Responses to the Epigraphic Forgery Crisis: Casting Down the Gauntlet to the Field and to Museums

During recent years, the public has often been inundated with sensational stories of "new epigraphic discoveries": the "Ya'akov Ossuary" ("James Ossuary"), the "Jehoash Inscription," "the Moussaieff Ostraca," and the "Ivory Pomegranate" are some of the most notable. Dominant voices have touted such epigraphs as being of great significance "for the field" and "for the faith." Voices of caution and moderation (that note the absence of an archaeological pedigree and the potential of forgery) have been quelled with substantial success.

By Christopher A. Rollston
Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies
Emmanuel School of Religion, Graduate Seminary

And

By Heather Dana Davis Parker
Teaching Fellow of Biblical Hebrew
Emmanuel School of Religion, Graduate Seminary
March 2005

INTRODUCTION

The number of Northwest Semitic inscriptions appearing on the antiquities market continues unabated. Some of these epigraphic objects are genuine (i.e., ancient) inscriptions but have appeared on the market as a result of illicit excavations. [1] Some of these epigraphic objects, however, are modern fabrications, produced by forgers with venal, vengeful, and vainglorious motives. [2]

Of course, some might suggest that epigraphic Northwest Semitic forgeries are reasonably rare, and, therefore, constitute a minor problem for the field. However, the fact of the matter is that forgeries are a common problem for the field, with inscriptions such as the "Moussaieff Ostraca," the "Jehoash Inscription," and the "Ivory Pomegranate," being recent notable examples. [3] Moreover, some might accept the fact that there is a forgery crisis at this point but argue that this has indeed been primarily a "recent phenomenon." However, the fact of the matter is that Northwest Semitic forgeries have been a problem for some time, as "the Brazilian Phoenician Inscription," "the Shapira Fragments," and the "Philistine Documents from Hebron" demonstrate. [4] The point is that forgeries are a common problem for the field and for the public, and this has been the case for some time.

I. THE CORRUPTION OF THE NORTHWEST SEMITIC DATASET

A most egregious result of the forgery crisis is the fact that the dataset of Northwest Semitic inscriptions has been, in some respects, tainted. For example, Heltzer authored a recent article treating property rights of women in ancient Israel, but his article is based predominantly on non-provenanced epigraphic materials, and one of the epigraphs he mines heavily for "ancient" data is actually a modern forgery. [5] Moreover, numerous discussions about the significance of the "Baruch ben Neriah" bullae have been penned; however, these bullae are also modern forgeries. [6] The point is that the dataset of ancient Northwest Semitic inscriptions has been corrupted (in some sectors) by modern forgeries.

II. METHODOLOGIES FOR RESTORING THE DATASET

Two broad courses of action are now necessary for the field: (1) Specialists within the field must come to terms with the fact that the production of forgeries in the modern period is not facile, but neither is it that complicated. Indeed, Rollston has argued that forgers currently have all of the necessary epigraphic, linguistic, laboratory, and media (e.g., potsherds, papyrus) resources to produce high quality forgeries that are capable of "passing all the tests," or at least passing them to the satisfaction of many. [7] For this reason, the default position with regard to non-provenanced epigraphs should now be methodological doubt, regardless of the "sensationalism" surrounding the epigraph. (2) Rigorous methodological protocols such as (a) the consistent "flagging" (e.g., with an affixed Ø before the reference in lexica) of non-provenanced inscriptions, (b) the separation of non-provenanced inscriptions from provenanced inscriptions in handbooks and collections (rather than putting them side-by-side, as is often the case), (c) and the relegation of non-provenanced inscriptions to a secondary or tertiary status in the field must become the norm (rather than allowing non-provenanced inscriptions to be the basis for constructs about ancient culture, language, etc.). The point is that in order to protect the dataset of Northwest Semitic inscriptions from being tainted with forged data, non-provenanced epigraphs must be "quarantined" permanently as tainted data (with few exceptions). [8]

