Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Gold Dust and James Bond June 18, 2003

Israel Antiquities Authority declares James Ossuary and Jehoash Inscription Fake

Forgeries. That's the verdict of a scientific panel established by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to examine the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription. Announced today at a press conference in Jerusalem, the panel's findings--summarized below--show that these two artifacts are modern fakes, not ancient relics of the Bible.

James Ossuary

  • Epigraphical experts divided on authenticity of inscription

  • Ossuary is made of local limestone

  • Ossuary surface covered with a natural rock varnish overlaid by patina in places

  • Inscription carved through the varnish

  • "Patina" coating only the inscription was made from a solution of hot water and chalk

David Blumenfeld, courtesy Harper San Francisco

Conclusion: At some time long after the natural processes of varnish and patination in a damp cave environment had been completed, someone carved a series of letters through the natural varnish on the ossuary. Then he or she covered the freshly cut letters with an imitation patina made from water and ground chalk.

A media frenzy followed last October's announcement that André Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris had found an inscription--James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus--on a light brown limestone box of the type commonly used for burials in first-century A.D. in Jerusalem. It seemed that this box, or ossuary, had once held the bones of James, brother of the biblical Jesus, who was stoned to death in A.D. 62 according to the historian Flavius Josephus. Publicized in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, the ossuary was hailed by Time magazine as possibly "the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology." It was exhibited at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), was the subject of a book by HarperCollins, and was even featured in a Discovery Channel documentary that premiered this past Easter. Doubts about the ossuary's origins and questions of its authenticity were brushed aside, many biblical scholars along with Survey of Israel geologists and ROM scientists vouching for it.

But doubts persisted, then increased in January of this year when another remarkable artifact with biblical associations--and murky origins and ownership--surfaced in Israel: the Jehoash Inscription, seemingly a 2,800-year-old account of repairs made to the Temple in Jerusalem. Its text, in Hebrew-Phoencian script, bore an unusual similarity to a passage in the Old Testament. Microscopic globules of gold said to have been found in the inscribed letters were explained as remnants of the gold walls and objects of Solomon's Temple that the Babylonians destroyed. But scholars almost immediately pointed out what seemed to be obvious grammatical errors in the inscription.

Jehoash Inscription

  • Numerous mistakes in grammar and eccentric letter forms

  • Made of a metamorphic stone found in western Cyprus and points west, not local sandstone

  • Patina covering inscription made from a solution of hot water, clay, chalk, carbonized particles, and micron-sized globules of metal--possibly gold
Conclusion: An obvious forgery

Were these sensational finds too good to be true? The Israel Antiquities Authority began its investigation. A forthcoming article by Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren in the September/October issue of ARCHAEOLOGY will report on the investigation, its background, and outcome. In the meantime, the IAA press conference has made the following details clear:

The scholars on IAA's scientific panel were divided into committees to investigate the epigraphic aspects of the inscriptions (letter forms, grammar, syntax) and to carry out a minute physical examination of the artifacts, including the patina that covered them. The epigraphic committee included Avigdor Victor Horwitz and Shmuel Ahituv of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Ronny Reich of the Haifa University, Amos Kloner and Ester Eshel of the Bar-Ilan University, Hagai Misgav of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Tal Ilan of the IAA. The physical examination committee included Yuval Goren of Tel-Aviv University, Avner Ayalon of the Geological Survey of Israel, Elisabetta Buaretto, head of the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Jacques Neguer, head of IAA's stone restoration department, and Orna Cohen, an experienced archaeological restorer.

Their mandate was straightforward: make a thorough, independent study of both artifacts; check the previous scientific conclusions; and finally, come to a reasoned evaluation of their authenticity. The Israeli Minister of Culture, Limor Livnat, had personally mandated the work of the scientific commission. She noted, particularly with regard to the Jehoash Inscription, that if it were found to be genuine, it would be "the most important archaeological discovery ever made in the State of Israel." And what the members of the panel found were several unmistakable clues to some of the secret tricks of twenty-first-century antiquities forgery.

