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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Forgery Indictments and BAR: Learning From Hindsight

The recent indictments in Israel for the forgery of antiquities has caused some much needed soul-searching within academia on the problem of forged or stolen antiquities. Many feel that if the spread of these items is allowed to proceed unchecked, with tacit acceptance or even active participation from scholars, it will cause a crisis — not merely of conscience, but of the historical evidence on which the reconstruction of the past is built.

Along with this self-examination, scholars might also wonder if factors outside the academy, but influenced by it, have contributed to the problem. The media and media publicity, for instance, might bear part of the responsibility for a too hasty acceptance of epigraphic evidence or an over-eager move towards wider publicity before the necessary work of sifting, testing, and authenticating has been done. In hindsight, these questions are particularly pertinent for those popular journals that mediate between the academy and mainstream news outlets.

I am thinking particularly of the popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) and its editor, Hershel Shanks. Consider, if you will, some of the artifacts at the center of the recent indictments: the "James brother of Jesus" ossuary, the Jehoash tablet, the two Moussaieff Ostraca, the "fingerprint" bulla ascribed to Baruch, son of Neriah, [1] and the seal of "Abdi, servant of Hoshea." [2] All of these objects received wide public attention in the pages of BAR. [3] In three of the cases (the ossuary, the bulla, and the seal) the BAR article was the first official publication.

In a sense, of course, BAR was just doing its journalistic job by conveying to its readership information about important new finds. Nevertheless, there may be another sense in which BAR and Shanks have unwittingly contributed to the creation of these "finds." How can this be so? Most of these reflections about responsibility in terms of publication and publicity are clear only in hindsight, but I suggest that we should use this opportunity of hindsight to help us all (scholars and editors alike) reflect about how to proceed in the future. As we consider how BAR might have contributed to, and been a catalyst for, the problem, let us begin with what may be the first of the forged artifacts, the "ivory pomegranate." [4]

The story begins with epigraphist André Lemaire, who was later to regain the spotlight by being the first to publish information about the James Ossuary. Lemaire is an epigraphist with a well-deserved international reputation, and, by his own admission, is known in the antiquities shops of Jerusalem as one who is always on the lookout for unpublished epigraphic material. On one such tour in 1979, a dealer showed him a small ivory pomegranate, with an inscription later published as "(Belonging) to the Temple of Yahweh, holy to the priests." On his own, he determined that the piece was authentic, that the inscription dated from the eighth century B.C.E., and that the pomegranate had adorned the scepter of a priest in the Temple of Solomon. After publishing a scholarly essay about the pomegranate in Revue Biblique, [5] Lemaire published a popular article in BAR. [6]

In a later issue of BAR, after Lemaire's publication had appeared, Shanks called on the unknown owner and the unidentified dealer to come forward with the piece:

We can only plead with the owner to identify himself—or at least to allow the Israel Museum to display the inscribed ivory pomegranate anonymously, so that the public can view this beautiful relic, which can now be seen only in BAR's lifelike color photographs.



The Israeli Attorney General and the Director of the Department of Antiquities should also look into the situation. Is it legal for a private individual to keep to himself a priceless artifact like this? [7]



It should be noted that Shanks never dealt here with the likelihood that the relic, if authentic, had been illegally excavated, nor did he entertain the possibility that the inscription might have been forged. [8]

The story now takes another turn. In 1988, BAR announced that the Israel Museum had purchased the pomegranate for $550,000 from an anonymous collector in Switzerland. Shanks wrote at the time:

The pomegranate first received widespread attention in the pages of BAR. Without this coverage, the object would have commanded a far lower price. Indeed, the owner undoubtedly made the pomegranate available for BAR's beautiful color pictures precisely for this purpose—to enhance the value of the artifact by giving it public attention and scholarly confirmation....



