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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Archaeology in a hole

From The Jerusalem Report, issue dated July 2, 2012

Nearly 10 years have passed since the world learned of the discovery of a 1st century burial box bearing the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” and a black stone tablet with an inscription that brought to life a passage from the Second Book of Kings describing repairs to Solomon’s Temple by King Jehoash around 800 BCE.

Both items, if authentic, would be the first physical artifacts ever found from the family of Jesus and the First Temple. It’s no wonder they caused a worldwide sensation, and that their subsequent exposure as fakes and the arrest of Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv antiquities collector accused of forging them, sparked international interest, even outrage.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), with the Israel Police, gathered testimony around the world and seized hundreds of suspect artifacts. The treasure trove included ancient stone lamps, engraved jugs, pottery shards inscribed in ink, seals and seal impressions known as bulae. Golan, we were told when he was indicted with four others in December 2004 and accused of masterminding an international forgery ring, was falsifying history for personal gain.

UNDER SUSPICION: Oded Golan at home with his treasures
“I believe we have revealed only the tip of the iceberg. This industry circles the world, involving millions of dollars,” said IAA director Shuka Dorfman. “Beside this, Indiana Jones looks small.”

But it wasn’t true. No one else was arrested. The zealotry of the IAA came unstuck when the case against Golan and his remaining co-defendant, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, collapsed in spectacular fashion at the Jerusalem District Court in March. Judge Aharon Farkash cleared them of all forgery charges and had some harsh words for the police, prosecution and the IAA.

The Israel Antiquities Authority came unstuck with the collapse of the case against Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch

Farkash said the police forensics laboratory had contaminated the ossuary by blundering through tests that proved nothing and left the inscription scientifically useless for future research. He said the prosecution had failed to prove a single one of the forgery or conspiracy charges brought with such fanfare against Golan and Deutsch. His jaw dropped in disbelief when prosecutor Dan Bahat refused to return the items to Golan, Deutsch and two more collectors. Now the prosecution and the IAA must present a detailed case for confiscating each item.

But Farkash was careful to say that the not guilty verdict did not mean the items were authentic.

The IAA continues to hold by its theory that they were forged by an Egyptian craftsman, Marco Ghatas, who worked with Golan in Tel Aviv. The IAA blamed their failure on the refusal of Ghatas to testify, but the judge said the prosecution evidence simply did not stand up to scrutiny.

The updated story is told in this issue for the first time. I was the only reporter in the courtroom throughout the 120 sessions of the seven-year trial. I heard most of the 12,000 pages of testimony, listened to most of the 126 witnesses and saw most of the 200 exhibits. But I still can not say for certain whether the items are genuine or not.

Even those who are convinced that the items are fake are distressed at the increasingly bizarre actions of the IAA and its publicity-seeking director Dorfman.

I was the only reporter in the courtroom throughout the seven-year trial. I heard most of the 12,000 pages of testimony and listened to most of the 126 witnesses. But I still can not say whether the items are genuine

The IAA’s most egregious mistake was the arrest in 2005 of Hanan Eshel, a Bar-Ilan University archaeology professor who rescued several parchment scroll fragments from the Bar Kochba era that he bought from a Bedouin trader. The IAA charged him with criminal conduct.

“Hanan discovered pieces of biblical Judean scrolls, acquired them, looked after their restoration in the Israel Museum, published them and presented them to the IAA,” says David Jeselsohn, a prominent collector and leading donor to Bar-Ilan who provided the purchase money. “It was the first and only time that the State of Israel was given such a gift. Instead of thanking Hanan, he was detained by the IAA, was presented to the media as a criminal and Shuka Dorfman even had the audacity to bring charges against Hanan at court.” Jeselsohn tells me he thought it was “a bad joke” when he heard that Bar-Ilan was giving its prestigious Guardian of Zion Award to the IAA and that Dorfman would be accepting the prize.

Jeselsohn believes that the Jehoash tablet is a fake, but he describes the prosecution as “a bizarre and hallucinatory trial” against “an imaginary ring of antiquities forgers.” He says the IAA “acted imprudently, senselessly, foolishly and regrettably, with malice.” He called on the IAA to compensate and apologize to Robert Deutsch, Golan’s co-defendant who was acquitted on all charges.

With the IAA still refusing to hand back the artifacts, the case could drag on for some time. I will continue to follow it.