What to Do with Unprovenanced Artifacts—Publish or Perish?

Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the March/April 2013 issue of BAR

Two books recently came across my desk that reveal yet another cleavage within the archaeological profession.

In some respects the books are quite similar. Both are collections of papers delivered at scholarly conferences that were then gathered together to make a book. Both have senior scholars among the presenter-authors. Both books are edited by husband-and-wife teams—one by Eric and Carol Meyers and the other by Meir and Edith Lubetski. And a final similarity: Both teams of editors are friends of mine.

Otherwise they are quite different.

A major focus of the Meyers book, titled Archaeology, Bible, Politics, and the Media, is the antiquities trade.1 For the presenters at their conference, the antiquities trade is anathema.

For example, one participant is quoted describing “the corrosive effects on archaeology wrought by the trade, legal as well as illegal, in ancient artifacts.” In other words, not just the trade in looted artifacts but even the legal purchase and sale of ancient artifacts—say, of items that have been in a family for generations—is “corrosive.” In the view of these scholars, such assertions of provenance are not to be trusted: “Euphemisms such as ‘from the collection of a Swiss gentleman’ or ‘a family heirloom’ litter the pages of auction catalogs and are endemic to eBay and other internet sites.”

Antiquities dealers operate legally in Israel. Obviously, the participants of this conference believe this should be changed. As one stated, “The legal availability of archaeological material has led to continued looting in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.”

Scholars themselves are guilty: “The archaeological community [is] not blameless in the fight against purchasing artifacts with suspect backgrounds.”

Then there is the problem of forgeries: “Without knowing the exact archaeological find spot (the provenience), can the investor ever be certain that the artifact being purchased is real?” asks one participant rhetorically.

Exhibit A in this regard is the James Ossuary (inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”), which has been discussed extensively in the pages of BAR.a The participants in the Meyers conference have no doubt the inscription is a forgery, although the claim to authenticity “took some time to unravel.” But there is no question about the proper conclusion; it is a forgery. There is no mention in the Meyers book of the fact that the claim to authenticity was originally made by one of the world’s most distinguished paleographers and no paleographer has questioned his analysis: “As soon as it [the James Ossuary inscription] was examined critically, of course, the inscription on the James Ossuary was exposed as a modern forgery.” Q.E.D.

After five years, the “forgery trial of the century” has concluded in a Jerusalem courtroom and defendants Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch have been acquitted of all forgery charges. In our free eBook James, Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century, Hershel Shanks explains why he believes the now-famous “James Ossuary” inscription is authentic. Plus, he provides behind-the-scenes analysis of the trial and its key players.

Another target of the conference is “the junk science that is practiced by many pseudoarchaeologists and amateur enthusiasts.” BAR comes close to falling into this camp because we sometimes fail to tell the whole story. As Professor Eric H. Cline of the George Washington University describes it:

“Sometimes more damaging than what is said by the media is what is not said. Consider Hershel Shanks and the report of archaeological discoveries in his magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). Striving to be in the forefront in reporting new archaeological discoveries, the magazine sometimes reports claims that are unconfirmed or still disputed; one example is Eilat Mazar’s claims to have found David’s Palace and Nehemiah’s Wall in the City of David (Ir David) excavations.”

Eilat Mazar is a leading Israeli archaeologist; she, not BAR, is the author of the articles about David’s Palace and Nehemiah’s Wall.b Apparently, I should have required her to qualify her claims more extensively than she did. (Other presenters at the Meyers conference accuse additional scholars of making unfounded claims that are too sensational, including Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University and Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa.)

As Cline laments, “Shanks can publish what he wishes. This raises a dilemma for archaeologists. How are we to deal with such an issue [the James Ossuary], in which a publication reaching thousands of lay readers might not present the entire story?” Is there some way the profession can deal with this, Cline asks, “so that BAR readers will learn the full story?”

One of the purposes of the Meyers conference, as they explain, was to explore ways that the profession could curb the “sensationalism” of the media. “[Media] sensationalism … is to be avoided at all costs,” they urge. “Reporting discoveries must proceed with utmost caution. This was not the case in the James Ossuary fiasco, in which sensationalism ran rampant.”

The Meyers conference was held in April 2009, so the participants were unaware at the time that in March 2012 the judge would acquit Oded Golan, the owner of the James Ossuary, of the charge of forgery. Nor were they aware of BAR’s argument for the inscription’s authenticity in our July/August 2012 issue, based on the trial testimony as quoted by the trial judge. The assumption throughout the Meyers conference, despite the absence of any consideration of the evidence, is that the James Ossuary inscription is unquestionably a forgery.

Do museums and educational organizations have the right to sell antiquities from their collections? This was the question the AIA-St. Louis Society faced when artifacts from its Egyptian collection were put up for auction. Learn more >>

The other book that crossed my desk at the same time as the Meyers book couldn’t be more different, although it, too, is a book of scholarly conference papers. Edited by Meir and Edith Lubetski,2 it includes contributions by some of the world’s most distinguished scholars, including the late W.G. Lambert of the University of Birmingham, Alan Millard of the University of Liverpool, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne, Chaim Cohen of Ben Gurion University, Richard S. Hess of Denver Seminary, Meir Lubetski of Baruch College, as well as leading younger scholars such as K. Martin Heide of Phillips-Universität Marburg and Peter van der Veen of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz—and also by Robert Deutsch, Israel’s leading antiquities dealer, Tel Aviv University Ph.D. candidate and acquitted defendant in the so-called “forgery trial of the century.”

