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The Ages of BAR

The publication of unprovenanced objects from private collections simultaneously accomplished several things. It situated BAR as a source of primary data, presented by scholars without any of the usual controls on the authenticity of materials and quality of analysis, such as peer review, presentation at scholarly conferences (whose sponsoring organizations are usually bound to reject such objects), and dialogues in scholarly journals.

By Alexander H. Joffe
Archaeologist and Historian
September 2005

BAR's relentlessly capitalist behavior is uniquely American. There are no constraints, and the rewards for participation in this regime of values pertain to all, archaeologists included. In this sense, BAR has managed to successfully ride the tiger, at least until recently. The strategy of soliciting professionals to reveal their results and participate in disputes has been a form of willing cooptation that is as old as Layard and Schliemann. Among BAR's original marketing techniques have been the exposure of the profession's dirty laundry, most famously the Dead Sea Scrolls, see below, and exploiting intellectual differences between scholars by personalizing disputes (e.g., BAR Sept/Oct 1990).

In retrospect, it appears that BAR has passed through several phases of increasing engagement, suggestive of escalating confidence in its exercise of authority and attempts to become a full and equal player in intellectual debates. These are the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Phase, the Ostraca Phase, and the James and Jehoash (J+J) Phase. Other divisions could certainly be drawn that more closely approximate disciplinary phases, for example, a Biblical Archaeology versus Syro-Palestinian Archaeology phase, and so on. But the scheme offered here seems native to BAR itself, rather than originating from the profession.

The DSS Phase was characterized by BAR issuing a challenge on the basis that the archaeological profession had restricted knowledge or acquiesced to the restriction of knowledge. In article after article, BAR drove home the point that the DSS corpus had not been fully published and had accused various professionals, including the Israel Department of Antiquities (now Israel Antiquities Authority), of complicity in an intellectual scandal verging on a cover-up (e.g., BAR July/Aug 1989).

The dominant themes during this phase were "breaking the scholarly monopoly" (e.g., BAR Sept/Oct 1990). There was a distinctly ad hominem character to the reporting (e.g, BAR Jan/Feb 1991), as well as sensationalistic undertones regarding potentially earthshaking revelations. Still, the self-serving nature of the effort, for example in the establishment of a "Biblical Archaeology Society Institute for Dead Sea Scrolls Study" (BAR Jan/Feb 1992), did not appear completely overbearing. In retrospect, however, they were portents of what might be called a larger trajectory, or grander ambition.

In the Ostraca Phase, BAR itself disseminated restricted knowledge. This had already occurred with the publication of the unprovenanced ivory pomegranate alleged to be from the Temple in Jerusalem (BAR Jan/Feb 1984)). But it intensified throughout the mid to late 1990s with a stream of sensational finds that seemed too good to be true. Among these were a bulla, seemingly belonging to King Ahaz of Judah (BAR March/April 1996; Deutsch 2000); seals with names of Biblical personages (BAR July/Aug 1991); and ostraca with long Iron Age inscriptions (BAR Nov/Dec 1997). In most of the cases, the objects were published by leading scholars, and their appearance in BAR complemented formal publication in academic journals (Bordreuil et al. 1996, 1998). Virtually all originated from the private collection of London jeweler Shlomo Moussaieff and had been sold by a Jaffa antiquities dealer, Robert Deutsch, who was also a graduate student in ancient Near Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. I have dealt with the practical and ethical problems of publishing objects from unprovenanced collections elsewhere (Joffe 2003).

The publication of unprovenanced objects from private collections simultaneously accomplished several things. It situated BAR as a source of primary data, presented by scholars without any of the usual controls on the authenticity of materials and quality of analysis, such as peer review, presentation at scholarly conferences (whose sponsoring organizations are usually bound to reject such objects), and dialogues in scholarly journals. When such objects were published in scholarly journals, they had already assumed a life of their own thanks to BAR and were given the benefit of the doubt thanks to relentless advocacy. Finally, they were presented as sensational finds, which not coincidentally played to the core concern of BAR's readers, the Biblical world, who in effect became their constituencies and advocates. In short, BAR endorsed suspect objects, advocated and created a public following for them, their owners and sellers, and promoted explicitly the concept of a black market that was presumed to serve higher ends. The interests of science and capitalism firmly collided.

In the J+J phase, BAR has challenged the expertise of professionals and their bona fides. The most sensational objects yet, the alleged ossuary of James the brother of Jesus (BAR Nov/Dec 2002) and the inscription allegedly written by King Jehoash of Judah (BAR May/June 2003) were first oversold to the world by BAR and then discussed in scholarly journals.

