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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Reviews: The Archeologist's Stone: Evidence & Illusion in Biblical Archaeology

Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, by Colin Renfrew (Duckworth 2000)

The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Culture, by Oscar White Muscarella (Styx, 2000)

Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts and Records, by Leo Deuel (Knopf, 1965)

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Free Press, 2001)

Without archaeology, the Bible is simply a collection of recorded historical tales. If these tales are grounded in history, then we should be able to uncover material artifacts from the writers and their times and bolster the historicity of the biblical stories.

In the early days of modern archaeology, William Foxwell Albright and others tried to do just this. They dug through the tells and wadis of the ancient near east, searching for material evidence that would confirm that Ai or Bethel or Jericho existed during Joshua's time. Finding the material remains of these cities would then corroborate the tale itself; Joshua did really conquer Jericho, no matter how fanciful the story sounds to our ears.

By the late twentieth century, however, the relationship between archaeology and biblical studies had become more contentious. No longer did archaeologists go to the field with Bible in hand to search for material remains to confirm the stories. Rather, archaeologists conducted their digs in specific areas, searching for artifacts that would provide clues to the religions and cultures living in those areas at the time. Many of the finds called into question once-accepted ideas about key events and places in the Bible.

Such contention helps focus on the central questions involved in the relationship between archaeology and biblical studies. What is the nature of truth? Does material evidence provide the most positive proof of the historicity of a story? How can one know that particular material artifacts come from a certain time period and are not simply forgeries made by those wishing to provide material evidence of certain events? Can even archaeologists be fooled into thinking that they have the "real thing" when all they have is a well-constructed fake?

This latter question has taken on new importance in the light of two recent stories about potentially important discoveries that purport to shed light on stories about the biblical world, namely the "James" ossuary and the "Jehoash" tablet. In both cases their provenance is unknown and their inscriptions raise many questions. Yet if authentic, these pieces would provide stunning corroboration of the biblical narrative.

The desire to find material evidence to support the facticity of biblical stories is often so strong that a private collector or a museum accept a fake they have been told is legitimate. The market for private antiquities today is thriving, and many objects appear on that market without certification about their provenance. Often looters steal objects from sites and sell them on the antiquities market, from which the museums and collectors buy them, again without knowing—or caring to know—their origins.

The existence of this illegal antiquities market casts a shadow on the legitimacy of the work of the archaeological community. When a museum or a private collector acquires an artifact that has no provenance, that person becomes complicit in devaluing the past. Archaeologists, on the other hand, are always careful to document their finds and to provide a context for the material artifacts they've uncovered, making them valuable for the light they shed on the past.

Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological research in the University of Cambridge, tackles this subject with great aplomb in his provocative Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (Duckworth, 2000). Very simply, he argues that the practice of archaeology and its ability to tell us about the past is being destroyed at an alarming rate by the illicit antiquities trade. Using specific examples, he accuses museum administrators and curators and private collectors of supporting this illicit trade through the purchase of unprovenanced antiquities. Such antiquities, he claims, are likely to be looted antiquities. Without mincing words, Renfrew strongly condemns the purchase of undocumented antiquities: "Neither institutions nor private collectors should any more purchase antiquities which are without secure and documented provenance. In pursuing such a policy it is in general prudent to follow the principle that unprovenanced antiquities are likely to be looted antiquities." (11)

Renfrew provides several examples of this trade in unprovenanced antiquities. The most telling involves the Getty Museum and its purchase from private collectors of a number of frescoes that purportedly come from first-century BCE Rome. Although the Getty published a catalogue to describe these artifacts, Renfrew points out that we do not know where the frescoes came from, when they came into the collectors' hands, and the conditions under which they came into the collectors' hands. They are unprovenanced antiquities, and add very little to our knowledge of the historical period from which they purport to come since no context for the objects is provided. Renfrew puts the onus on the collectors, but underscores the Getty's lack of clear policies about acquiring such undocumented antiquities. In the end, he says, it is up to scholars to foster an ethics of collecting that condemns the acceptance by collectors and curators of looted antiquities and to require documentation of all artifacts.

Oscar White Muscarella offers an even stronger condemnation of forgers in his catalogue, The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Culture (Styx, 2000). Muscarella contends that the forgery culture extends throughout the art world, its many networks connecting to one another and encouraging silence as the forgeries are passed from looter to dealer to collector to museum. "The actual crime they commissioned was the plundering of artifacts from a site thereby eliminated, theft from the country of origin, smuggling and bribery." (2) He goes on to characterize this crime in a series of sketches about the forgery culture. "A cuneiform scholar at a major university refused to answer questions about an inscription on a suspicious object...because he did not want to 'offend' the owner or the scholar who published it—two powerful reasons."(3) "An attempt was made to deny a graduate student's fellowship application at a university precisely because...of the student's strong concern with forgeries. The student was also advised that the topic should be abandoned." (4) "Scholars defend the purchase of forgeries by museums and private collectors because it is an acceptable, worth-taking, risk necessary to 'save' these orphaned objects." (5)