III. RAMIFICATIONS OF THE FORGERY CRISIS FOR THE PUBLIC SPHERE

During recent years, the public has often been inundated with sensational stories of "new epigraphic discoveries": the "Ya'akov Ossuary" ("James Ossuary"), the "Jehoash Inscription," "the Moussaieff Ostraca," and the "Ivory Pomegranate" are some of the most notable. Dominant voices have touted such epigraphs as being of great significance "for the field" and "for the faith." Voices of caution and moderation (that note the absence of an archaeological pedigree and the potential of forgery) have been quelled with substantial success. [9]

Of course, it is predictable (but regrettable) that the public would listen to the most vocal and persistent pronouncements about such sensationalized inscriptions and assume the accuracy of the reports. Moreover, it is also predictable (but lamentable) that the public (and even the field) would attempt to draw premature (and often erroneous) historical and theological conclusions from such epigraphs. [10] The great Israeli palaeographer Joseph Naveh justifiably penned a warning against such things several decades ago. [11] Nevertheless, recent history demonstrates that his sage cautions have not been consistently heralded or heeded. [12]

Of course, it would have been helpful if the public had been informed from the outset that these sensationalized inscriptions were non-provenanced and that some (or many) scholars considered them to be modern forgeries. Nevertheless, this did not occur (or at least did not occur on the necessary scale), and historical and theological chaos became regnant in certain circles.

It is here argued that, fortunately, museums and collections are in a place to elevate the visibility of this problem. This will enable the public to become more keenly aware of the problem and ultimately will result in the public’s being much more savvy about the need to scrutinize press reports on non-provenanced epigraphs.

IV. A MEANS OF ATTEMPTING TO RECTIFY THE PUBLIC PROBLEM: THE PUBLIC DISPLAY OF FORGERIES

It has often been the case that museums and collections have purchased epigraphs (and various other objects) from the antiquities market. Some of these purchased objects are ancient, but some are modern forgeries. Naturally, after curators discern that an object in the collection is indeed a modern forgery, the object is (normally) removed from exhibit. [13] Of course, for various reasons, the discovery that an object in a collection is a modern forgery can be an embarrassment (e.g., for the curators that authorized the purchase, the museum that used its funding to purchase such an object, etc.). However, Rollston and Parker suggest that museums and collections should consider displaying such objects, noting that they are modern forgeries. This sort of exhibit is a desideratum for the public and museums as (1) It will raise the public’s awareness of the fact that forgeries are a common problem for various fields; (2) It will increase the public’s sensitivity to the potential problems with non-provenanced artifacts; (3) It will provide the public with an opportunity to understand more about the complicated processes involved in attempting to determine the antiquity of a non-provenanced object; (4) It will allow the museum to exhibit forged pieces, rather than relegating them to a storage facility. [14]

Significantly, the Israel Museum has decided on this course of action: "The Ivory Pomegranate" is on display in the Israel Museum as a modern forgery. The Israel Museum describes its decision to display the forgery with the following rationale: "The Israel Museum believes that it is important for the public to understand the process of authentication, and the techniques involved, as well as the interplay of scholarship, connoisseurship, and science which informs archaeological research. The pomegranate will be shown in the archaeology galleries as an example of this ongoing process." [15] The decision of the Israel Museum is, for the museum and the public, salutary. We believe that this practice should be replicated.

Furthermore, as an ancillary point, it seems prudent at this juncture to suggest that museums and collections should also begin to be even more intentional about the issue of "marking" objects. That is, even in the case of non-provenanced objects that are believed to be ancient, there should be some affirmation in the object’s description that it was not found on a controlled archaeological excavation. Moreover, it also seems sage for museums to include some sort of information about the problem of the plundering of sites and the (general) superiority of excavated objects [16] The point is that the public must receive more information about the problem of non-provenanced artifacts and the various potentialities and ramifications.

