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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Judge Considers Verdict in 5-Year-Long Jesus Forgery Trial

AOL News, October 5th

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Oct. 5) -- The discovery in 2002 of a limestone burial box with the Hebrew inscription "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" electrified the world of archaeology. If genuine, the burial box, or ossuary, would be the only archaeological artifact yet found with a possible direct link to Jesus of Nazareth.

Amid international fanfare, the ossuary went on display at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum and swiftly spawned numerous articles, scholarly studies, several documentary movies and at least four books.

But experts at the Israel Antiquities Authority declared it a modern-day forgery. Israeli police seized the burial box and arrested its owner, Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan. In December 2004 he was charged with faking the ossuary and dozens of other items, including an inscribed tablet linked to King Joash, which, if authentic, would be the only physical evidence from the Temple of Solomon.

Oded Golan points to an inscription on an ossuary believed to have held the bones of Jesus' brother James
AFP / Getty Images
Oded Golan points to the Hebrew inscription "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" on the burial box at the center of a five-year forgery trial in Israel.

The indictment leveled 44 charges of forgery, fraud and deception against Golan and 13 lesser counts against a co-defendant, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch. The trial of Golan, Deutsch and three other defendants opened at the Jerusalem District Court in September 2005.

Last Sunday, the defense ended its summing up with just two men left in the dock, bringing to an end five years of court proceedings that spanned 116 sessions, 133 witnesses, 200 exhibits and nearly 12,000 pages of witness testimony. The prosecution summation alone ran to 653 pages.

Yet despite the flood of strong scientific testimony, the feeling in the tiny courtroom, where fewer than a dozen people (including only one reporter) have followed the proceedings, was that the prosecution had failed to prove the items were forgeries or that Golan and Deutsch had faked them.

Judge Aharon Farkash, the wheelchair-bound polymath who has overseen the marathon trial, wondered aloud on several occasions how he could be expected to deliver a legal ruling on what was essentially a scientific question that the experts themselves could not resolve.

In October 2008, just three years into the proceedings, Farkash pointedly asked whether the trial should continue after the prosecution and Golan had presented their evidence.

"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment? The experts disagreed among themselves," Farkash told the prosecutor.

Summing up last March, lead prosecutor Dan Bahat made a startling admission. "If the ossuary had been the only thing on trial, we probably would not have carried on with the process," he said.

Bahat was not even in court to hear the judge wrap up the trial and retire to consider his verdict.

Scientists and lawyers have spent months arguing over the patina -- a thin crust of material formed by micro-organisms that covers all ancient objects. The prosecution accuse Golan of creating a fake patina, which he applied to new inscriptions on ancient objects. Defense experts say there is patina inside the grooves of the inscriptions that could not have been formed in the past two centuries.

Golan said he had never faked anything.

"I feel that I succeeded to prove that the most important items should be at least 200 years old. They could not be forged because there is ancient, authentic, natural patina which has been developed gradually over at least 200 years in both the James ossuary and the Joash tablet," Golan told AOL News.

"They lost the case, there's no question. On the main issues they were completely wrong. They are not forgeries. It's not only that they could not prove there was a forgery. With the James ossuary and the Joash tablet, I believe that we proved their authenticity with experts in patina, in geology, in stone, in engraving," he said.

At times, the courtroom has seemed more like a doctoral seminar than a legal proceeding. The world's leading experts on archaeology, biblical history, Semitic languages, ancient stones and inscriptions, geology, isotopes (both stable and carbon-14), biology, chemistry, microscopy and glue have participated in an often fascinating and sometimes embarrassing collision of scholarship and criminal law.

The court has heard from grave robbers, dealers in the shady antiquities market, billionaire collectors and tireless investigators who spend freezing nights in the desert waiting to catch tomb raiders. There have been stories of mysterious Egyptian forgers, cash payments of thousands of dollars in parked cars on West Bank back roads, sting operations at airport customs and warehouses crammed full of priceless ancient artifacts.

Judge Farkash said Sunday he would try to plow through all that material and deliver a verdict as soon as possible. It could take several months.

The criminal, scholarly and scientific implications of his verdict are immense. If genuine, the artifacts are of historic importance and worth millions. An acquittal would be a severe setback for the Israel Antiquities Authority and its special investigators, who accused Golan and his co-defendants of making millions of dollars as part of an international chain of forgers planting sophisticated fakes in the world's museums. It would also be an acute embarrassment for the isotope experts at the Israel Geological Survey and professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, who spent many days on the stand defending scientific tests they said showed the items must be fakes.

A guilty verdict, on the other hand, would destroy the reputation of one of the world's leading collectors of biblical antiquities and drive the entire Israeli market underground. The Israel Antiquities Authority has made no secret of its desire to shut down the trade in Bible-era artifacts, which they believe encourages grave robbers, who spirit the choicest finds out of the country.