Muscarella includes in his catalogue hundreds of pages of illustrations, with accompanying notes, of forgeries of art and artifacts in Iranian cultures, Anatolian cultures, Mesopotamian, Syrian, Phoenician, and Sasanian cultures. Muscarella condemns this forgery culture in no uncertain terms. "We may go even further and suggest that lust to appropriate 'antiquities' is lust for power to annihilate the immortality of a culture. Collecting ancient artifacts—antiquities—is inherently immoral and unethical. Collecting antiquities is to archaeology as rape is to love." (13)

The questions of legitimacy and forgery are hardly limited to material artifacts, however. Discoveries of manuscripts that offer us new insights into ancient cultures have often been fraught with questions. After all, the craft of literary forgery can be traced to ancient times. The line between pseudepigraphy, literary forgery, and simple mimesis is a thin one, indeed. While scholars may not doubt the legitimacy of the various codices use to reconstruct the New Testament, for example, the value of each for the best reading of a passage is an inherent question in textual studies. In addition, many scholars questioned the legitimacy of the Dead Sea Scrolls when they were first discovered.

In his now-classic, Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts and Records (Knopf, 1965), Leo Deuel retells the stories of many great scholar-adventurers who devoted their lives to retrieving and restoring the manuscripts of ancient cultures so that knowledge of the beliefs, practices, and institutions of those cultures could be preserved for us today. Deuel's book takes its place alongside the great humanistic studies nineteenth-century scholars like Ruskin and Arnold who sought to capture the history of ideas by studying discrete objects of that history. Deuel ranges broadly over many eras and cultures—from the great Renaissance collectors Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Bracciolini to the work of Flinders Petrie and Wallis Budge in the nineteenth century to the work of Aurel Stein in retracing the steps of Marco Polo.

One of the most intriguing chapters Deuel opens covers the Shapira mystery. In 1883, M.W. Shapira announced that he had discovered two variant Hebrew manuscripts of Deuteronomy, which were contained on some fifteen leather strips and whose writing placed them at around the ninth century BCE. Although these manuscripts had been in his possession for several years, Shapira had just come forward with them. He told the British Museum he had found them in a cave near the Dead Sea. Another scholar doubted the authenticity of these scrolls from the moment Shapira announced he owned them. A few years before, Shapira had tried to sell several pottery idols he claimed came from Moab around this time. The figures turned out to be forgeries. In addition, he had tried to sell the scrolls to the Royal Berlin Museum, which rejected them as forgeries. Although, according to the author, the Shapira mystery was never settled, he points out that "even if his documents are not genuine...their fabricators must have known or heard of previous manuscript discoveries in Moabite or other 'Dead Sea' caves." (421)

Deuel's conclusions bring us back, then, to the central questions of archaeology. What is the value of material artifacts to the understanding of the Bible? How can we interpret such artifacts, and what do they tell us about biblical history? What is the role of archaeology in preserving the history and context of past times? Should archaeologists go to the field with Bible in hand to confirm what they find in the text?

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have answered these questions in their own provocative way in The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (The Free Press, 2001). In what is surely one of the liveliest and most engaging studies of archaeology and its role in biblical studies, Finkelstein and Silberman's book challenges many of the conclusions of traditional source criticism and revises our understanding of when the events described in the Hebrew Bible might have occurred. The authors call into question the historicity of key events such as the Exodus and veracity of the accounts of Solomon's Temple and David's kingdom-consolidating military victories. "Digging in Jerusalem has failed to produce evidence that it was a great city in David or Solomon's time. And the monuments ascribed to Solomon are now most plausibly connected with other kings. Thus a reconsideration of the evidence has enormous implications. For if there were no patriarchs, no Exodus, no conquest of Canaan-and no prosperous united monarchy under David and Solomon—can we say that early biblical Israel, as described in the Five Books of Moses and the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel ever existed at all?" (124)

Once the authors have demolished the historical basis of almost every event leading up to the enthronement of Josiah in the seventh century BCE, they construct their own theory of Israelite origins. According to their archaeological work, the centrality of the temple in Jerusalem, the centrality of Jerusalem as a holy city, the rise of monotheism, and the construction of a Pan-Israelite kingdom can all be traced to the reign of Josiah. Thus, these earlier stories—the patriarchs, the Exodus, the judges—are all read back through the lenses of Josianic reform. "Indeed, archaeology's greatest contribution to our understanding of the Bible may be the realization that such small, relatively poor, and remote societies as late monarchic Judah and post-exilic Yehud could have produced the main outlines of this enduring epic in such a short period of time....Such a realization is order for us to appreciate the true genius and continuing power of this single most influential literary and spiritual creation in the history of humanity." (318) Although Finkelstein and Silberman's thesis has met with much resistance, their provocative and challenging work points up both the integral value of archaeology for biblical studies and the contentiousness in the relationship that exists between text scholars and dirt scholars.

Although archaeologists must continue to guard against the proliferation of illicit antiquities and forgeries, the material evidence uncovered by biblical archaeology continues to provide clear insights into ancient cultures and the texts that record their stories.

Citation: Henry Carrigan, " Reviews: The Archeologist's Stone: Evidence & Illusion in Biblical Archaeology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:


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