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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Antiquities Authority chief: Top scholars were suspected of ties to forgery group

Sep. 8, 2009


A world-famous French scholar who authenticated one of the Israel Museum's prize exhibits and Israel's leading analyst of ancient semitic inscriptions were once suspected of being part of an "international forgery industry," it was revealed on Tuesday.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that both Prof. Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni, Israel's leading epigrapher, had been under suspicion as the Authority prepared its case against those accused of faking dozens of priceless archeological items, including a burial box possibly connected to Jesus.

Dorfman divulged this information as part of the testimony he was giving at the Jerusalem District Court in the long-running trial of two men accused of dealing in fake antiquities.

The trial, which began in 2005, followed an indictment that Dorfman described at the time as "the tip of the iceberg" of an international forgery network.

Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv collector, is charged with forging the inscription on a 60 cm.-long limestone burial box, or ossuary, that reads "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus."

The ossuary was exhibited in Toronto in 2002 and hailed by scholars as the first physical link ever discovered to the family of Jesus. But when it was returned to Israel, an Antiquities Authority committee of experts determined it was fake.

Golan is also accused of forging an inscribed stone tablet supposedly from the First Temple, and dozens of other ancient items.

Robert Deutsch, a prominent antiquities dealer based in Jaffa, was also charged with forgery, but the prosecution has been forced to retract many of the original charges after they were challenged in court.

Many of the world's top archeological experts have testified as both prosecution and defense witnesses in proceedings that already run to more than 9,000 pages.

Judge Aharon Farkash has wondered aloud in court how he could determine the authenticity of the items if the professors could not agree among themselves.

Deutsch called Dorfman to give evidence as a defense witness after the prosecution refused to put him or his deputy, Uzi Dahari, on the stand.

Dorfman said the anti-theft unit of the Antiquities Authority believed the items were forged by an international group of experts and dealers that included the two defendants.

He said the suspects at one time included Prof. Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Lemaire was the first scholar to study an ivory pomegranate believed to have been used in the First Temple. The thumb-sized pomegranate is inscribed in ancient Hebrew: "Sacred donation for the priests in the House of God."

It was purchased nearly 20 years ago by a private philanthropist for $550,000 and donated to the Israel Museum after its authenticity was verified by experts.

Lemaire said he discovered the item in 1979 when an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem showed him the tiny ornament over a cup of tea.

Lemaire photographed it and published his findings two years later in the respected Revue Biblique journal. In 1984, he published his findings in English, triggering worldwide interest.

In 2002, Lemaire published the first study of the James ossuary in the Biblical Archeology Review after seeing the burial box at the home of Oded Golan.

The pomegranate was later inspected and the inscription on it found to be suspect by a separate Antiquities Authority inquiry. Dorfman told the court they decided not to bring criminal charges against eight suspects identified in that case.

Lemaire was questioned by Antiquities Authority inspectors during a two-year investigation, but apparently was never told that he was under suspicion.

Under questioning by Deutsch's attorney, Hagai Sitton, Dorfman was challenged to justify the sweeping statements he made at a press conference in December 2005, the day the defendants were charged.

"We know there are antiquity forgeries - it's not a new thing. But the extent and the drama in attempting to fake history didn't allow us as a government body not to become involved," Dorfman told the press conference.

"I believe we have revealed only the tip of the iceberg. This industry encircles the world, involves millions of dollars," he said.

"I said there was an industry involved in making all these fakes," Dorfman told the court on Tuesday. "In my view, it looked like an entire industry, not a single forger."

Dorfman said he took responsibility for the prosecution, which has run into difficulties as the trial has wound on, but Dorfman himself cast doubt on the reliability of much of the testimony of the prosecution's star witness, billionaire antiquities collector Shlomo Moussaieff. According to the indictment, Moussaieff was duped into paying huge sums for several of the allegedly fake items, but his version of events has been repeatedly questioned.

Asked to comment on one story told by Moussaieff, Dorfman responded, "He is not telling the truth, plain and simple."

In another setback for the prosecution, Judge Farkash agreed to recall an expert on isotopes from the Geological Survey of Israel to explain apparent contradictions between testimony given to the court and research submitted to a scientific journal three weeks earlier.

Matthew Kalman reports from Jerusalem for TIME, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Channel 4 News. His ongoing reports from the antiquities trial are available at

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Burial Box of Jesus' Brother: A Case Against Fraud

By Matthew Kalman / Jerusalem
Saturday, Sep. 05, 2009

The world of biblical archaeology was stirred in 2002 by the unveiling of a limestone burial box with the Aramaic inscription Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). Allegedly dating to an era contemporaneous with Christ, the names were a tantalizing collation of potentially great significance: James was indeed the name of a New Testament personage known as the brother of Jesus, both ostensibly the sons of Joseph the carpenter, husband of Mary. If its dates were genuine, the burial box — or ossuary — could well be circumstantial evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, a tenet supported only by gospels and scripture written, at the earliest, a generation after his crucifixion and, of course, by the faith of hundreds of millions through 2,000 years.

Experts, however, declared the ossuary a modern-day forgery. It was seized by Israeli police and its owner, Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, was arrested and charged with counterfeiting the ossuary and dozens of other items. Golan and co-defendant Robert Deutsch were put on trial in the Jerusalem District Court in 2005. Deutsch is accused of forging other valuables, though not the ossuary. Both men deny all charges. (Read a review of a book on fraudulent biblical relics and the ossuary of James.)