BAR participated in this process—at least to the extent of substantially increasing the value of the pomegranate on the illegal antiquities market—by publicizing the find. Yet the alternative was to refrain from telling the world about it. Were we right? Or were we wrong? [9]



The tone of this statement indicates that Shanks likely felt that he was right, but from our perspective today we must question these decisions even if they were viewed as acceptable 20 years ago. We should also note that even then some scholars felt that these editorial decisions were suspect. In all fairness to Shanks, we should note that he published such an assessment in the form of a scathing letter on the controversy from Ricardo Elia, Director of the Office of Public Archaeology at Boston University. The letter read, in part:

By publishing an object without provenance, one that was still in a dealer's hands, and almost certainly (if the object is genuine) the product of illegal looting, BAR played into the hands of the dealer/owner of the object by authenticating the piece, publicizing its supposed importance and thereby increasing its sale value. In effect, BAR provided free consulting services (by authenticating the object) and free advertising to the dealer/owner of this probably stolen antiquity. The result was a half-million-dollar sale, which can only encourage looters (and forgers) to step up their activities....



In addition, we must honestly communicate the very real possibility that any objects of uncertain provenance may be forgeries; unless proven authentic by physical or chemical tests, let the buyer (and scholar) beware. Ultimately, we will only be able to make a dent in the illegal antiquities trade when the value of an object—to dealers, collectors and scholars alike—is inextricably linked to its provenance and archaeological context.



It would be idle to argue, and it is not possible in any case to prove, that BAR's eagerness to publicize the ivory pomegranate (which late last year the Israel Museum announced to be a forgery) led in any way, directly or indirectly, to the spate of recent questionable finds. But at least in 1988, Shanks was willing to entertain the possibility that BAR was a kind of "accessory" to the sale of the unprovenanced artifact, and BAR's behavior in that instance was a fair predictor of its behavior in the later ones.

Let us consider next BAR's treatment of the "Abdi, servant of Hoshea" seal. This item too was published in a BAR article by Lemaire, although in this case after the seal had already been sold at auction for $80,000 to Shlomo Moussaieff. But once again the article by Lemaire does not discuss the likelihood that the seal, if authentic, was obtained through an illegal excavation; nor does it raise the possibility that, without a provenance, the inscription might be forged, as it is now alleged to be.

The case of the "fingerprint" bulla is also instructive. The article that spotlights it mentions that the first publication of the bulla came in the book Forty New Ancient West Semitic Inscriptions, by Robert Deutsch and Michael Heltzer, a volume consisting entirely of inscriptions published from private collections. [10] In the course of this article, Shanks explicitly agrees with the authors of the volume: "the publication of important epigraphical material of unknown provenance, kept in private collections, is sometimes crucial for our understanding of the past." Once again, two questions are mooted: the ethical question of publishing illegally obtained material and the evidential question of the possibility of inauthenticity.

These questions may have become important only in hindsight, but it is worth asking why they weren't noted at the time — not just by BAR, but by all of us who read it, contributed to it, and enjoyed it. Is it because BAR and the rest of us were insufficiently attuned to the possibility of forgery that Elia had warned about? Is it because the new items were so exciting, confirming, so it seemed, our own sacred texts, that we, and they, wanted them to be true? Did we want to see these "illicit" items as a liberation from the stifling rules of the archaeological establishment, who seemed to have failed us so signally in the case of the publication of the Qumran finds? Probably all of these tendencies played a role. Yet it also seems to be the case that BAR may have contributed to the problem of looted antiquities in the Holy Land by romanticizing collectors and their artifacts, "authenticating" some of them in its articles, and indirectly making the objects more marketable.

It should not be forgotten that BAR has also provided a forum for those who oppose the sale of antiquities. [11] But the impact of these voices has been blunted by the strong advocacy of the editor, who has written, "The only thing that the campaign to outlaw antiquities dealers accomplishes is to give a warm, fuzzy feeling to the self-righteous claque that thinks it is addressing the problem when it is only avoiding, and thereby contributing to, it." [12] BAR may be correct in thinking there is no easy answer to the question of regulating the antiquities trade; still, with the benefit of hindsight, it should be admitted that giving a prominent platform and publicity to dealers who sell unprovenanced artifacts also opens the door to possible forgers. If looters are allowed to do their work, forgers will not be far behind.

The climax of BAR's advocacy of the use of unprovenanced artifacts has come with the affair of the James Ossuary. Before the trial and the presentation of evidence, it would be wrong to speculate about the precise origins of this item; suffice it to say that an accumulation of various kinds of evidence has brought most scholars to the opinion that the inscription, or part of it, is inauthentic. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, it is plain that it would have been better to subject the artifact to a full battery of tests and examination by a team of scholars before engaging the interest of the world. BAR's approach to the ossuary was in line with its previous approach: quickly to publish the exciting news, with opinions gathered from reputable scholars, displaying the full implications, historic and religious, of the find. But the hard questions about provenance and authenticity were not pressed, although this time they were asked. [13] Perhaps it is not reasonable to expect them to have been pressed, but, in the opinion of some scholars, BAR's treatment of the evidence for authenticity was cursory. [14] BAR continues to champion the authenticity of the ossuary.

