Hershel’s Crusade, No. 3: Forgeries and Unprovenanced Artifacts
Hershel Shanks, who calls himself “an archaeology outsider,” nevertheless digs deep into questions that are crucial for revealing the truth about the authenticity of artifacts from the antiquities market. Hershel does not rest until he finds the answers to these questions. He testifies that because of his training as a lawyer, the “kernel of ‘participation in justice’ is always there and borne in mind.”a His experience in practicing the law enables him, as the founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), to act in ways suitable to the legal world. He shows this feeling of participating in justice by publishing the facts in order to solve riddles regarding the authenticity of unprovenanced antiquities (artifacts without a known place of origin or clear history of ownership), which often come via the antiquities market from unauthorized excavations and are sold to dealers and collectors all over the world. Persistently he follows the evidence and information concerning each case until he believes he can publish in his journal all the available facts.
I first met Hershel Shanks on September 27, 2002, when I was invited to a Friday evening meal in the home of Susan and Max Singer in Jerusalem. When I parked my car, I met Hershel before entering the flat. On our way upstairs, he said he wanted to talk to me about an important subject. He then looked at me and said only, “Ya‘aqob,” referring to the ossuary (bone box) with an inscription about James (Ya‘aqob) the brother of Jesus (Yeshua‘)—later known as the James Ossuary.b I was somewhat surprised, since I thought he had in mind the stone later known as the Jehoash (Yeho’ash) Tablet, the authenticity of which was controversial.c
My acquaintance with these artifacts began about a year earlier when a person named Oded Golancalled me on October 24, 2001, asking if I could decipher certain Aramaic ostraca (inscribed pottery sherds) for him. On November 1, he brought me photos of the ostraca, as well as photos of two ossuaries—one of them mentioned above and another ossuary (later published by André Lemaire)—both inscribed in the so-called Jewish script (i.e., the script used in Judea during the Second Temple period, which evolved from the Aramaic script around the late third century B.C.E.).
On November 12, a man by the name of Isaac Tsur called me to ask if I could give my opinion on a stone inscription carved in the ancient Hebrew script. I agreed to look at it, and six days later a messenger arrived with photographs of the stone inscription (later known as the Jehoash Inscription). I demanded to see the original, but received only more photos. On November 22, Tsur called again and asked me to write a palaeographic report on the inscription and give my opinion on its authenticity. I again asked to see the original, and on December 2, Tsur came with the stone. I examined it on the spot and returned it to him. In my report, I wrote that I could not confirm the authenticity of the inscription. I also added a drawing of the inscription I made from the photograph and an alphabetic comparative chart. (I usually trace the inscriptions with a special pen on transparent film that I place over theoriginal. The result is a black and white facsimile of the original inscription. It is a copy made by hand rather than a photograph or a scan.) I was never told that Tsur was sent by Oded Golan.
In the meantime, I made drawings of the photographs I received from Golan. On January 26, 2002, he brought me a number of ostraca to be examined and deciphered. He did not ask if I had made drawings of the artifacts from the photos he had given me three months earlier, and, as a matter of fact, he did not show any interest in them.
In July and August 2002, I worked together with André Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris, on several Hebrew ostraca. While working together at my home studio, he told me that he was going to write an article about the James Ossuary. I told him that I already had made a drawing of the photo, and he asked if it could be published in his BAR article.
This was the reason Hershel wanted to talk to me. That Friday night in September 2002, Hershel told me that to publish my illustration, I should go to Tel Aviv and make a drawing of the ossuary from the original. That way, if anyone asked me if I had seen it, I could reply positively.
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On Sunday, October 29, 2002, I went to Golan’s house in Tel Aviv and made drawings of three ossuaries, including the James Ossuary—with the inscription that reads “Ya‘aqob son of Yosef brother of Yeshua‘.” While copying, I did not notice any peculiarities that raised my doubt concerning the authenticity of the artifacts. When I finished, Golan took me to an office where photocopies of the drawings were made, and he then sent the one of the James Ossuary to BAR. Lemaire’s article with my drawing appeared about three weeks later.d
I never doubted the authenticity of the so-called James Ossuary, whereas the strange handling concerning the Jehoash Tablet made me suspicious even before I saw it. Even today, I am not sure of its authenticity.
And then there was the pomegranate.e I became involved in this investigation only at the last stages when Hershel asked me to examine it at the Israel Museum, which I did. The object is very small (1.5 in tall), and I examined it through the microscope. Since it is broken on one side—presumably in antiquity—the inscription is damaged, and some of the letters are missing. Certain strokes of other letters are missing, too. I was uncertain about the missing lower part of the letter taw, the form of which originally resembled the letter “X.” The debate is whether the letter’s remaining upper strokes reach into the ancient break. If they do not reach into the break, this could indicate that the letter was made after the break occurred, which could prove that the inscription was forged.
I could not see the part of the stroke that should have been cut by the break and told Hershel that I could not confirm the authenticity of the object. Since André Lemaire showed in his article the photo of the part of the stroke that reached the break, Hershel was not satisfied with my answer. Sometime later he arranged a meeting at the Israel Museum with brothers Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, together with André Lemaire, expert paleographer Robert Deutsch, and me in order to takenew photographs of the pomegranate and examine it again under the microscope. I was skeptical, but agreed to look at it again. It turned out that at my first examination, I missed a certain angle where one can clearly see the stroke reaching the break. When Robert Deutsch showed me the direction at which I should look, I could see that I had been wrong before. I told Hershel that I had no claims left for refuting the authenticity of the pomegranate.
These stories show how cautious and persistent Hershel is in solving problems concerning the authenticity of unprovenanced antiquities.
In his exciting book Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hershel describes in detail the course of events that led to the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which were discovered by chance or illegally reached the antiquities market and, in fact, belong to the vast amount of material called unprovenanced antiquities.
I think that anybody who is interested in the history of the Biblical lands, of the religions that developed in it, and of the neighboring regions understands the importance of discovering and publishing ancient objects, whether inscribed or not, for a better understanding of our past. Unprovenanced antiquities should be carefully examined, and if there is no obvious reason to reject them as forgeries, they should be published by scholars—the same as those found in controlled excavations. We can hope for more authorized excavations, but it would be ridiculous to ignore the existence of treasures that can enrich our knowledge—or to put back into caves or bury in the earth these important finds—just because they came from the antiquities market.
Dear Hershel, I am sorry to hear of your decision to retire from editing BAR, and I wish you would continue your sacred work for many more years. However, I hope that, if you can, you will remain active as usual—doing things you like and believe in—and will continue to bring much happiness to all your admirers.