They were highly prized artefacts with inscriptions that dated back to biblical times. The only problem was they were fake. Haim Watzman unearths the authentication work that has rocked Israel's archaeology community.
At the end of December, five alleged members of an antiquities forgery ring were indicted in Jerusalem's district court. At the same time, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem removed from view one of its most prized pieces: an ivory pomegranate bearing an inscription hinting that it had been used by priests in Solomon's Temple, the holiest site of the Israelite nation in the biblical period. The five men stand accused of forging this and other inscriptions.
Behind these events lies a debate between the museum and scientists over how and when archaeological objects should be authenticated. Should a rigorous, scientific, peer-review process have kicked into action over the pomegranate decades ago, when the piece was bought by the museum? Or were the expert opinions solicited by the museum at the time sufficient to justify its purchase — at a cost of US$550,000?
Yuval Goren, chairman of Tel Aviv University's department of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern cultures, and head of the lab that recently investigated the pomegranate, bridges both sides of the debate at the heart of the problem. Is chemical and microscopic analysis the ultimate arbiter of authenticity, or can this be overruled by the work of historians and experts in ancient script? As an archaeologist with training in microscopy, Goren speaks the languages of both the natural and social sciences. At 48 years old, intense and good-looking, Goren could easily be the model for the hero of an archaeological detective series.
Goren and his team were first brought in to look at the pomegranate last year. It was of paramount importance to historians at the time, as it was thought to be a rare piece of solid evidence for the existence of Solomon's Temple. According to the Bible, this temple was built in the tenth century BC at the command of God (‘Yahweh’ in ancient Hebrew), on a hilltop that is now Islam's third holiest site, holding the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. The site's sanctity means that it can't be excavated, and the resulting dearth of direct evidence has led some historians, as well as adversaries of the modern state of Israel, to argue that Solomon's Temple never existed and that the Jewish state thus has no legitimate claim to the sacred hill.
The pomegranate's inscription, obliterated in part by a hole in the object, has been reconstructed to read: “Belonging to the Temple of Yahweh, holy to the priests,” in ancient Hebrew. The cream-coloured relic has a hole in the bottom, and the archaeologists who examined it when it first came to light speculated that it was used as the top of a sceptre. Pomegranates, being one of the seven species with which God blessed the Holy Land, according to the Bible, are a common motif in Israelite artefacts.
When the Israel Museum bought the piece from an undisclosed owner in the 1980s, curators asked Nahman Avigad, a senior archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to authenticate the object. Avigad and his colleagues examined the piece with a microscope and declared it to be genuine1. But by 2003, serious doubts were raised about this conclusion when two other highly publicized objects with biblical associations threw up some surprises.
The first of these was a black sandstone tablet, engraved with an inscription in ancient Hebrew remarkably similar to two biblical passages describing temple repairs carried out by King Jehoash of Judah. Three geologists at the Geological Survey of Israel examined this ‘Jehoash tablet’ in 2002 and determined, through chemical analyses and carbon dating, that the stone and its patina — the coating that often develops on ancient stone, metal and ceramics through interaction with air or soil — indicated that the inscription was more than 2,000 years old. They ruled that it was probably a remnant of Solomon's Temple2.
But when Edward Greenstein, a professor of biblical studies at Tel Aviv University, saw a picture of the tablet in his morning newspaper early in 2003, he quickly came to the conclusion that it was a forgery, and not a very good one. He and other palaeographers — experts in ancient scripts — said that some of the word uses were modern rather than ancient, and that in several cases the spelling wasn't right for the time period. “Any one of these howlers would demonstrate the spurious character of the inscription,” wrote Frank Moore Cross, an emeritus professor of Hebrew at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the Israel Exploration Journal3. If there was conflict between the natural-science results and the palaeographic results, Greenstein and Cross argued, the natural scientists were wrong.
The second object was an ossuary of the type used in Roman times to inter human bones, with an inscription reading “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”. In this case some palaeographers and archaeologists declared the item to be authentic whereas others claimed it was a forgery.
Out of character
More work on these objects was clearly needed. So in 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority began an investigation. It established two committees, one of humanities experts and one (with Goren as a leading member) of natural scientists.
In the case of the Jehoash tablet, Goren issued a scathing critique of the geologists' methods and conclusions4. In the analysis he and his colleagues performed, they noted that the patina within the inscription's letters is quite different from that on the back of the tablet. The latter is packed with silicon and strongly attached to the rock surface, he noted, and so is undoubtedly authentic. But the patina in the inscription is a mixture containing chalk, iron-rich clay, charcoal and microscopic globules of gold — a composition that matches neither the tablet itself nor the rocks and soil of Jerusalem. Goren and his associates concluded that this patina was fake.
In the case of the James ossuary, Goren found that the patina in and around the inscription contains coccoliths — microfossils of tiny marine creatures. Such fossils could not have been transferred to the object from the chalk in the surrounding soil by natural processes, Goren says. Instead, he says, the forgers probably ground up chalk and mixed it into a fake patina.
Goren's collaborators also looked at oxygen isotope ratios in the patina, which provide information about the conditions, such as temperature and humidity, in which it formed. They found these ratios to be widely different in the letters themselves compared with elsewhere on the object. Goren and his two co-workers concluded that the patina on the inscription could not have been created in Jerusalem during the past 3,000 years: the inscription, he says, is a recent addition.