The verdict of the epigraphers with regard to the Jehoash Inscription was unanimous: all agreed that the numerous mistakes in grammar and eccentric mixture of letter forms known from other inscriptions made it clear that this was a modern forgery. The James Ossuary was a different matter. The epigraphers were divided about the authenticity of the first part of the inscription but in light of the results of the patina committee, they unanimously agreed that the entire inscription must have been modern. Thus in this case, it was geochemical and microscopic analysis--rather than scholarly erudition--that uncovered the truth.

Examination of a thin section of the chalk from which the James Ossuary had been carved indicated that it was of chalk limestone of the Menuha Formation of the Mount Scopus Group, which is fully consistent with the hundreds of authentic ossuaries that had been found in the Jerusalem area. But the earlier geological experts and the conservators at the Royal Ontario Museum had mentioned only a single kind of "cauliflower"-shaped patina. The geologists Goren and Ayalon, in fact, identified three distinct coatings on the surface of the ossuary:

  • A thin brown veneer of clay and other minerals cemented to the rock surface, presumably rock varnish created by living bacteria or alga over prolonged periods of time.

  • A crusty natural coating of patina (this was the "cauliflower") that formed over the rock surface due to the absorption or loss of various elements and minerals.

  • The "James Bond": a unique composite material that received this nickname from Goren since it was bonded onto the incised letters of the James Ossuary inscription, but wasn't found at any other place on the ossuary surface--or on any of the authentic ossuaries that the commission members had used as comparative examples.

The varnish covered large areas of the ossuary surface and the patina had burst through the varnish in many places. Both varnish and patina coated a rosette inscribed on the other side of the ossuary. But Goren and Ayalon's meticulous microscopic analysis showed that the letters of the entire Aramaic inscription "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus" were cut through the varnish, indicating that they were carved long--perhaps centuries after--the varnish-covered rosette.

Strangest of all was the "James Bond," the chalky material that coated the letters. It contained numerous microfossils called coccoliths, naturally occurring as foreign particles in chalk, but not dissolved by water. Hence it was clear that this was not a true patina formed by the surface crystallization of calcite, but rather powdered chalk--microfossils and all--that was dissolved in water and daubed over the entire inscription. Thus, the forger's technique was apparent: the James Ossuary was an authentic artifact on which a decorative rosette originally marked the "front" side. At some time long after the natural processes of varnish and patination in a damp cave environment had been completed, someone carved a series of letters through the natural varnish on the ossuary's "back" side. Then he or she covered the freshly cut letters with an imitation "patina" made from water and ground chalk.

Indeed method of imitating ancient patina by preparing and applying a carefully designed mixture of generally similar material was also evident inside and between the letters of the Jehoash Inscription. The results obtained by Ayalon made that clear. His study concentrated on a telltale clue to the nature of authentic ancient patina: its isotopic ratio of oxygen provides a distinctive indication of the qualities of the water with which the patina was produced.

Calcite (calcium carbonate, CaCO3) is the primary component of naturally formed patina on buried archaeological artifacts in calcareous areas, such as the Jerusalem region. This is due to the fact that calcite dissolves in groundwater. With the loss of CO2 from the groundwater by evaporation, the calcite crystallizes again on the stone's surface (just like the "stone" that collects inside a tea kettle). The oxygen within this recrystallized calcareous coating--the patina--has the same isotopic ratio as the water from which it was produced. And that value can even be used to determine the temperature at which the crystallization took place.

Ayalon determined in his analysis that while the calcite of the patina from the uninscribed surface of the James ossuary, and indeed the surfaces and inscriptions of other authentic ossuaries that he examined, had ratios that were normal for average ground temperature of the Jerusalem vicinity, the ratios of the "James Bond"--that strange mixture that covered only the letters of the inscription--was entirely different. In fact, they suggested that the crystallization took place in heated water, not the "cave environment" that the earlier geologists had claimed. The evidence pointed to an intentional faking of the patina over the letters of the "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" inscription--and nowhere else.

In the case of the Jehoash Inscription, the geological verdict was as damning as the epigraphic one. The Survey of Israel geologists had even misidentified the rock type. It was not arkosic sandstone from southern Israel or Jordan but low-grade metamorphic greywacke of a type found commonly in western Cyprus and areas still further west, but not in the Levant south of northern Syria. The back of the stone was covered by a hard patina, as the earlier experts had stated. But this patina was now found to be composed of silica only, most likely resulting from the siliceous composition of the rock. Yet such patination is unlikely to be created on a stone that was buried in the entirely calcareous environs of Jerusalem.

