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Just imagine the following description given to Israeli school children three months ago during their tour of the Iron Age collection in the Israel Museum:

Children, here is one of the most prized possessions in the Israel Museum—an ivory pomegranate that bears the name of Adonai and a clear reference to the First Temple. This ivory ornament adorned the head of a scepter that was used by the high priest in the Temple during the days of Hezekiah and Josiah and even earlier. Right next to this treasure are found two silver plaques that bear the ancient inscriptions that include a complete quote of the priestly benediction. These plaques date from just before the destruction of the First Temple and are the earliest documents that we have containing direct quotes from the TaNaK. The other items in this section help us understand the history and evolution of Hebrew writing, but these two objects are the most sacred ones in the collection.

Although the above discussion is fictional, it is typical of what guides used to tell visitors to the Israel Museum just two or three months ago. As several essays in this month's issue of The SBL Forum demonstrate (see especially the essay by Goren), the above hypothetical dialogue emphasized the intense religious connection that many people have with archaeological objects and inscriptions that mention Jerusalem, biblical reference, or Israel's deity. So intense was our desire to see and hold our religious heritage that it was not uncommon, even for people with archaeological training, to elevate such an object from the antiquities market to a status as high or higher than objects found in controlled archaeological excavations. We probably should have reexamined our approach years ago, but recent events surrounding a forgery conspiracy have forced all of us to rethink our values and our approaches.

Sage Advice from Senior Colleagues

The great Israeli palaeographer Joseph Naveh penned the following statement several decades ago: "Allegations of forgery are not the scholarly fashion of the moment....Nevertheless, forgeries do occur. It is therefore legitimate to raise questions concerning forgeries, but, needless to say, with the necessary reservation and caution."[1] Naveh affirmed that "forged inscriptions have frequently appeared on the antiquities market. These may be papyri, leather documents, seals, or inscriptions on stone and other material." He continues, "Even reputable scholars have been misled into making claims about the authenticity of such fakes and drawing historical or theological conclusions from them."[2] Within both of Naveh's articles cited here, he was discussing specific forgeries. Significantly, his words are as compelling and relevant now as they were decades ago: forgeries have become a perennial problem for the field of Northwest Semitic and of late have reached crisis proportions.

In light of Naveh's advice from several decades ago, we asked several senior colleagues for their advice on how the field should react in light of the recent forgery scandal. Jo Ann Hackett of Harvard University replied: "Because we have seen that there are forgers at work who are very sophisticated, we must make epigraphic (grammatical and palaeographic) conclusions based solely on inscriptions found in situ by trustworthy scholars and excavators." She cautions that "any fuzziness in an object's pedigree will disqualify it from basic typological discussions (although the basic discussions may then be used to consider whether a given inscription is in fact genuine)." She concludes: "This will especially affect those scholars who deal with seals, most of which are known from sources other than stratified digs."[3]

Jonathan Rosenbaum, President of Gratz College and co-chairperson of the SBL section on Paleographical Studies in the Ancient Near East, offered similar comments. However, rather than ruling out suspect inscriptions altogether, Rosenbaum held out the possibility and need for more sophisticated scientific testing. In the absence of this testing, the inscriptions could not be trusted. He stated: "We have reached a crisis in the study of the ancient Near East that can no longer be presumed peripheral." Moreover, he refers to the fact that it is now probable that some "forgers and site robbers have scholarly training and even advanced degrees." He thus argues that this "requires the development of forensic devices for authenticating antiquities beyond doubt....Equivalents of the methodologies that have so recently revolutionized criminology must now be developed to identify ancient remains." He concludes: "To do less would jeopardize history itself."[4]

Significantly, for some fields modern epigraphic forgeries are not such a major problem. For example, Robert Biggs has noted that "aside from the outrageous fake cuneiform one sometimes sees (e.g., tablets on eBay that would not even for a moment deceive anyone who has studied cuneiform), there seems to be very little outright forgery of cuneiform inscriptions."[5] Of course, the difficulty of forging cuneiform, the more modest sums that cuneiform garners on the market, and the reduced religious motivations for the production of forgeries all contribute to the modest amount (in terms of quality and quantity) of forged cuneiform.

Nevertheless, for the field of Northwest Semitic, modern forgeries are a constant problem and require constant vigilance. Rather than succumbing to the crisis because of the severity of the problem, the great American palaeographer Frank Moore Cross has affirmed that he believes the field of Northwest Semitic is equal to the task of eradicating forgeries from the dataset. He has stated that he believes "forgeries will eventually be detected and discarded [although] it may take a long while, an accumulation of new palaeographical and linguistic material, new technical techniques of testing, and, indeed a new generation or two of well-trained palaeographers."[6] The editors of this issue of The SBL Forum concur. Methodological caution is now a desideratum. Sophisticated laboratory and epigraphic methods are an imperative, and of course credulity must be a pariah.

