Skip to main content

Intellectual consequences for Biblical Archaeology?

Are some scholars ignoring the intellectual consequences of looting and forgeries for their discipline?

The Biblical Archaeology Society has posted a 'Statement of Concern' on 'The Publication of Unprovenanced Artifacts'. It has a list of distinguished signatories.

The first point states, 'We are strongly opposed to looting'. Good: we have some common ground. This is what Gill and Chippindale have described as 'Material Consequences'. We can discuss the role of governments - and widen it to include the professional responsibilities of archaeologists, museum curators, dealers, magazine editors, etc. In other words, the solution to looting is not just the area of concern for national governments, we have our part to play as well.

Let me for now dwell on point two of the 'Statement of Concern':
"We also recognize that artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning. On the other hand, this is not always true, and even when it is, looted objects, especially inscriptions, often have much of scholarly importance to impart."
Gill and Chippindale have discussed the Intellectual Consequences of looting and unprovenanced objects. Let me take one example (which I have discussed in Evangelical Quarterly 77.4 (2005): 354-58), the inscribed ivory pomegranate ‘thought to be the only relic of King Solomon's Temple’. Let me quote myself:
"The pomegranate is reported to have surfaced in ‘an Antiquities shop in the Old City of Jerusalem’ in 1979, purchased anonymously in Jerusalem, removed from the country, offered anonymously for sale, and purchased—reportedly for $500,000 in 1998—by the Israel Museum with the help of an anonymous Swiss benefactor (see conveniently Nahman Avigad, ‘The Inscribed Pomegranate from the “House of the Lord”’, in Hillel Geva (ed.), Ancient Jerusalem Revealed (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994), 128-37)."
I have rechecked the Israel Museum's website today (August 10, 2007) and this is what is said:
"Before its arrival in the Museum, the pomegranate was examined by leading epigraphists (scholars of ancient inscriptions) and deemed authentic. The recent reexamination, which used an environmental scanning electron microscope, subjected the inscription and patina to closer scrutiny than had been possible before. The new study shows that although the object itself dates to the Late Bronze Age (14th-13th century BCE), its inscription is not ancient."
Let me unpack this.

a. The pomegranate was 'unprovenanced' and 'surfaced' on the market.

b. The signatories of the statement would now take this position (point 2):
"We also recognize that artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning. On the other hand, this is not always true, and even when it is, looted objects, especially inscriptions, often have much of scholarly importance to impart."
c. The pomegranate enters the corpus of knowledge and is accepted as "the only known relic from the First Temple in Jerusalem" (quote from The Israel Museum).

d. The signatories of the statement would no doubt maintain this position (point 4):
"It has been rightly said that the history of the ancient Near East as we know it could not have been written without the use of unprovenanced, often looted artifacts and inscriptions".
e. Scientific tests suggests that the pomegranate is ancient but that the inscription was added in recent times.

f. The pomegranate cannot be used as evidence from the First Temple in Jerusalem.

g. There were Intellectual Consequences caused by the acquiring and publishing of this 'unprovenanced' artifact.

Let me close with my words from EQ:
"The pomegranate is a good reminder that forgers choose something that people want to be true, and will prove both intellectually stimulating and commercially rewarding."
Have the signatories added their names to a flawed statement of concern?


rd said…
Are there no limits to hypocrisy?

Why weren’t leading Israeli paleographers allowed to participate in the
conference to discuss the authenticity or forgery of the first temple Ivory Pomegranate and present their opinions based on their expertise? Leading paleographer such as Prof. Yosi Naveh (my teacher at the Hebrew University), Prof. Gabi Barkay (my teacher at the Tel Aviv University) and Dr. Ada Yardeni, who probably has the best eye for ancient letter forms (she even invented the fonts which have been given her name). Is their exclusion because some parties "Fear the Truth"?

Why is the evidence ignored?

As a paleographer I have handled and published more than 1000 West Semitic inscriptions, including seals, seal impressions, ostraca, weights, arrow-heads,
decanters, jars, impressed handles, coins etc. The first rule for me was to
authenticate the items by investigating it under microscopic conditions and only then publish them. Some fakes observed in private collection were omitted, or published accordingly clearly titled: "Questionable or Forged".

In my capacity as a paleographer I contacted the Israel Museum for permission to check the pomegranate. I was refused! It was only after my lawyer appealed to the museum’s director was I allowed to visit the museum and examine the pomegranate. The museum informed me that I would not be allowed to use their microscope. Knowing this before my visit I arrived with my personal microscope and its camera. Once at the museum the laboratory personnel told me they do not have a table on which I can place my microscope and only after 10 minutes of a dispute they provided me a table, but no chair!

Finally, the pomegranate was brought into the room but I was immediately informed that I would not be allowed to touch it! Therefore, they asked the chief restorer
to be present and to move and turn the pomegranate according to my requests (as one can see from the pictures provided by Mr. Shanks, the attendants of the meeting had the pomegranate for free inspection, they handled it with bare hands).