Once again, there was a dramatic difference between the patina on the uninscribed back and sides of the stone from that found within and among the chiseled letters. Unlike the siliceous deposit everywhere else, this material was soft and made of pure clay mixed with powdered chalk. Within this artificial mixture were a few micron-sized globules of metal (presumably the gold mentioned by the earlier experts) as well as carbonized particles. It was more or less the kind of "soup" that Goren has suggested a modern forger might use. But before Goren did not have access to the actual artifact. And now finding that this "patina" could be easily rubbed off the letters, unmistakably fresh engraving marks could be seen.

Indeed, the fake patina on the Jehoash Inscription shared the most telltale characteristics of the "James Bond" on the James Ossuary." The presence of undissolved microfossils in the mixture showed that it was made from powdered chalk, not natural crystallization and its isotopic ratios of oxygen for the calcite in the fake patina of the Jehoash inscription indicated again the crystallization was produced in hot water--not in the ground.

Based on these results and a combination of epigraphic and historical considerations, the IAA panel concluded that both inscriptions are modern fakes, engraved on authentic artifacts and covered with a carefully prepared mixture to imitate patina and to make them look centuries old.

And what of the two styles of handwriting on the James Ossuary that had been discerned by some early critics? This aspect of the case was not covered in the IAA press conference, but, as Silberman and Goren report in their forthcoming ARCHAEOLOGY article, an intriguing theory emerged during the course of the investigation. The physical examination showed that the entire inscription was carved at the same time, so two different hands seemed unlikely in an inscription of only five words. Or did it? And examination of the very same catalogue of published ossuaries that Professor Lemaire had used as comparison for the letter forms in the ossuary Inscription, now seemed possibly to be their source. In an age of readily available scanning software it is entirely possible to make flawless copies of ancient letters as they appear on genuine artifacts. For example, taking the word "Jacob" (from catalogue no. 396); the words "son of Joseph (from catalogue no. 573); "brother of" (from catalogue no. 570); "Jesus" (common enough to have many examples) and resizing them and aligning them with the computer software Photoshop or PageMaker could have created an extraordinarily authentic template for a faked inscription, that seemed to be carved by more than one hand.

The principals in the affair of the apparently spurious artifacts responded almost immediately. Oded Golan, for his part, maintained his earlier line. "I am certain the ossuary is real," he told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "I am certain that the committee is wrong regarding its conclusions." And, accusing the committee of having preconceived notions, he also asserted his confidence that the Jehoash Inscription was genuine as well.

In a hurried press release issued by Roger M. Freet, associate director of marketing and publicity for HarperSanFrancisco, the publisher of James, Brother of Jesus, Hershel Shanks, co-author of the book and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, is quoted as saying "Some of the world's greatest paleographers, and two teams of rigorous scientists that have tested the inscription, have found nothing to question as to its authenticity. All indicate a first-century date. There is too much evidence in favor of the inscription's authenticity that the IAA announcement has not yet addressed." He added that "In the end, if the inscription is indeed proven to be a fake perpetrated by a modern forger, then I hope that the forger will be caught and put in jail."

Shanks also challenged IAA director Shuka Dorfman, saying that "Dorfman--who hates antiquities collectors, antiquities dealers, the antiquities trade, and would like to put Israeli antiquities dealers out of business--appointed his deputy as chairman of the scientific committee to study the ossuary inscription. This appointee is a fine archaeologist, but has no training in geology or chemistry."

Nevertheless, the conclusions of the IAA committee were unanimous and seemed to put a definitive end to the claims that the James Ossuary bore an authentic inscription. More information can be expected from the Israel Antiquities Authority in the coming weeks and ARCHAEOLOGY will follow closely the twists and turns of this extraordinary case.

* The Geological Survey of Israel now concurs with the Israel Antiquities Authority, see "Geologists: Ossuary Patina Faked," April 23, 2003.
* For the controversy surrounding the "discovery" and announcement of the James Ossuary, see "Ossuary Tales," January/February 2003, and for a review of the Discovery Channel documentary see "Caveat Viewer," April 17, 2003. For the latest on these forgeries and their scholarly and political ramifications, see the September/October issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America