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Who Owns the Biblical Past? We all Can

By Morag M. Kersel
Department of Anthropology
DePaul University
October 2011

In October of 2002, it was announced that an Aramaic inscription (Ya’akov son of Yoseph, the brother of Yeshua) on nondescript limestone box, looted from a cave in Jerusalem and held in the private collection of long-time collector Oded Golan, might be the earliest known archaeological reference to Jesus. As news of the inscription was released, the details of the ossuary’s (secondary burial bone box) archaeological context were sketchy at best, calling into question the authenticity of the find for many scholars. At the initial press conference announcing the existence of the inscribed ossuary, Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeological Review, stated that the owner purchased the ossuary in the early 1990s from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem’s Old City for between US $200 and US $700. Later it was claimed that the piece was purchased in the 1970s for around $200. This recanting of the original date may seem insignificant, but the date of purchase is central to determining ownership – if anyone can really own the past. If in fact the ossuary was acquired in the early 1990s – just over twenty years ago – without proper documentation, it belongs to the State of Israel rather than Golan. The Antiquities Law 5738-1978 of Israel established a law, which among other things vests ownership of cultural heritage found after the benchmark date of 1978 to the State of Israel. At the same time, the law established a legal trade in antiquities: it is legal to buy and sell artifacts from collections (private, museums and existing shop inventories) established before the Antiquities Law of 1978. After that date, all newly discovered antiquities are the property of the state.

Every day in the Old City of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Jaffa it is possible to buy an artifact and take it home, even if home is a third floor walk up in New York. Tomorrow any one of us could go into a licensed shop in the Old City and buy an ossuary, with or without an inscription. The legal trade in antiquities in Israel is a legacy of earlier Ottoman legislation that made provisions for the legal movement of archaeological material within the Empire. In 1948, in order to maintain a sense of normalcy, the newly established State of Israel adopted the antiquities ordinances of the British Mandate, which also supported a trade. Promoted and endorsed by luminaries like Teddy Kolleck and Moshe Dayan, the legalized trade became enshrined in the antiquities law enacted in 1978. Law makers and politicians like Kolleck and Dayan were avid collectors of Holy Land material and they, along with the Palestinian families who had been in the antiquities business for generations, had a vested interest in wanting the trade to continue. These lobbying efforts and influential elements resulted in the situation today where a tourist can enter a licensed shop, buy an artifact and leave with an export license and even a certificate of authenticity (which may or may not be worth the paper on which it is printed). But where do the ossuaries, oil lamps, and oinochoe (wine jugs) for sale in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv come from?

Barakat GalleryThe Barakat Gallery, Old City, Jerusalem

For the last ten years, I have attempted to answer just that question – how artifacts go from the ground to the consumer in the Holy Land. My PhD research, collected during a year in Jerusalem (2003-2004), led me to conclude that illegally excavated and stolen material was entering the legal market at a regular rate. Many of the artifacts for sale in the legal market have falsified records of ownership and archaeological findspot. Looters illegally excavated items, which enter well-organized networks of trade allowing them to be laundered along the way, only to be sold to unsuspecting tourists and collectors with a clean bill of sale in a state sanctioned shop.

The Baidun Shop.The Baidun Shop. Ossuary for Sale in the Old City, Jerusalem

When Oded Golan inquired about provenience (archaeological findspot) of the “James Ossuary,” the dealer stated that it came from Silwan, a Jerusalem neighborhood dotted with tombs from the first century CE. The tradition of ossuaries has been archaeologically documented for this period in the Silwan area, but because the “James Ossuary” was purchased on the market, we will never know its true archaeological context or whether there were associated finds that would support the claims of authenticity and refute the allegations of forgery. For many scholars, the debate will never be resolved in a satisfactory manner. Research from the Middle East and other areas of the world amply illustrates the connection between the demand for archaeological material and the looting of archaeological sites to meet growing demand. I use the “James Ossuary” by way of illustration not because it might be the earliest tangible archaeological evidence for Jesus of Nazareth – but to demonstrate the destructive influence that the looting of archaeological sites and the subsequent trade in antiquities, whether legal or illegal, has on our collective knowledge of the past.