Friday, October 28, 2016

More authenticity questions about the "Jerusalem" papyrus

EPIGRAPHY: Papyrus With Earliest Hebrew Mention of Jerusalem Likely Fake, Experts Say. Archaeologists are usually wary of any finds not discovered in a supervised dig, though Antiquities Authority insists ancient scroll is authentic (Nir Hasson, Haaretz).
But at Thursday’s session of an antiquities authority conference on Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region, archaeologist Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University cast doubt on the document’s authenticity. He also assailed the authority for deciding to publicize it even though “it was clear in advance that it would be controversial.”

Maeir said there were too many unanswered questions about the papyrus. “How do we know it isn’t a forgery intended for the antiquities market?” he demanded, adding that forgers could have deliberately “sacrificed” this document in order to prepare the way for selling other papyri that they would “discover” later.

The fact that carbon-14 dating proved the papyrus’ age is insufficient, he added. “After all, there are well-known cases in which writing was forged on an ancient ‘platform,’” he said. “It’s very possible that only the papyrus itself is ancient.

“In my humble opinion, the need for additional tests is glaring, especially if a government agency is publishing this and giving it a seal of approval. Why wait for the arguments and only then do the additional tests? They should have done them first.”

Prof. Christopher Rollston of George Washington University also voiced skepticism, writing on his blog that he believed the document was a forgery.
read more:
PaleoJudaica readers will already be familiar with Professor Rollston's concerns. He doesn't say that he believes the document to be a forgery, he says it may be one. Professor Ahituv and others defend its authenticity, though. I think Professor Ahituv's comment is worth highlighting: “Would a forger buy an ancient, dry, fragile papyrus, write text on it that’s typical of the seventh century, and then fold it up and tie it with a cord and thereby endanger all his work?”

Two thoughts. First, the IAA should release the lab reports for all the tests they did on the papyrus, so that other specialists can evaluate them too. Really, this should be the industry standard. It's not that hard these days to post a pdf file online.

Second, this latest announcement exemplifies an unhelpful trend to give potentially important discoveries early media attention with enthusiastic press releases that sometimes later have to be walked back. Perhaps there's no way to get around this in the modern world, but I wish such things could be delayed to coincide with the publication of peer-review research about the discovery. It is only at that point that a real case can be made for authenticity. Even then, for a given discovery the debate may continue in the peer-review literature for years before any kind of consensus is reached.

Peer-review is not a panacea, but it is the best tool we have for making sober judgments about historical questions. I know I harp on this a lot, but it is important to keep it in view. Scholarship is a slow and painstaking process and it does not conform well to the timetable of news cycles. With this case, as always, let us proceed with all deliberate speed, but with caution, rigor, and method.

Background here and links.