Sunday, February 08, 2004

PAUL FLESHER e-mails regarding my latest post on the "James Ossuary":
I was pleased to see that you saw Hershel Shanks' editorial item about the Christian Embassy. Unfortunately, while you saw the speck, you missed the log. Yes there is a difference with regard to the date (as well as the name of an individual). However, apart from those two details, Shanks corroborates the entire story!

Meyers simply put the story forward as a comment about an attempted sale of the ossuary. It was Shanks, not Meyers, who made the observation that if it was 2001 rather than 2002, then Golan's claim about not knowing the significance of the inscription would be false. (Of course, if the ossuary was sold in the 1990s, this is irrelevant.) Meyers and Shanks may differ on the details, but not on the SUBSTANCE of the story.

So Shanks' details, if true, disprove the question he himself raises, but they have no impact on the point Meyers makes.

Thanks, Paul, for your comments. Some thoughts in response:

1. I take the point that part of the anonymous archaeologist's account, specifically, Meyers's "postscript" about the ossuary being offered for sale to the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, has been verified. I probably should have underlined this in my posting.

2. However, it appears that the account has also been shown to have a couple of errors: the date was wrong and the intermediary was not Golan's lawyers. The first error is significant for the question of Golan's veracity, although this issue wasn't raised by Meyers and does not seem to have occurred to him.

3. The substance of the postscript has been corroborated. But we have no new information either way, that I can see, about the main account, about the end of the inscription being missing in the mid-1990s.

4. I've mentioned before that there's a question that still bothers me: how does this testimony that the inscription was carved in two stages, at least one in the 1990s, cohere with the geologists' conclusions that the entire inscription was coated with the so-called "James Bond," a modern patina made of water and chalk and evidently daubed onto the whole inscription? I quote from the Archaeology Magazine article, "Gold Dust and James Bond":
The geologists Goren and Ayalon, in fact, identified three distinct coatings on the surface of the ossuary:

* A thin brown veneer of clay and other minerals cemented to the rock surface, presumably rock varnish created by living bacteria or alga over prolonged periods of time.

* A crusty natural coating of patina (this was the "cauliflower") that formed over the rock surface due to the absorption or loss of various elements and minerals.

* The "James Bond": a unique composite material that received this nickname from Goren since it was bonded onto the incised letters of the James Ossuary inscription, but wasn't found at any other place on the ossuary surface--or on any of the authentic ossuaries that the commission members had used as comparative examples.

�� The varnish covered large areas of the ossuary surface and the patina had burst through the varnish in many places. Both varnish and patina coated a rosette inscribed on the other side of the ossuary. But Goren and Ayalon's meticulous microscopic analysis showed that the letters of the entire Aramaic inscription "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus" were cut through the varnish, indicating that they were carved long--perhaps centuries after--the varnish-covered rosette.

�� Strangest of all was the "James Bond," the chalky material that coated the letters. It contained numerous microfossils called coccoliths, naturally occurring as foreign particles in chalk, but not dissolved by water. Hence it was clear that this was not a true patina formed by the surface crystallization of calcite, but rather powdered chalk--microfossils and all--that was dissolved in water and daubed over the entire inscription. Thus, the forger's technique was apparent: the James Ossuary was an authentic artifact on which a decorative rosette originally marked the "front" side. At some time long after the natural processes of varnish and patination in a damp cave environment had been completed, someone carved a series of letters through the natural varnish on the ossuary's "back" side. Then he or she covered the freshly cut letters with an imitation "patina" made from water and ground chalk.

Are we supposed now to conclude that the inscription was forged in two stages? Is that plausible? Or is the cutting through the original varnish and the application of the James Bond the result of modern cleaning of both the original, genuine, and later, faked, sections of the inscription? In that case, wouldn't the conclusion be that Golan is right and that the James Bond was accidentally put on when his mother cleaned the inscription? Am I missing something? Someone help me out here.

4. Back to the story of the altered inscription. Another important point: the errors in the postscript inevitably raise the question of how many errors there might be in the account about the ossuary and its inscription in the 1990s. Maybe none, maybe trivial ones, maybe significant ones. We have no way of knowing at present.

5. And that returns me to the same point I've been making: until the entire story is made public, in detail, with all names and places included, we can't evaluate it. Let me emphasize that I believe the parties involved in this debate are speaking in good faith and telling us what they know as best they know it, to the degree that circumstances permit them at present to tell it. But in some ways this is still a game of "telephone" and we've already seen (again, if Shanks's understanding checks out) that errors have entered the transmission in one way or another. This reinforces my contention that the account needs to be fully aired in public so that lots of people can check it out from different angles. Testimony in court would be an excellent venue, and that seems to be in the works. The story is important and it deserves that kind of open presentation and attention. Until we have it, I'm just going to watch with interest and keep an open mind.

"Trust, but verify."

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