemist) and Professor Varda Sussman’s (an oil lamp expert) report that the patina and decorations of the Menorah and the seven species are probably authentic and that the age of the stone oil lamp is probably from the first CE century.[1] Second, he accepted that the patina covering some letters in the words “Achui d’Yeshua” brother of Jesus from the James Ossuary was real, and that the photos of the ossuary from the 1970s presented to the court are authentic.[2] He also accepted Professor Krumbein’s statement that “the patina on the ossuary evolved over centuries if not thousands of years, and that the patina within the inscription and the patina on the ossuary were created during the same time period.” Regarding the Jehoash Inscription, the judge concluded that according to the language, no determination could be made that the inscription is fake. He agreed with the defense experts (we geologists) that there is indeed a black-brown crust (film) coating the stone surface, and that very likely this crust was formed after the engraving of the letters, since some of the bottom of the letters exhibit this crust. The judge believed the defense witness, Mr. Winkler, a stone art expert, who testified that it was impossible to engrave an inscription of 200 letters on such hard rock with a visible open crack without breaking the tablet or without creating “glaetzim” (flakes) on both sides of the crack. The judge agreed that the crack had opened in ancient times and post-dated the inscription. He accepted Professor Krumbein’s testimony regarding the presence of micro-marine fossils, indicating the patina as authentic.[3] Aharon Farkash’s verdict and his concluding remarks in the alleged forgery trial clearly contribute more than ever to strengthening of the contention that these artifacts are genuine.

Recently, Professor E. Pernicka, a gold archaeometallurgist of Tuebingen University, Germany, strongly supports our conclusion on the authenticity of the Jehoash Inscription, referring to the minute gold globules found in the patina.[40]

As a geologist working in archaeometric methods for more than two decades, I can state that it is much easier to determine a forgery than to prove a genuine antiquity. Conversely, to prove a genuine artifact as a forgery is nearly impossible. This, in fact, was the fate that befell the talented prosecution scientists who could not confirm their allegations of forged antiquities during the seven-year “trial of the century.”

Who won here? Reams of scientific research from many disciplines were presented during the trial and scholars had their say. Many biblical scholars are still convinced that the items are fabricated. I am confident that further tests will have a decided impact to the positive on these antiquities.

The IAA online response to the verdict revealed the intent of the forgery trial: “The Golan case has had the effect of making collectors and experts more suspicious of forgeries, and museums have reviewed their collections looking for fakes…there has been an almost complete cessation of the publication of finds that come from the antiquities market without first knowing their exact place of discovery, and the trade in written documents and seals derived from illicit antiquities excavations has been halted almost entirely.”[41] Two years after the end of the trial, and one year after the appeal to the Supreme Court, none of the accusers had the courage to admit their mistake or offer an apology.

Unprovenanced items cannot be ignored. It is irresponsible for biblical scholars and the IAA to continue arguing that unprovenanced objects should not be studied and that we cannot learn from them. The idea that looting and forgery can be stopped by banning the study and publication of unprovenanced objects is simply foolish. These artifacts must be studied and published and not left on shelves, in collector’s safety-deposit boxes, or concealed in museum basements. Academia has already studied and benefited from private collections. Indeed, several important research books are based on material from private antiquity collections, and more should be done.

All confiscated artifacts and antiquities exhibited during the trial were returned to their owners after the Supreme Court rulings. One dealer, Dr. Robert Deutsch, after being completely acquitted, filed a suit for compensation of more than three million dollars against the IAA and the public prosecutor Dan Bahat.

I gratefully acknowledge Ms. Melissa Bell (New York City), for editing this piece.


[10] Lemaire (2006), Israel Exploration Journal, 56/2: 167-174.

[12] Goren et al. (2005), Israel Exploration Journal, 55/1: 3-20.

[13] Rosenfeld and Ilani (2006), Israel Exploration Journal, 56/2: 175-177.

[20] Cohen, C. ( 2007). “Biblical Hebrew Philology in the light of research on the new Yeho’ash Royal Building Inscription’ in: New Seals and Inscriptions: Hebrew, Idumean, and Cuneiform, Ed. by Meir Lubetski (Hebrew Bible Monographs, 8), Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, pp. 1-69.

[21] Golan lecture in Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids, MI, April, 2004; removed from the website in 2008.

[29] Dahari U, “Archaeological Forgeries!” 12 May, 2004; Grand Rapids, MI, Center for Study of Antiquity, Cornerstone University. Evening Lecture. (removed from the university site in 2005).

[31] Silberman N., Goren Y. "Faking Biblical History, How Wishful Thinking and Technology Fooled Some Scholars — and Made Fools of Others." Archaeology September/October 2003: 20-29.

[40] H. Shanks. Gold from the Temple? BAR, July-August, 2014, pages: 6 and 66.


Bible and Interpretation and Biblical Archaeology Review have many essays that cover these subjects.