Bible-Era Artifacts Highlight Archaeology Controversy

L. Peat O'Neil
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2003

Dug up or done up? Recently publicized artifacts from the Bible lands have stirred unusual controversy among archaeologists and other scientists.

It's not unusual for archaeologists to turn up fragments and shards in a structured dig as they sift through rubble and examine remnants of buildings and caves. Teams of archaeologists and adventurers regularly trek to Israel and other countries in the near Middle East hoping to unearth Biblical-era artifacts.

However, when artifacts emerge on the scene quite apart from archaeological digs, experts rightly question authenticity. Further, when an owner can't prove provenance of an artifact and lacks a certifiable history of the item's origins, there's reason to wonder where the artifact came from. Artifacts without documentation that are promoted by dealers or private collectors require informed impartial scrutiny. Looted artifacts also find their way into the clandestine international antiquities market.

Antiquities from the distant past are difficult to date precisely. The time span during which materials like papyrus, bone, stone, pottery and glass age can be measured, but not with absolute precision. Usually, when artifacts emerge in the course of an archaeological expedition, documentation accompanies the discoveries.

One of the most significant and well-documented finds in situ were the ancient scrolls discovered in caves along the Dead Sea. Written on fragments of animal skins and papyrus, the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed from 1947 to 1956 and remain the oldest known versions of biblical and non-biblical texts describing life in the Holy Land during the time of Jesus. In August 2001, a team of researchers directed by Robert Eisenman of California State University, Long Beach, uncovered human remains at Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls area. More bones were found the following year in the same spot. The bone fragments may date back 2,000 years. (Israeli archaeologists involved in the dig quickly conveyed the bones to religious caretakers.)

Mystery Box

One of the more controversial artifact unearthed of late is the James ossuary. (Please see related story: Jesus' Brother's "Bone Box" Closer to Being Authenticated ) The stone burial box measures 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, 10 inches (25 centimeters) wide, and 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and bears the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The ossuary made its debut in October 2002 in the pages of the Biblical Archaeology Review, published in the United States. Jews in the area near Jerusalem used limestone ossuaries like the James burial box between the first century B.C. and first century A.D., roughly the historical period of Jesus, to rebury desiccated remains of people a year after their body's original interment. Scholars debate whether the box's inscription was a recent addition. Some even question the financial motives of those associated with the ossuary's discovery.

A second controversy concerns a fragment of stone now referred to as the Jehoash Tablet. Incised Phoenician writing on the legal pad-size stone referred to the Jerusalem Temple at the time of King Jehoash. This artifact was announced in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. If the tablet text could be validated, it might enhance Jewish claims to certain disputed holy sites. But there's been little discussion to date of how a fake inscription might impact the claims to that area where mosques now stand.

Age and Custody

Such cases serve to illustrate the problem of antiquities that surface without clear provenance and archaeological context, particularly those with claims to great historical import. Some archaeologists question the authentication processes used to verify such antiquities and indirectly question the political motivations behind them.

Robert Eisenman, a professor of religion at California State University, Long Beach, cautions that curators and scientists have to be extremely careful when evaluating new items with handwriting or other supposedly datable indications. All artifacts with text involve a certain amount of analysis, including radiocarbon analysis. Eisenman says he is concerned about the preconceptions held by people involved in such analysis. "Such preconceptions are very worrisome," he said. "For instance paleography [the study of ancient writing and inscriptions] is being used now to authenticate all kinds of different objects. It was used on the Dead Sea Scrolls to make all sorts of extravagant claims that were often at odds with the internal evidence or what the texts themselves said. These are not exact sciences. Yet the public has been given the impression that they are, when in fact they are extremely questionable," said Eisenman.

"The public might hear that something is first century BCE [before Common Era, also known as B.C.] handwriting style, but formal styles are very stubborn and these styles may have endured for hundreds of years. Even if a given paleographer could determine with any precision when a given handwriting style originated, they certainly would have no idea when a given scribe actually used it," said Eisenman.

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