Finally, it should also be affirmed that museums and collections should make a concerted effort to allow credentialed scholars to analyze non-provenanced objects in their collections. [17] This might seem to be a needless point (as it might be assumed that museums and collections would always allow credentialed scholars to do such analyses). Nevertheless, for various reasons, those that own and exhibit non-provenanced objects might be reluctant to permit the study of these objects. [18]

CONCLUSION

Forgeries have been a perennial problem for some time, and it should be anticipated that the problem will become even more severe, with superior forgeries being the norm in coming decades. (1) Therefore, the field of Northwest Semitic studies must implement strategies and methodologies to ensure the purity of the dataset upon which historical and linguistic constructs are based. (2) Moreover, museums and collections should begin to be even more intentional about addressing the problem by exhibiting forgeries and including discussions of the problems associated with non-provenanced artifacts. This will raise public awareness of the issue and reduce the credulousness that has been regnant of late.

1] For a summary of the problem, see Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests," Maarav 10 (2003): 135-136, and especially Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic," Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79. Both of these articles contain substantial bibliography on the subject. See also Christopher A. Rollston, "The Crisis of Modern Epigraphic Forgeries and the Antiquities Market: A Palaeographer Reflects on the Problem and Proposes Protocols for the Field," Society of Biblical Literature Forum, March 2005 (www.sbl-site.org).

[2] For discussion of selected forgeries, detailed palaeographic analyses of some of the forgeries (including the "Moussaieff Ostraca" and the "Jehoash Inscription"), and a summary of traditional motives, see Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I," 135-193.

[3] Rollston has argued for some time (especially on the basis of the constellation of palaeographic anomalies) that all four of these inscriptions are modern forgeries (i.e., the two famous Moussaieff Ostraca, the Jehoash Inscription, and the Ivory Pomegranate). See Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I," passim. However, the Israeli Special Commission has now subjected these four inscriptions (and numerous others) to laboratory analyses, and the members of this commission have stated that they, also, are convinced that these inscriptions (and numerous others) are modern forgeries.

[4] For the Brazilian Phoenician Inscription, see Frank Moore Cross, "The Phoenician Inscription from Brazil: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery," Orientalia 37 (1968): 437-460. For the Shapira Fragments, see the fine summary in N. A. Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land: 1799-1917 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 131-146, as well as the comments of P. Kyle McCarter, "Shapira Fragments," BARev 23 (May/June, 1997): 40. For the Hebron Philistine Documents, see Joseph Naveh, "Some Recently Forged Inscriptions," BASOR 247 (1982): 53-58. For further bibliography on all of these forgeries, see Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I."

[5] M. Heltzer, "About the Property Rights of Woman in Ancient Israel," in Shlomo: Studies in Epigraphy, Iconography, History and Archaeology in Honor of Shlomo Moussaieff (ed. R. Deutsch; Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2003), 133-138. The forgery that we refer to is Moussaieff Ostracon #2. See C. A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I," 145-146; 158-173, for a discussion of the numerous palaeographic problems and aberrations with this ostracon. See pages 183-184 of Rollston’s article for a discussion of the serious problems with the laboratory tests performed.

[6] For a thorough bibliography of these bullae, see Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 BCE (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 68-73. Note that the special Israeli commission declared one of these bullae to be a forgery. Both of these bullae, though, were arguably made from the same seal; moreover, both contain the same palaeographic anomalies, hence, Rollston and Parker consider both to be definitive forgeries. Regarding the anomalies of the script of these bullae, note especially the anomalous stance of samek and pe in sequence, and see the discussion in Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I," 160-162.

[7] See Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I," 136-139.

[8] For a discussion of proposed protocols, see Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II," 71-76. For a more accessible summary of the issues, see also Christopher A. Rollston, "The Crisis of Modern Epigraphic Forgeries and the Antiquities Market: A Palaeographer Reflects on the Problem and Proposes Protocols for the Field," Society of Biblical Literature Forum, March 2005 (www.sbl-site.org).