In light of the current situation and the sage advice that we have received from senior colleagues, we offer the following list of guidelines that we should all consider. These guidelines, albeit tentative ones, are our collective "musings from the field":

  1. Inscriptions from the antiquities market should be assumed to be suspect unless proven otherwise. The prudent scholar must exercise the utmost caution. Like Jo Ann Hackett, we conclude that unprovenanced objects must not be our pegs for historical, palaeographic, or epigraphic conclusions. Like Jonathan Rosenbaum, we feel that we must be open to new scientific testing that might verify a particular inscription.
  2. Emphasis should be placed on inscriptions that are known to be authentic. Both of the present authors have spent countless hours in museums and collections around the world collating and documenting epigraphic evidence that is known to be authentic and much of which has a secure date. The present authors have focused on these items because they are the clear "pegs" on which other conclusions can be based. We argue that scholars should concentrate their efforts on these "secure" data rather than speculating about items that are suspect at best.
  3. Antiquities collectors and dealers should not be lionized or aggrandized.[7] Of course, some collectors have attempted to support archaeological expeditions, ostensibly because of a concern for the field of archaeology. Some expeditions have accepted such funding, and it is not our intent here to impugn such practices. Moreover, functioning as an antiquities dealer is a legal trade in some countries(e.g., Israel); hence, dealers in said countries cannot be accused of breaching laws for engaging in such legal trade. Nonetheless, there are some fine ethical lines in all of this and circumspection should be considered, therefore, most appropriate.[8]
  4. There are occasions when it is acceptable and wise to use epigraphic material of unknown provenance for scientific purposes. The Dead Sea Scrolls are typically held up as the prime example in this regard, but there are other less sexy items that are also of value. For example, Vaughn (together with his colleague Gabriel Barkay) has used seal impressions found on Iron Age jar handles to help decipher identical impressions that originate from controlled archaeological excavations.[9] The authenticity of the impressions from the antiquities market is highly likely because they are identical to impressions found in controlled excavations and can be verified by precise measurements and photographic documentation. It seems to us that data such as these should not be ignored when they can contribute to our understanding of items from controlled excavations.[10] At the same time, the value of these illicit items primarily lies in their ability to help us understand an object that originates from a secure context.
  5. Scholars should exercise as much caution as possible to avoid promoting the trade of antiquities. Rather than be used as tools to increase the value of an illicit object, scholars should emphasize the inherent problems associated with illicit objects and the high probability that they are not authentic. Scholars should actively work to discourage the trade of antiquities and avoid actions that might unintentionally promote that trade.
  6. We should reverse the scholarly ethos about publishing illicit objects. It is popular to mention the Dead Sea Scrolls as the prime example of why objects from the antiquities market should not be ignored; however, the drama and intense interest surrounding the Scrolls have also resulted in an intense interest in other inscriptions from different contexts that might surface on the market. This interest should be curtailed and reversed.
Andrew G. Vaughn, Gustavus Adolphus College,

Christopher A. Rollston, Emmanuel School of Religion,


[1] Joseph Naveh, "Aramaica Dubiosa," JNES 27 (1968): 317.

[2] Joseph Naveh, "Some Recently Forged Inscriptions," BASOR 247 (1982): 53.

[3] Jo Ann Hackett, personal communication.

[4] Jonathan Rosenbaum, personal communication.

[5] Robert Biggs, personal communication.

[6] Frank Moore Cross, personal communication.

[7] While this suggestion (not to lionize dealers and collectors) might seem to be self-evident, recent discussion in scholarly publications and in BAR has actually taken the opposite approach. For example, Hershel Shanks says the following about the collector Shlomo Moussaieff: his collecting is "defined and guided by his love for the Bible and everything related to it. That—and a reverence for Jewish history—is the principle that largely determines what he collects" [Hershel Shanks, "Magnificent Obsession," 64]. Shanks has also made a concerted effort to portray antiquities collector Oded Golan (among others) in the most favorable light. For example, Golan is described as "an officer in the Israel Defense Forces" and pictured in professional attire, sitting near a grand piano that he is described as playing "at nearly a concert level" [Hershel Shanks, "Update: Finds or Fakes," 59-60]. Significantly, this sort of presentation forms a stark contrast with the manner Shanks often uses to describe those who consider the collection and trade in antiquities to be problematic and detrimental. He refers to those who have been working to eliminate the trade in antiquities as "the self-righteous claque" [Hershel Shanks, "BARLines," BAR 22/3 (May/June 1996): 12]. He argues that the Israel Antiquities Authority has a "vendetta" against Israel's antiquities dealers. Moreover, he caustically describes Yehoshua Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as "a retired general without a job and without any background in archaeology [who] runs a competent, if somewhat vindictive shop" [Hershel Shanks, "Update: Finds or Fakes?" BAR 31/2 (March/April 2005): 68]. Distinguished archaeologist Yuval Goren is described in a cavalier manner as someone who is "essentially a petrologist" who has "recently expanded his reach to detect all manner of archaeological forgeries," and someone who "never saw an unprovenanced artifact that he was unwilling to declare a forgery" [Hershel Shanks, "Update: Finds or Fakes?" BAR 31/2 (March/April 2005): 66-67].

[8] In a Festscrhift written in honor of the collector Shlomo Moussaieff, noted epigrapher André Lemaire offers almost unqualified praise (André Lemaire, "Amulette Phénicienne Giblite en Argent," in Shlomo: Studies in Epigraphy, Iconography, History and Archaeology in Honor of Shlomo Moussaieff [Tel Aviv-Jaffa: Archaeological Center Publication, 2003], 155). Not only have scholars participated in a Festschrift for a collector, but the international meeting of the SBL also had a session on epigraphy in honor of Moussaieff two years ago. Scholars in this session may have participated in part because they received a grant for travel, and the grant money was given by Mr. Moussaieff (Vaughn was listed in the program for this event, but he decided not to participate after the details of the event became clear).

[9] Gabriel Barkay and Andrew G. Vaughn, "New Readings of Hezekian Official Seal Impressions," Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 304 (1996) 29-54.

[10] Vaughn has also used seal impressions from the antiquities market that are identical to those from excavation in palaeographical studies—again, the items have value in helping scholars relate to inscriptions that are clearly authentic. See Andrew G. Vaughn, "The Palaeographic Dating of Judean Seals and its Significance for Biblical Research," Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 313 (1999) 43-64.

Citation: Christopher A. Rollston , Andrew G. Vaughn, " Epilogue: Methodological Musings From The Field," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2005]. Online:


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