It would be grossly unfair to BAR to ignore the many positive contributions it has made. Mr. Shanks' magazines (also including Bible Review) are well produced, the pictures are beautiful, and most of the articles are in the best tradition of haute vulgarization of biblical and archaeological research. In the early nineties, he played an important role in the liberation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and gave a significant public platform to scholars who were acting as the conscience of the discipline. For this he deserves lasting thanks.

Yet, if the Scrolls controversy was BAR's finest hour, its ongoing advocacy of publishing unprovenanced artifacts and promoting their authenticity may be its least admirable. Both actions stem from an laudable desire to see the truth prevail, even in the face of those who wish to suppress it; but if BAR, through its very eagerness to "tell the world," comes to be seen as an unwitting tool of those who would falsify history — an "accessory," in Shanks' words — then we all lose.

Edward M. Cook, Research Consultant, West Semitic Research Project.ecook3@cinci.rr.com

Parts of this commentary first appeared on Ralph the Sacred River (http://ralphriver.blogspot.com).

Notes:

1. There are two bullae with the inscription "Berekyahu [=Baruch] son of Neriah"; one of them is in the Israel Museum, the other one, with traces of a fingerprint on the bulla, is in the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff. Only the latter has been named in the indictment.



2. Although the "Abdi son of Hoshea" seal is not specifically mentioned in the text of the indictment, a photograph of it as an allegedly forged item was shown at the press conference announcing the indictments.



3. The James Ossuary: André Lemaire, "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus," BAR Nov.-Dec. 2002; The Jehoash Tablet: Hershel Shanks, "Is It or Isn't It? King Jehoash Inscription Captivates Archaeological World," BAR March- April 2003; Moussaieff Ostraca: Hershel Shanks, "Three Shekels for the Lord, ancient inscription records gift toSolomon's Temple," BAR Nov./Dec. 1997; The Baruch Bulla: Hershel Shanks, "Fingerprint of Jeremiah's Scribe," BAR 22 March-April 1996; Abdi Seal: André Lemaire, "Royal Signature: Name of Israel's Last King Surfaces in a Private Collection," BAR Nov./Dec. 1995.



4. Although the ivory pomegranate was named as a forgery in the introduction to the indictment, no person was in fact indicted for any offense in connection with the pomegranate, apparently because the statute of limitations has expired.



5. André Lemaire, "Une inscription paleo-hebraique sur grenade en ivoire," Revue Biblique 88 (1981), 236-239.



6. André Lemaire, "Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon's Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem," BAR Jan.-Feb. 1984. In this article, Lemaire considers, and rejects, the possibility that the inscription is a forgery.



7. Shanks, "Plea for Owner of Solomon's Temple Relic To Identify Himself," BAR, May-June 1984.



8. On the latter point, it is only fair to note that Lemaire in the original article pronounced the inscription authentic, as did other scholars after him.



9. Shanks, "Was BAR an Accessory to Highway Robbery?" BAR, Nov.-Dec. 1988.



10. The volume was privately published by Robert Deutsch, who was named in the recent indictments as a co-conspirator with Oded Golan in the case of the Moussaieff Ostraca, this bulla and others, and the inscribed "Mattanyahu" decanter (also first published in this volume.)



11. Most notably in "The Rampant Rape of Israel's Archaeological Sites," by David Ilan, Uzi Dahari, and Gideon Avni, BAR March-April 1989.



12. In response to a letter from Semitic epigraphist Larry Herr, BAR Sept.-Oct. 1996.



13. A. Lemaire, "Epigraphy—and the Lab—Say It's Genuine," BAR Nov.-Dec. 2002.



14. Yuval Goren, "The Jerusalem Syndrome in Archaeology," The SBL Forum

http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=374.

Citation: Edward M. Cook, " The Forgery Indictments and BAR: Learning From Hindsight," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=371

 
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