[9] Note, for example, that after the indictments of the Israeli special commission were released, press releases in various countries contained statements such as the following: "It [in this case, the "James Ossuary"] caused a worldwide sensation when it surfaced in 2002, hailed by archaeologists and academics as the most significant Judaeo-Christian find ever unearthed. Israel’s Antiquities Authority, however, recently declared it a fake and prosecutors in Jerusalem claim that leading authorities who authenticated it were duped." This citation is from the January 9, 2005 edition of the "Telegraph" (www.telegraph.co.uk/news). However, the fact of the matter is that many archaeologists and academics had rejected all or part of the inscription on this ossuary as a modern forgery already in 2002, with Rollston even stating this in his presentation on forgeries at the 2002 Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Nevertheless, these voices of caution were muted in the midst of the rabid sensationalism; therefore, many within the press (e.g., the "Telegraph") assumed that the Israel Antiquities Authority was the first to make such a declaration.

[10] Note, for example, that Witherington actually proposes that the Roman Catholic Church "revisit" the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary because he considers the Ya‘akov ("James") Ossuary to be ancient evidence that Mary gave birth to children in addition to Jesus. He writes: "if the historical evidence militates against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity….can the matter be revisited, as have so many beliefs and practices once considered sacrosanct in the Catholic tradition?" Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 218-219. Witherington’s remarks are hubristic; moreover, they are based on the erroneous assumption that the entire inscription is ancient. We are grateful for Ryan Byrne’s calling our attention to the citation in this volume.

[11] Joseph Naveh, "Some Recently Forged Inscriptions," BASOR 247 (1982): 53.

[12] Naveh’s caution was directed primarily at the forgery problem, but a cognate problem (that merits the same caution) is the magnification of the importance of an authentic inscription or manuscript. For a superb narration of this "misplaced sensationalism" during the past, see Bruce M. Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), especially 103-116 and the discussion of the Yonan Codex.

[13] Oscar Muscarella has mentioned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in those rare cases when it becomes clear that an object is a modern forgery, removes the object from exhibit. Personal communication, February 4, 2005. For the subject of forgeries, see Muscarella, The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures (Gronigen: Styx, 2000), a volume of fundamental importance. See now also Morag M. Kersel’s review of Muscarella’s volume in BASOR 335 (2004): 101-103.

[14] Of course, sometimes museums can enter into litigation against, or negotiations with, those who vetted or previously owned the objects (rather than displaying the object or relegating it to storage).

[15] See the Israel Museum’s web site at: www.imj.org.il/eng/archaeology.

[16] See Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II," 59-70.

[17] We especially refer to permission to do epigraphic analyses; however, an important ancillary point is that museums and collections should attempt to subject non-provenanced objects to double-blind laboratory tests as well. See Christopher A. Rollston, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I," 190-191.

[18] For example, Rollston recently requested permission to collate (for a two-hour period "before or after exhibit hours") a non-provenanced object (the "Marzeah Papyrus") which is currently a part of the "Ink and Blood Exhibit." It is being touted as "five hundred years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls." Rollston is suspicious about the authenticity of the inscription. However, the owner of this papyrus, along with the director of the exhibit (knowing Rollston’s views), have denied access and have provided the following rationale: "it would inconvenience and disrupt the show."

 

Article Comments

Submitted by Lawrence Mykytiuk on Wed, 02/24/2021 - 21:31

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I have an addition to note [6], as follows:
The excellent article above was written in 2005 and cites my 2004 published dissertation, _Identifying Biblical Persons_, but a 2009 article of mine is very relevant in that it affirms the authors's point about forgeries and disqualifies the two bullae "of Berekyahu ben Neriyahu, the scribe" as both unprovenanced and "probable modern forgeries" (p. 62):
See the update in Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, “Corrections and Updates to ‘Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E.’ ” Maarav 16(1) (2009): 49–132, esp. 62; http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/lib_research/129/ .

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