In any event, I spent more than an hour and a half checking the inscription on the pomegranate and taking several excellent photographs of the letters.
My conclusion is unequivocal: the letters were engraved in antiquity, and many letters maintain a fine genuine patina. There cannot be any doubt whatsoever, that the fragmentary letters that were damaged, were engraved before the ivory was broken. Moreover, the smooth edges of the broken letters, proves that the artifact continued to be used in antiquity even after the damage!

My conclusions, together with the new pictures photographed at the museum, were presented a few weeks ago at the International Convention of the Society of Biblical Research, July 2007 at the University of Vienna.

One can only speculate what is the exact motivation of "honest" Prof. Yuval Goren and his "rubber stamp" team, to declare a perfectly genuine inscription as a fake?

I think I can offer a crystal clear answer to this question: Prof. Youval Goren, as also his two colleagues, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv and Prof. Aaron Demski were witnesses who testified in the maliciously called "The Ring of Five Forgery Trial." Prof. Goren was supposed to be the prosecution’s key witness, who declared several other
un-provenanced genuine artifacts, as fakes.

Therefore, Hershel Shank’s attempt to discover the truth is an exercise in futility; Yuval Goren simply can not admit mistakes, or afford to change his view, simply because his prestige is in question and his testimony in court would collapse as unreliable!

But what else is new under the sun?

Robert Deutsch
Tel Aviv
David Gill said…
I am grateful to Robert Deutsch for his frank comments that highlight the problems when an object on display in a museum has no known find-spot. There are serious intellectual consequences for the discipline - a point that I was trying to make.
When I think of the pomegranate and the "james ossuary" (and having seen the latter at the famous exhibition at the ROM at SBL time a few years ago), I can't help but think of these objects as religious relics. A moment ago I ran across an announcement for what promises to be a very interesting book about this issue from the University of Chicago Press
Wharton, Annabel Jane
Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks

blurbed as "...a penetrating introduction to the explosive combination of piety and capital at work in religious objects and global politics..."
David Gill said…
But if they are forgeries can they also be 'relics'? And thank you for pointing out the University of Chicago book.
Jim said…
The big problem here is religion and ideology (both political and disciplinary). I have had these discussions with native Israelis, archaeologists, anthropologists and others. Here is what I have learned:

1) Some members of the Jewish government (including some archaeologists) who are more 'minimalist' in their view of the Bible and it's historicity see solid archaeological evidence that upholds the historicity of the Hebrew Scriptures as a threat to Arab/Israeli peace. They feel that undermining Israel's history in the Holy Land will enhance prospects for peace.

2) Other Israelis who are more theologically conservative or 'maximalist' in their view of the Hebrew Bible see an item like the 'brother of Jesus' ossuary as a threat to Israel's right to exist by way of 'Christian Supersessionism' meaning that any find that significantly 'proves' the New Testament will undermine Israel's right to exist. This came out in discussions when the James ossuary was only being examined by Israeli but not Christian scholars. Pretty amazing seeing that so many conservative evangelical Christians are now somewhat Zionist in their outlook politically.

3) Since many (not all) archaeologists are materialistic in their outlook and less likely (compared with the past) to be religious in nature, there is often a presumption or bias toward sacred texts and any kind of evidence in the archaeological record that confirms Scripture is treated with great skepticism. A little skepticism is healthy but it is fairly dogmatic in the archaeological circles I have traveled in over the last 20+ years. Not a small number of faculty I knew at the University of Minnesota did not even believe there was such a person as a historical Jesus. Anything related to the Bible was right up there with Grimm's Fairy Tales or entirely borrowed from neighbors like Egypt.

If the James ossuary and/or the Temple Pomegranate are fakes then fine but let it be a decision handed down by the many and not the few. If an object is fake or altered what do the current teams of scholars have to hide from others? Let others too look and shake their heads and say how skillful the forgers work is. The academic politicking only makes the world doubt the objectivity of the resulting opinion.


Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

Mithras relief from Tor Cervara

A fragmentary relief of Mithras was discovered in 1964 at Tor Cervara on the outskirts of Rome. It was acquired by the Museo Nazionale Romano.

A further fragment of the relief was acquired by the Badisches Landesmueum in Kalrsruhe in 1976. The source was an unstated Swiss dealer. This fragment has been reunited with the rest of the relief [press release].

Today a further fragment of the relief was reunited with the other pieces. This had been recovered during a raid in Sardinia.

The Toledo skyphos and a Swiss private collection

The Attic red-figured skyphos attributed to the Kleophon painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 1982.88) is now coming under further scrutiny following the research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. The skyphos shows Hephaistos returning to Olympos.

Tsirogiannis has identified what appears to be this skyphos in five photographs in the Medici Dossier. The museum acknowledged that the skyphos had resided in a 'private Swiss collection'. Tsirogiannis suggests that this is probably a reference to Medici.

Enquiries to the museum by Tsirogiannis elicited the information that the skyphos had been acquired from Nicholas Koutoulakis (although that information does not appear on the museum's online catalogue).

The curatorial team at the Toledo Museum of Art will, no doubt, be contacting the Italian authorities to discuss the future residence of the skyphos.

For further discussion of the Toledo Museum of Art on LM see here.

Tsirogiannis, C. 2017. "Nekyia: Museum ethics an…