The inscriptions considered in this book, titled New Inscriptions and Seals Relating to the Biblical World, almost all come from the antiquities market, many from the collection of Israel’s leading antiquities collector, Shlomo Moussaieff.c These inscriptions are unprovenanced; where they come from cannot be determined with any certainty. Most were probably looted. As a group, they present themselves as a confirmation of the remark of the distinguished Swiss scholar Othmar Keel, “I don’t think we can write a history of the ancient Near East without relying on unprovenanced material.”

Lubetski is well aware that he will be criticized for this volume by some of the “purists” in the Meyers book:

“Examining archaeological items housed in private collections has not only expanded our vistas in understanding the ancient world, but has also opened a Pandora’s box of issues dealing with unprovenanced items. The problems are often more difficult to solve than deciphering the artifact. The world of academia is currently grappling with the reliability of the artifacts discovered in unauthorized archaeological excavations or bought on the antiquity markets. Scholars tend to split into two opposing camps. While one group maintains that archaeological items coming from unprovenanced sites should be ignored because of possible fraud, the other group regards this approach as irresponsible and a disservice to the field. Ancient Near Eastern scholarship is suffering from the needless division into two branches.”

Lubetski quotes Joseph Naveh, the dean of Israeli epigraphers until his recent death: “The avoidance of publishing seals bought on the market cannot serve as a remedy for the looting of ancient objects.” This in effect refutes the claim in the Meyers book that we can stop looting by refusing to publish unprovenanced objects. In Naveh’s view, it is “better to learn what these unprovenanced pieces can tell us than to have them disappear forever unseen.”

The unprovenanced Amarna tablets have played an important role in Biblical archaeological scholarship. Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY.

This is not an argument that is addressed in the Meyers volume.

Regarding forgeries, Naveh admonishes that “suspicion alone, however, cannot disqualify a seal. Whoever claims that a certain seal is a forgery bears the burden of proof.”

As Martin Heide states in this volume, “The best way to deal with unprovenanced artifacts is to publish them and to wait for comments, reviews and additional publications where applicable. Time will tell … We should never speculate that an artifact looks too good to be true.”

Among the more intriguing discussions in the Lubetski volume, André Lemaire analyzes “two short inscriptions [that] might throw some light on the development of the alphabet in the second millennium B.C.E.”

Based on unprovenanced bullae (seal impressions), Peter van der Veen argues that the Biblical Gedaliah, the “minister over the royal house” often mentioned in the Books of Kings and Jeremiah, had at least two different seals, one for sealing documents related to the administration of the palace and royal properties, and another for bureaucratic correspondence.

Robert Deutsch discusses six bullae from a hoard of more than 1,000 that were illegally excavated in about the year 2000 at Biblical Keilah (see 1 Samuel 23), just over the line in the West Bank. The hoard appears to be from an administrative center from the time of the Judahite king Hezekiah. The bullae Deutsch discusses include the first extra-biblical citation to places mentioned in the Bible. One of the bullae mentions ‘Adullam, a city allotted to Judah in Joshua 15:35. The place is mentioned frequently in the Bible from the time of David to the period after the Babylonian Exile, but the name has never been found in an archaeological context—until now.

This is enough to intrigue scholars who wish to pursue these matters further in the Lubetski volume.

One final comment: Despite the criticisms of BAR’s handling of the James Ossuary inscription, the relations between the scholars mentioned above remain friendly. Eric Meyers accepted my invitation to contribute a chapter to the new book we are preparing entitled Partings—How Judaism and Christianity Became Two. And Eric Cline will be publishing an article in BAR on his excavation at Tel Kabri with its Minoan-style frescoes. Despite our differences, we remain friends.

Further Reading in Bible History Daily

Bible Artifacts Found Outside the Trench: The Amarna Tablets

James Ossuary Forgery Trial Resources Guide

Authentic or Forged? What to Do When Experts Disagree


1. Eric M. Meyers and Carol Meyers, eds., Archaeology, Bible, Politics, and the Media (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012).

2. Meir Lubetski and Edith Lubetski, eds., New Inscriptions and Seals Relating to the Biblical World (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012).

a. See Hershel Shanks, “‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription Is Authentic!” BAR 38:04.

b. See Eilat Mazar, “The Wall That Nehemiah Built,” BAR 35:02; Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” BAR 35:02.

c. See “Festschrift for Moussaieff,” BAR 29:06.

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1 Responses

  1. Margret Duererin says:

    Can you not police yourself? This nonsense is akin to every conspiracy theory out there.

    Academia no longer exists, I call it macadamia, there’s too many nutz.

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1 Responses

  1. Margret Duererin says:

    Can you not police yourself? This nonsense is akin to every conspiracy theory out there.

    Academia no longer exists, I call it macadamia, there’s too many nutz.

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