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The Buzz: Trial of the Century Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005

[image] The James Ossuary as it appeared during a 2003 raid of an alleged forgery lab in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority) [LARGER IMAGE]

Eighteen months after the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) first announced that the James Ossuary, a first century A.D. limestone bone box engraved with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," and the Jehoash Inscription, a tablet purporting to be a 2,800-year-old account of repairs to the Temple in Jerusalem, were forgeries, the country's Justice Ministry handed down indictments against five men. The group includes four antiquities dealers, among them ossuary owner Oded Golan and the former head of the antiquities laboratory at the Israel Museum. According to the indictments, the five were allegedly members of a ring that skillfully faked biblical artifacts by adding inscriptions to real ones or by faking them altogether. Setting the stage for the indictments was the formal admission by the Israel Museum a few weeks earlier that their treasured ivory pomegranate, an artifact that supposedly carried an inscription associating it with Solomon's Temple, was a forgery--one crafted by the ring under indictment.

Many in the scholarly community are raising questions about the role played by Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), an American publication that has supported the private ownership and trade of antiquities in its pages. The ivory pomegranate, the James Ossuary, and other objects now said to be fakes were first presented in BAR, and until recently the magazine's publisher Hershel Shanks has been a vocal defender of ossuary owner Oded Golan. "Hershel Shanks is doing a great service to Near Eastern archaeology by creating such a circus of publicity over the defense of private ownership of antiquities--it makes the issues very black and white, and people who were once ambivalent over these issues are realizing what a ridiculous situation this is," says Neil Asher Silberman, a staunch critic of the antiquities trade who has covered the ossuary saga for ARCHAEOLOGY ("Faking Biblical History," September/October 2003).

"Antiquities collecting is more than the noble rescue of unprovenanced artifacts from oblivion," adds Silberman. "It's bad business, it's bad for the discipline, and we have to take a new attitude towards it now." He noted that collectors are already wary of losing huge fortunes to forgers. Yuval Goren, who analyzed many of the forgeries, predicts that in the long term, the result will be "a disaster for Hebrew epigraphy." Technology has made text replication so accurate, he believes, that the style and language of the ancient writing used may no longer be sufficient criteria by which to judge the authenticity of an artifact.

Shanks, on the other hand, argues that the forgery claims are being used by the IAA as a take-no-prisoners attempt to put antiquities collectors and dealers out of business once and for all. "I don't know whether or not Oded Golan is a forger, and I don't know for sure whether the James Ossuary is a forgery, but what I do know for sure is that the IAA has handled this very badly. Maybe the evidence will come out at trial."

Judicial proceedings are scheduled to begin in Israel in about six months. And for the Near Eastern art and archaeological community, this will be the trial of the century. Will there be more indictments? Who will testify? What other heralded objects, in museums across the globe, will be revealed as forgeries?

Shanks, for one, is looking forward to it. "The trial will either unmask the forgery of the century, or the most embarrassing episode in the history of the IAA," he says.

But the biggest impact that the trial and resultant revelations may have, Goren worries, is on the attitude the public will have toward biblical archaeology. "People may think, 'Everything is a fake, so what are we left with? What can we believe, what can't we believe?' It won't be good for archaeology."

* For more on the ossuary and the indictments, visit

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America