Bible artifacts found not in a stratified context, and often as the product of archaeological looting, tend to get a bad rap. In this installment of our series on important unprovenanced Biblical artifacts, which includes Bible artifacts found outside of a professional excavation, we look at Jewish incantation bowls inscribed with ancient magic spells in ancient Aramaic script. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) have banned the publication of articles and the presentation of papers about unprovenanced Biblical artifacts in an attempt to curb archaeological looting and forgery of Bible artifacts found in Israel and Jordan. Other scholars, however, believe that Biblical artifacts found without a stratified context are by no means worthless.
Ancient magic spells have often been considered the enemy of “true” religion, but incantation bowls like this one from the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff show that demons, curses and ancient magic spells were a regular part of Babylonian Jewish life in the third–seventh centuries A.D.* Thousands of these incantation bowls have been found, and nearly all of them are inscribed with Jewish Aramaic script spiraling toward the center. These Biblical artifacts contain writings that are usually ancient magic spells: wishes for love, prayers for healing and even curses on enemies. Many people believed that demons were responsible for evil-doing and illness, so it was common to depict a demon on the bowl in the desired stance—bound and incapacitated—in the midst of the Aramaic script.
These incantation bowls, fascinating Bible artifacts found in the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff, demonstrate the extent to which some Jews absorbed the cultural practices and influences of their neighbors and utilized every available method, including even ancient magic spells, when seeking divine aid. And like other Biblical artifacts found outside a professional excavation, even as the result of archaeological looting, they are anything but worthless.
Read more about Bible artifacts found outside a stratified context, often due to archaeological looting, in the BAS Library:
See also Finds or Fakes, “Defending the Study of Unprovenanced Artifacts: An Interview with Othmar Keel,” BAR, July/August 2005.