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The James Ossuary Yet Again

    When a supposedly important artifact comes to light in an unusual way and its provenance is unknown or its owner refuses to share information about it, scholars, journalists, religious leaders, and publishers should be wary.

By Eric Meyers
Professor of Judaic Studies
Duke University, Department of Religion
July 2003

    The arrest of Oded Golan on July 23rd by the Israeli police on suspicion of forging antiquities, among them the Jehoash Temple inscription and the so-called “James” ossuary (see Ha’aretz, English edition, p.3, July 23), should give pause to both the media and a large portion of the scholarly world. The media frenzy, which greeted both of these supposed discoveries, was fed by journalistic desire for a big “Holy Land” story. Insofar as the BAR promoted the authenticity of the James ossuary through its premature publication by Andre Lemaire and its subsequent exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum as well as its TV promotion on the Discovery Channel, one should have been more suspicious of its provenance and ownership.

    In an unprecedented plenary presentation of the SBL in Toronto, after numerous presentations in which I was the only doubting Thomas, Golan was allowed to defend the ossuary’s genuineness in front of thousands of scholars and hundreds of the media. No one seemed to mind that he had much to gain from the exposure including monetary reward, advertisement as a major supplier of “biblical” antiquities, etc. It was a dynamic combination: BAR and a dealer, making hay at SBL and the ROM.

    I was suspicious after having viewed the artifact for a number of reasons. First, a single scholarly opinion doth not a genuine artifact make! The BAR also commissioned the first Geological Survey report while having a vested interest. At the time I said that there was no doubt that the artifact itself was Herodian in date, i.e., first century CE plus or minus, and that the paint and rosettes on the long back side were original. I also said that the front side on which the inscription was incised looked suspicious because it had been cleaned to its original whitish limestone coloring and because the incision of parts of the inscription looked recent. Moreover, I pointed out that the patina in particular looked as if it had been applied intentionally and was not the result of natural weathering over time. I also said that the application of dirt taken from a specific location with hot or even cold water was easy to do and could create the impression of being original. Though I called attention to certain paleographical problems and a linguistic feature that was arguably late, since I am not a paleographer by reputation or training, Lemaire and Shanks dismissed those aspects of my criticism. No one, however, picked up on the questioning of the patina until the Israeli special committee reported its findings on June 18th. As reported on this web site by Yuval Goren, study of the patina confirmed my original suspicion, and he has defended the committee’s results quite eloquently.

    There is no need to call names anymore and the Israeli justice system must be allowed to go forward in its dealing with Golan. What I would like to reiterate once again, as I did in my Toronto presentation, when a supposedly important artifact comes to light in an unusual way and its provenance is unknown or its owner refuses to share information about it, scholars, journalists, religious leaders, and publishers should be wary. Scientific confirmation should proceed in an unbiased and unfettered way and the host country from whence the artifact derives should be fully involved from the outset. A report should be commissioned by the Antiquities Authority as it ultimately was in Israel, and their findings should now be respected and not attacked. Why should the Israel Antiquities Authority want to discredit an artifact that might potentially be so important? It has everything to gain by being objective and professionally responsible.

    I want also to defend our archaeological societies, ASOR and AIA, from the recent invective and criticism that has been directed at them from some quarters about their policies in respect to unprovenanced, stolen, or looted antiquities. Critics say that had these policies been in place in 1948 the Dead Sea Scrolls would not have come to light. But that is a shallow reading of the matter. Of course they would have been published once their authenticity would have been established. In addition, had their proper custodianship been clarified, subsequent arguments over whose cultural heritage they represented, Israel’s or Jordan’s, might have been avoided. One could say the same of the Elephantine Papyri, which only after their purchase on the antiquities market were authenticated and published. Looting is the scourge of archaeology and ways must be found to stop it. One way to improve the situation is to not publish them as ASOR and AIA have said. Perhaps it is here where host governments should be the determining body after establishing authenticity. If an artifact that turns up in the antiquities market seems to be important enough to warrant investigation, then let the host government have a procedure determining its authenticity and whether or not it is ultimately publishable. They could even recommend where such a report and discussion might be published. The governments of Israel and Jordan have antiquities police that monitor all illicit activities and they need to be supported as well.

    When forgers and collectors enter the scene and their motives are primarily financial gain, it should be abundantly clear by now that we have to be very cautious. Although BAR and its ancillary society BAS may have noble intentions, at least as expressed by their leadership, they are not the same as a host government or scholarly society such as SBL, ASOR, and AIA. In the future, let us be extremely wary of “great finds” that turn up at a dinner party or are introduced by a collector of dubious background. Let the host country decide an artifact’s authenticity first in an unbiased way, which allows that country to have a determinative influence on preserving and authenticating its cultural heritage.