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Artifacts or artifice?: Upcoming forgery trial divides scientific community

by richard n. ostling, the associated press

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jerusalem | Soon, Israel will be conducting archaeology's trial of the century, which involves precious artifacts linked with the Bible that supposedly are thousands of years old.

Nonsense, say prosecutors, who charge that the items, valued in untold millions of dollars, are fakes.

They have accused five men of operating a sophisticated, long-running forgery ring: the owner of one of Israel's largest antiquities collections; three Israeli antiquities dealers, including the former chief conservator of the Israel Museum; and a West Bank Palestinian involved in one transaction.

However, the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review says that what has been made public so far leaves serious questions about the science that underlies the case against one of the items.

On that artifact, the U.S. magazine has much at stake. In 2002 it proclaimed the discovery of a burial box inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" and quoted scholars who said this was almost certainly the only inscription of Jesus' name to survive from his own time.

But doubters immediately challenged that claim and Israeli prosecutors have now joined them. The box itself is truly ancient, they contend, but the full inscription, or at least "brother of Jesus," was added later.

This dispute largely pits paleographers, who study letter shapes and styles to date and authenticate ancient inscriptions, against chemists and geologists who have examined the artifacts.

The magazine says that among leading paleographers who study this era, none has questioned the inscription, while the main doubter lacks a university appointment. It also cites conflicting testimony about claims that people have seen the box without the Jesus inscription.

Scientists' opinions are divided and technical questions haven't been answered satisfactorily, the magazine continues. One study that critics use, for example, says the lack of telltale ancient patina (surface film) in the inscription could have resulted simply from modern-day cleaning.

Last year, the Journal of Archaeological Science published an article by Yuval Goren, chairman of the archaeology department at Tel Aviv University, and two scientists with the Geological Survey of Israel. They argued against the authenticity of the box, disputing two other Geological Survey scientists who had endorsed it.

James Harrell, a professor of archaeological geology at the University of Toledo, Ohio, wrote a technical response accusing the three attackers of making "serious errors in their basic chemistry." But the scientific journal wouldn't print Harrell's response, so he posted it on the Internet for all to see.

Other important artifacts are involved in the scandal. One significant item is an ivory pomegranate inscribed "Holy to the priests, Temple of (Yahwe)h." The letters in parentheses are a supposition because the inscription is damaged. Since 1988 the Israel Museum has displayed this as the only relic ever discovered from King Solomon's Temple.

Just before the indictments, the museum announced that experts had decided this was a modern-day hoax. But no report has been issued explaining who decided this and on what basis.

Now Biblical Archaeology Review has offered to buy the pomegranate for $550,000, the price the museum originally paid the anonymous owner.

Other artifacts listed in the indictment include a widely doubted inscription concerning repairs on Solomon's Temple; a record of a donation to the ancient Temple; various bullae (clay seals for documents), one of which names the prophet Jeremiah's scribe Baruch; a stone oil lamp; a wine decanter possibly used in the Temple; a bowl inscribed with the name of Pharaoh Shishak, who invaded biblical Israel; a now-missing gold seal that supposedly belonged to Judah's King Manasseh, and other items as yet unidentified.

The magazine says in all instances "the indictment disclosed almost nothing about the making of the alleged forgeries."

That only adds to the mystery and the anticipation surrounding the forthcoming trial.


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