Government officials and many scholars say the market is riddled with forgeries, and they are skeptical of any item that does not come from a licensed, supervised excavation where its provenance can be proved. But Golan said he had never seen a forgery that wasn't immediately obvious and pointed out that some of Israel's greatest archaeological treasures came from dealers. Indeed, the most striking example is one of the most important biblical finds ever: the Dead Sea Scrolls, which a Bedouin shepherd sold to an Israeli professor half a century ago.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Is Holy Land Archaeology Being Hyped by Politics?

AOL NEWS, July 15 2010

Matthew  Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (July 15) -- Bible-era scholars say they are getting fed up with headline-grabbing archaeological discoveries that seem more influenced by modern political agendas and showmanship than by scholarship.

Some recent announcements have been tainted with "exaggeration and speculation the likes of which haven't been seen since pieces of the 'true cross' were found all across Europe in the Middle Ages," said Jim West, adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology and moderator of an influential online forum for Bible scholars.

The latest possible case in point came this week, when Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University announced that she had unearthed "the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem" after sifting debris from a site between the Temple Mount and the City of David, in Jerusalem. The fragment of clay tablet about 1 inch square is inscribed with cuneiform lettering in ancient Akkadian, the everyday language of Jerusalem in the 14th century B.C.

Israeli  archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of  Archaeology holds the clay fragment at her Jerusalem office on Monday.
Gali Tibbon, AFP / Getty Images
Israeli archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology holds the clay fragment containing "the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem" at her office on Monday.

The claims Mazar's team attached to that tiny shard, however, were massive. Dr. Mazar said the discovery provides "solid evidence of the importance of Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age" and "lends weight to the importance that accrued to the city in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E." Her colleague Wayne Horowitz said there was "a great likelihood, because of its fine script and the fact it was discovered adjacent to in the acropolis area of the ancient city" that the fragment was part of "royal missive." Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University said the clay used testified "to the likelihood that it was part of a tablet from a royal archive in Jerusalem containing copies of tablets sent by the king of Jerusalem to Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt."

Within hours, experts on ancient Jerusalem were wondering how such a tiny fragment could produce such a wealth of history.

"We already knew there was a king in Jerusalem at the time," says Meir Ben-Dov, a veteran archaeologist who explored the same area with Mazar's grandfather from 1968 onward. "It's the first time they've found a little shard here, but it doesn't tell us anything we didn't know already. This find has no significance."

This is not the first time Mazar has come under fire from colleagues for making grandiose claims. In August 2005, she unearthed an impressive building from the 10th century B.C. and tagged it as the palace of King David. Earlier this year, she said a large stone wall discovered by her grandfather and Ben-Dov was built by Solomon, provoking a withering response from the scholarly community.

But Mazar is hardly an exception. Many scholars are concerned that archaeology is being used to score political points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And nowhere more so than around the City of David, a rich archaeological mound just south of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque identified in the 19th century as the possible site of King David's ancient city, now covered with crowded Palestinian housing.

The City of David is in the village of Silwan in east Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War but which Palestinians considered the only acceptable capital of an independent Palestinian state. Because of its historical significance, the site has been declared an Israeli national park, but it is managed by El-ad, a right-wing Israeli group that also seeks to move Israeli residents into the contentious neighborhood. Some find the mix of politics and archaeology combustible.

"My primary concern is that archaeology is being turned to political use and as nothing but a means to raise funds for ideologically driven projects. This certainly seems to be the case in the City of David dig," Quartz Hill's West says.

Last Sunday, Ir Amim, a Jerusalem co-existence group, petitioned Israel's High Court to end El-ad's control of the site and return it to the National Parks Authority. "The state of Israel has privatized one of the most sensitive historic sites in the country -- and transferred it to the hands of a private organization with a clear political agenda," says Yehudit Oppenheimer, the group's director.

But bullhorn archaeology isn't the sole domain of the Israeli right. Shimon Gibson of the independent Albright Institute of Archaeological Research was greeted with loud skepticism in 2004 when he declared a cave west of Jerusalem to be the hiding place of John the Baptist. Earlier this month, professor Adam Zertal of Haifa University identified a site as "Sisera's hometown, as mentioned in the book of Judges" based on the discovery of a single bronze linchpin from a chariot wheel. Further afield, Christian archaeologists have made numerous contested claims to having found Noah's Ark in Turkey.

While El-ad tries to prove King David's ancient links to Jerusalem, Palestinians are trying to do the opposite. Thousands of tons of debris potentially rich in archaeological treasures have been hauled off the Temple Mount without proper supervision during mosque renovations in the past decade. Until recently, an official guide to the mosque for visitors denied that Solomon's Temple had ever stood there.

There have been riots over unfounded claims by Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel headed by Sheikh Raed Salah that Israeli excavations are undermining the foundations of Al-Aqsa, threatening it with collapse.