The Valuable Contributions of “Worthless” ArtifactsSome thoughts.
by Dorothy D. Resig
A trend has developed recently in the archaeological establishment: Ignore all unprovenanced artifacts. This approach is especially popular among field archaeologists, who believe that objects without a stratified context are worthless. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) have even banned the publication of articles and the presentation of papers about unprovenanced objects from their journals and conferences.
Other scholars reject this view, however. As Swiss Biblical scholar and religious historian Othmar Keel said in an interview with BAR, “I don’t think we can write a history of the ancient Near East without relying on unprovenanced material.”* That prompted us to take a look at several unprovenanced artifacts—all published in BAR—that have contributed significantly to our understanding of the Biblical world.
1. There are two problems with unprovenanced artifacts. First, their authenticity is not obvious, as in the case of an excavated artifact, and so they must be authenticated by other means and this may not always be possible. Second, important information has been lost when the archaeological context of the artifact is severed from it and discarded. The first is a reason not to use unprovenanced artifacts, or at least to use them with considerable caution. The second is regrettable, but is not a reason not to use them.
2. I don't think the Amarna tablets or the Dead Sea Scrolls are good examples to use here, because subsequent excavations at the relevant sites demonstrated their provenance and confirmed their authenticity. Thus the second problem above still applies, but much less the first.
3. The bullae and, to a lesser degree the incantation bowls, are quite problematical because they are comparatively easy to forge (unlike, say, the Moabite Stone).
4. We've been warned that a Monster Forgery Machine has been polluting Hebrew and Aramaic epigraphy for decades, making the market in unprovenanced inscriptions highly unreliable, although so far the Israel forgery trial has not produced compelling evidence that this is so. Still, starting just from first principles, there is reason to worry about this possibility. But meanwhile, as a rule of thumb, I suggest that the cooler and more exciting the unprovenanced artifact, especially if it relates closely to already known and treasured texts such as the Bible, the more we should suspect it is a forgery and demand convincing authentication.