A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Why the recent rash of biblical fakery is about so much more than money
In late December, Israeli authorities filed criminal indictments against five suspects--four of them antiquities dealers--who allegedly belong to a forgery ring that crafted such notorious objects as the Jehoash Inscription, the James Ossuary, and an ivory pomegranate that had once been a heralded item of the Israel Museum (see "The Trial of the Century"). Archaeologist Eric Meyers, a professor of Judaic studies at Duke University and noted skeptic of the James Ossuary, spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY about how the recent spate of high-profile forgeries should force archaeologists, museums, and even governments to rethink the way they approach ancient objects that lack archaeological provenance.
Do you think that from now on when Israelis visit their museums, they'll be casting a wary eye on what's in the display cases?
I think absolutely yes, because the Israeli public has been awakened to some very unpleasant realities. The Israel Museum is one of the great museums of the world, not just for archaeology but also for art and Jewish ceremonial objects. And museum officials have been given a wake-up call regarding the whole process by which they purchase unprovenanced artifacts. Just the way that the ivory pomegranate was purchased in 1988: It was deposited in a numbered Swiss safe deposit box and the Israel Museum deposited the money in another box and no one ever saw who actually sold it--it's ridiculous. I mean, this reads like a novel, not like the business major museums deal with.
From your experience, what's the markup on a common artifact once a forger gives it a biblical association?
Probably six figures or more.
So it's a pretty lucrative business.
The outlay to make forged clay bullae--clay lumps used to seal papyri and packages--and add a biblical name to them is virtually nothing, and these things go for anywhere from $100,000 on up depending on what is on the bulla. One of the real ironies of the situation is that some of these dealers and collectors indicted on forgery charges were taking advantage of the very, very rich collectors who purchased many of these artifacts after so-called authentication.
These collectors who got swindled must be furious right now.
Of course, but on the other hand, archaeologists are furious, too. And remember, these big collectors did all right, because they donated objects to museums and got huge tax write-offs. This worthless piece of clay gets authenticated, goes to six figures, the collector gets a huge write-off, and so it just encourages more illegal dealing. The authenticator can just get paid under the table. The whole scheme is pretty darn good. And then this stuff winds up in museum collections and the public is cheated.
From what we know now, how do you think this will most severely impact Near Eastern scholarship?
This may affect a huge percentage of inscribed materials. Take Nahman Avigad's seminal work, Corpus of West Semitic Stamps and Seals, revised by Bennie Sass in 1997. Bennie has been quoted as saying that he has to redo this whole book and have every one of these inscriptions reexamined. And who is it published by? The Israel Academy of Sciences. This is major stuff. On the other hand, the basic framework of biblical history has been known for many years, and despite recent controversies about chronology, it remains well established.
Do you think this whole mess will compel Israel to revamp its antiquities laws? Aren't Lebanon and Israel the only countries in the Middle East that permit the sale of antiquities?
That's correct. It's really time for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Ministry of Education and Culture, in which the IAA operates, to rethink the sections of the 1978 antiquities law that deal with the licensing of antiquities dealers and collectors. My understanding is that the IAA is hesitant to press the ministry and the government to change the law banning legal trades in the collection of antiquities because it could open up a broader discussion of what to do with human remains. The IAA now works on a handshake agreement with the government on handing over human remains believed to be of Jewish origin to religious authorities, but it's not in law. So the IAA feels that if they open up the antiquities law for discussion, they ultimately might win in regard to dealers and collectors but end up allowing the religious authorities to have an enormous influence on the scientific examination of all human remains in the archaeology of Israel. So it's very tricky.