The authenticity of these objects was quickly challenged by professionals on the basis of the objects' lack of provenance, shady dealings by their owner, and then scientific data demonstrating them and their predecessors to be fakes (Goren et al. 2004; Ayalon et al. 2004; Goren et al. 2005). In response, BAR launched an unprecedented counterattack, shopping for experts (BAR Jan/Feb 2004), decrying the victimization of the artifacts' owner (BAR May/June 2004), and casting itself as a victim of scholars bent on vendetta (BAR Sept/Oct 2005). Having helped create the tsunami of stolen objects and then forgeries, BAR now explains that this sea cannot be held back.

On the basis of this rough framework, we may assert that the DSS Phase and its essentially journalistic efforts challenged the profession on what might be called democratic grounds. The "prying out of information," or more accurately, journalistic pressure for faster publication by means of embarrassing revelations regarding poor stewardship fulfilled a useful watchdog role. If the rhetoric were sometimes extreme, the cause was ultimately legitimate.

But the latter two phases described here saw journalists defying archaeology's disciplinary norms and values, first in the grey area of publishing and endorsing unprovenenced artifacts, looting and the black market, and then by competing with the profession by rejecting the profession's authority. To be sure, the looting, forgery, and the black market existed before BAR and will exist long after, but BAR's contribution has been significant. But without a discipline of procedures to verify or falsify results (expert shopping notwithstanding), by perceiving its responsibility as being only to its "clients" (namely, its subscribers and, more critically, the collectors and dealers for whom it has and continues to shill) rather than abstract ideals of scientific truths, and by adopting an adversarial relationship with the profession, BAR has finally trapped itself in contradictions of its own making. The hand that feeds has been bitten, and the choices are now ours.

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian.


Ayalon, M. Bar-Matthews, Y. Goren. 2004. Authenticity examination of the inscription on the ossuary attributed to James, brother of Jesus. Journal of Archaeological Science 31/8: 1185-1189.

BAR January/February 1984: "Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon's Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem."

BAR July/August 1989: "Dead Sea Scrolls Scandal--Israel's Department of Antiquities Joins Conspiracy to Keep Scrolls Secret."

BAR September/October 1990: "The Difference Between Scholarly Mistakes and Scholarly Concealment: The Case of MMT."

BAR January/February 1991: "Strugnell Calls Leading Scroll Scholar Incompetent."

BAR January/February 1992: "BAS Establishes Institute for Dead Sea Scroll Studies."

BAR July/August 1991: "Six Biblical Signatures: Seals and Seal Impressions of Six Biblical Personages Recovered."

BAR September/October 1990: "Dating Jericho's Destruction: Bienkowski Is Wrong on All Counts."

BAR March/April 1996: "The Fingerprint of Jeremiah's Scribe."

BAR November/December 1997:, "Three Shekels for the Lord."

BAR November/December 2002: "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus."

BAR May/June 2003: "Assessing the Jehoash Inscription"

BAR January/February 2004: "Final Blow to IAA Report: Flawed Geochemistry Used to Condemn James Inscription."

BAR May/June 2004: "The Trial of Oded Golan."

BAR September/October 2005: "Forgery Hysteria Grips Israel."

Bordreuil, P., F. Israel, D. Pardee. 1996. Deux ostraca paléo-hébreux de la collection Sh. Moussaieff. Semitica 46: 49-76.

Bordreuil, P., F. Israel, D. Pardee, 1998. King's Command and Widow's Plea: Two New Hebrew Ostraca of the Biblical Period. Near Eastern Archaeology: 2-13.

Deutsch, Robert. 2000. Biblical Period Personal Seals in the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection. Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center.

Goren, Y., A. Ayalon, M. Bar-Matthews, B. Schilman. 2004. Authenticity Examination of the Jehoash Inscription. Tel Aviv 31: 3-16.

Goren, Y., A. Ayalon, M. Bar-Matthews, B. Schilman. 2005. Authenticity Examination of Two Iron Age Ostraca from the Moussaieff Collection. Israel Exploration Journal 55:21-34.

Joffe, Alexander H. 2003. Review of R. Deutsch, Messages from the Past, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Isaiah Through the Destruction of the First Temple and R. Deutsch and A. Lemaire, Biblical Period Personal Seals in the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 62/2: 119-124.