MORE ON THE FORGERY SCANDAL: The Guardian
has an interesting article today (via Paul James Cowie on the ANE list).
The discovery that ancient artefacts sacred to Jewish history are forgeries has sent shockwaves through the museum world. But was the gang behind the scam only interested in cash, or did they have other motives? Rachel Shabi investigates
Thursday January 20, 2005
It all started with the pomegranate. On Christmas Eve, the Israel museum in West Jerusalem made an announcement about a tiny ivory pomegranate that had been on display at the museum since 1988, believed to have come from the First Temple of Israel. The pomegranate, the museum sheepishly revealed, was actually a fake. It was still a very old and beautiful carving, but the inscription denoting its First Temple origins had been forged.
Five days later, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) declared that it had uncovered a sophisticated forgery ring, based in Israel, which had produced a stash of fake Bible-era artefacts. In addition to the pomegranate, it revealed that two other objects, both similarly revered, had also been rumbled as bogus. One was a limestone ossuary box said to have held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, and supposedly the oldest physical link to the New Testament. The other was a stone tablet, from the ninth century BC, inscribed in ancient Hebrew with instructions by King Joash for maintaining Solomon's Temple.
This opening is misleading. It makes it sound as though there was some entirely new revelation in late December that the James ossuary and Joash inscription were forged. In fact, both have been considered forgeries
as far back as 2003. There had even been speculation that the ivory pomegranate
was fake since at least March of 2004.
This sentence, which comes a bit later, has problems too:
So what tipped off the investigators? "We got some information in September 2002 about a stone with an inscription about the third temple of Joash in Jerusalem," says Amir Ganor, head of investigations at the IAA.
This has to be a misquote. What temple of Joash? What third temple? Herod's temple is sometimes considered a third temple, and the inscription was supposed to have been in the time of Joash, but in Solomon's temple. This is just sloppy.
Despite this not very promising beginning, the end of the article has some interesting thoughts about how the academic world may have brought the scandal on itself.
What this episode shows is the extent to which the antiquities community has laid itself open to abuse. According to Israel Finkelstein, archaeology professor at Tel Aviv university, most biblical land has been officially and rigorously excavated and produced few relics. "Do you want me to believe that robbers are then going with a flashlight at night and managing to find 50 inscriptions? Of course I don't believe it."
That is an extremely good point. This is similar to Schiffman's point
that the more exciting the artifact, the more likely it is to be forged.
Still, the sale of marketplace antiquities is booming. Aren Maeir, archaeology professor at Bar Ilan university in Ramat Gan, describes it as "an astounding market, particularly among private collectors with millions of dollars at their disposal". Objects can sell for $1m apiece, and academics say that top forgers hunt academic journals for the objects that would be considered significant if unearthed, and then sneak fake finds into the market - giving the antiquity community exactly what it wants. "There is an eagerness all over the world, in museums, to display antiquities of great value," says Finkelstein, "and there is no question that some of them were not careful enough in their [evaluation] methods. It was some sort of naivety, something about wanting to believe."
The discovery of a Temple-era pomegranate, in particular, was always going to provoke excitement. The pomegranate is a deeply resonant fruit in Judaism that, according to the Bible, was used as a decorative motif in Solomon's temple. There is a Rabbinic reference to its seeds, which in legend always number 613 - one for each of the commandments of the Bible. One Israel museum press officer explains the effect of seeing such relics: "It is very exciting, very emotional, very Jewish feelings," she says. "Any time you see something like this, it feels very special because you can see your roots."
It underlines the intense political significance that antiquities, particularly Biblical-era artefacts, attain in Israel, where discoveries of ancient sites or relics can be claimed by particular groups as proof of their historic claim to a particular piece of land. Early Zionism was enthusiastic in promoting Bible-era relics - they cemented the Jewish connection to the land, and were seen to give credence to the new state of Israel: ancient facts on the ground, if you like. It is telling, suggests Dr Shimon Gibson, archaeology professor at the Albright Institute, Jerusalem, that the Joash stone emerged at around the same time - early 2003 - that Palestinian leaders were becoming more vociferous over the "alleged" Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. The stone's inscription describes repair works to the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. "Those who forged, if that is what they did, would be trying to identify key spots of interest to Israel at that moment," he says. "One of those is, of course, the Temple Mount, because in any deal made with the Palestinians, the status of Jerusalem and who controls the holy places is one of the key things that will be on the table."
Yes, this was a remarkably well-timed coincidence. As was the appearance of the James ossuary just when James had been getting a lot of attention, as Mark Goodacre
pointed out recently.
Some have argued that the only way to stop antiquity fraud is to properly ban the sale of objects with unknown provenance. Others, such as Snyder, counter that this would serve only to bury precious artefacts in the hands of private collectors, not evaluated by experts and not appreciated by the public.
That's a good point too. Even if scholars take the high road and refuse to sully themselves by studying unprovenanced artifacts, the lucrative market of antiquities collectors won't be affected. The only solution I've seen which addresses the central problems head-on is that of Joe Zias
: flood the market with prime-quality, undetectable fakes so that both scholars and collectors lose the incentive to deal in unprovenanced artifacts.