Their trial is still continuing. Many of the world's top archaeological experts have testified as both prosecution and defense witnesses in proceedings that already run to more than 9,000 pages. And while the original charges against the ossuary appear to have been popularly accepted as conventional wisdom, they seem to be headed for trouble in the courtroom. Judge Aharon Farkash, who has a degree in archaeology, has wondered aloud in court how he can determine the authenticity of the items if the professors cannot agree among themselves. (Read a story from TIME's archive on the ossuary of James.)

The director of the Israel Antiquities Authority will soon take the witness stand for the first time since he declared, in December 2004, that the ossuary and other items seized in a two-year investigation were the "tip of the iceberg" of an international conspiracy that placed countless fakes in collections and museums around the world. He promised more arrests. But no other fake items have been seized, no-one else has been arrested, and Judge Farkash has hinted strongly that the prosecution case is foundering.

Next week, defense attorneys will present evidence suggesting that scientists testifying for the prosecution have disproved their own findings against the ossuary. The scientific evidence against Golan is largely based on measurements of the oxygen isotopic composition (in technical terms, d18O — Delta 18 Oxygen) of the thin crust — or patina — covering the ossuary inscription.

Scientists are unsure exactly how the patina is formed but most agree it is composed of deposits of solid calcium carbonate that come by way of rain or groundwater. It can contain particles added by wind and perhaps biological. Additionally, depending on the levels of acidity, it may also involve a chemical reaction with the surface of the object. Some scientists say the process is similar to the way stalagmites grow in caves; others disagree.

Testifying for the prosecution, Miryam Bar-Matthews and Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel recorded isotopic values as low as -10.2 permil (parts per thousand) in patina found within the inscription on the ossuary. (It is believed that the lower the number permil, the wetter the season was when it was created.) "The patina could not have been created in the Judean Hills or the surrounding area in a natural way," Bar-Matthews told the court in October 2007. With the exception of one letter in the word Yeshua ("Jesus"), she said, "the patina in the other letters is not natural."

Bar-Matthews and Ayalon based on their research on stalagmites in a cave near Jerusalem, where isotopic data showed rainfall and surface temperatures over many centuries, they concluded that the climate in the past 2,000 years could not have produced the patina on the ossuary. As they wrote with Professor Yuval Goren — another prosecution witness and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University — in the Journal of Archeological Science in 2004, "the patina covering the letters was artificially prepared, most probably with hot water, and deposited onto the underlying letters." The article states: "There is no evidence for the existence of water with such low d18O values in the area during this time span. The range of rain and groundwater d18O values in the Judean Mountains region during the last 3,000 years could not have been lower than approx -6 permil." Pressed by defense counsel, Bar-Matthews declared that an isotopic value lower than -6.5 permil for the ossuary was "impossible."

However, a subsequent paper by Bar-Matthews and Ayalon with their American colleagues Ian Orland and John Valley studied samples from a stalagmite that apparently grew from about 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. And that showed isotopes as low as -8.5 permil, with annual rainfall in the Roman era reaching double the amounts the scientists had previously calculated. The article, published in the 2009 issue of Quaternary Research, was submitted for publication on October 11, 2007, before Bar-Matthews and Ayalon gave evidence at the ossuary trial.

The defense expects to use these esoteric contradictions against the prosecution when the trial resumes on Sunday. Defense expert Prof Joel Kronfeld of the Department of Geophysics at Tel Aviv University says the new data shatters the prosecution case. "I think this is amazing — it blows my mind," Kronfeld told TIME. "The findings in this study stand in complete contradiction to the assumptions presented by Ayalon and Bar-Matthews, and shed new light on the theory they presented to the court. They not only undercut their own arguments for determining that the patina on several items was not natural but rather quite the opposite. These data can support the authenticity of the items."

Bar-Matthews, however, argues the data from her later study are "irrelevant" to the ossuary trial. She and her colleagues say that the very low values representing wet seasons were "noise" that should not be taken in isolation since patina takes many years to form. Patina's isotopic value would represent an average figure, not just the low winter results. "It's like comparing tomatoes and gloves," Bar-Matthews told TIME. "There is no scenario where we can get light isotopic values below -6 permil also in Jerusalem under natural conditions."

The defense is likely to point out that the tests on the ossuary carried out by Bar-Matthews and Ayalon also found traces of patina in at least two other letters of the inscription with isotopes of -4.65 and -5.82 permil — well within the original range they suggested. Bar-Matthews and Ayalon discounted these results, saying the results had been corrupted either from the limestone of the box or from a nearby crack that had been recently repaired.

The trouble with this kind evidence is, of course, that the formation of patina isn't yet explainable in science everyone can agree on. The patina on one letter could be the result of one particularly wet winter that happened to leave its evidence on the ossuary — but perhaps not in a stalagmite in a cave. Or vice versa. "The analogy between the formation of cave deposits and the formation of patina on archeological objects is imprecise and more work is needed," says Professor Aldo Shemesh, an isotope expert at the Weizmann Institute who was also called as a defense expert. In the end, it is a numbers game — figuring on averages of statistics over which all the experts disagree. Says Shemesh: "Scientific debates should be discussed and resolved in peer-reviewed literature and scientific conferences, not in court." But a judge in Jerusalem has to decide on the "facts" as he sees them, for Jesus' sake.