The only other possibility is that someone, for some reason, scraped off the real patina and replaced it. This provides an opening for those textual scholars who still maintain that the inscription is real.
In June 2003 the committees issued their reports: both objects were forgeries. Most of the humanities scholars agreed, although there are some who still reserve judgement.
Tracking the source
When suspicions about the objects first arose, police sought them out and found them in the possession of Oded Golan, a private antiquities dealer and one of the five indicted men, who continues to assert that the objects are genuine. He claimed that he was trying to sell the pieces on behalf of their owners, whom he did not identify. In 2003, the antiquities authority and the police asked Goren and others to examine a number of other inscribed objects that had passed through Golan's hands. The Israel Museum set up its own task force, with Goren as a leading member, to examine the prize piece: the pomegranate.
Goren's lab is the opposite of high-tech, containing some microscopes and devices for measuring and cutting tiny portions of potentially valuable objects for study. In the case of the Jehoash tablet and the James ossuary, Goren scraped off tiny amounts of patina using a scalpel, a small chisel and a set of dental tools. He then used microscopic images to help determine the composition and crystalline structure of the object's minerals, revealing where the stone was probably quarried and the conditions under which the patina formed. If needs be, Goren's chemist colleagues can use instruments such as mass spectrometers to determine the exact elemental composition of the material.
Goren concluded that although the pomegranate does date to the bronze age — the period 3300–1200 BC and before Solomon's Temple is believed to have been built — its inscription is a modern addition. “The patina is no patina — it contains only silicon,” Goren says. “Furthermore, whoever wrote the inscription was careful not to cross an ancient fracture in the object. That means the inscription postdates the fracture. It's hard to believe that someone would dedicate a broken pomegranate to the temple,” he says.
Michal Dayagi-Mendels, the Israel Museum's chief curator of archaeology, is not happy about the debunking of a prize object that cost the museum half-a-million dollars. But she says that this may be the sad but inevitable consequence of the advancing science of detecting frauds. “Tests become more and more sophisticated over the years,” she says. “The kinds of tests that were done now could not have been done when we made the acquisition.”
Letter by letter
“The methods I use are classical methods that everyone uses. They're available and inexpensive.”
But Goren disagrees. “The methods I use are classical methods that everyone uses. They're available and inexpensive,” he asserts. True, he says, the use of the scanning electron microscope, a device that provides high-magnification, high-resolution images without damaging artefacts, is relatively new to archaeological investigations. But this just provides a new way of performing essentially the same analyses that have long been done on such objects. The same results could have been achieved in the 1980s with a conventional microscope, he says, just as his team did for the ossuary and the tablet.
Goren argues that forgers manage to dupe curators because museums are often so eager to gain a prize item that they take shortcuts through the scientific process. “It's not a problem of scientific method but of ethics,” he says. As far as Goren is concerned, the work done on the pomegranate when it was purchased simply wasn't sufficient.
Dayagi-Mendels says that more than 90% of the archaeological artefacts owned by the Israel Museum come from documented excavations, which helps immensely in proving authenticity.
“In principle, anything that doesn't come out of an excavation undergoes a series of tests in our own restoration laboratories and, when called for, in external laboratories,” she says. Such objects, as well as excavated objects about which questions arise, undergo further testing over the years, she adds. James Snyder, the museum's director and an art historian by profession, says the procedure followed for the pomegranate's purchase, which was made before his directorship, was perfectly appropriate.
It is not practical to run every possible test on every unprovenanced object, notes Paul Craddock, a materials scientist at the British Museum's department of conservation, documentation and science. Craddock, who is now writing a book on fakes and forgeries, emphasizes that the scientists can only seek to answer questions that curators pose for them, based on their expertise and professional intuition. He cites a case in which his museum was offered a bronze water vessel from the medieval period, which was unusually shaped as a unicorn. “We had to be told that the important bit was the horn. If we'd run our tests on a leg, the object would have been proved genuine,” he says. But with the knowledge that it was the horn that made the object valuable and collectable, he ran an ultraviolet test over that. “It showed it was a separate piece that had been glued on,” Craddock says.
With such guidance, it should be easier for people such as Goren to help sort out the real pieces from the fakes. But there will always be debates about authenticity. The pomegranate, for one, has now become symbolic of such disputes. Snyder and Dayagi-Mendels have decided to put it back on display at the Israel Museum to serve as a lesson to the public. “We plan to keep it on view and to use it to explain the process of authentication,” Snyder says.
“What's interesting is that science is illuminating but it is never definitive,” Snyder adds. “My guess is that in the months to come we will see questions raised about whether the latest conclusions about the pomegranate are definitive.” With new chemical results battling against historical analyses, and in some cases an overwhelming desire to believe that an inscription is real, coming to a truly final conclusion may simply be impossible.
Final report of the Israel Antiquities Authority's expert committees → http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Final_Reports.htm
Avigad, N. Israel Mus. J. 8, 7–16 (1989).
Ilani, S., Rosenfeld, A. & Dvorachek, M. GSI Curr. Res. 13, 109–116 (2002).
Cross, F. M. Israel Exploration J. 53, 119–123 (2003).
Goren, Y., Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M. & Schilman, B. Tel Aviv 31, 7–14 (2004).