Scientists Puzzle Over Ancient Ossuary

© Royal Ontario Museum, Brian Boyle, MPAIn October 2002, a group of archaeologists held a press conference in Washington, DC, to announce a startling discovery. A limestone box had been discovered in Israel with the inscription "James the son of Joseph the brother of Jesus." It was a stunning find: the first physical evidence of Jesus. The news swept through the field of biblical archaeology. The ossuary, a container for the bones of the deceased meant to be kept in a cave, was already on i

Sam Jaffe
Apr 11, 2004
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© Royal Ontario Museum, Brian Boyle, MPA

In October 2002, a group of archaeologists held a press conference in Washington, DC, to announce a startling discovery. A limestone box had been discovered in Israel with the inscription "James the son of Joseph the brother of Jesus." It was a stunning find: the first physical evidence of Jesus. The news swept through the field of biblical archaeology. The ossuary, a container for the bones of the deceased meant to be kept in a cave, was already on its way to the Royal Ontario Museum, where it was to be displayed for a few months. The museum's press release said, "It may be the most important find in the history of new testament archaeology."

More than a year later, in June of 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced an even more stunning piece of news. A multidisciplinary committee of Israeli scientists...

SPARRING EXPERTS

To resolve the debate, the IAA committee assigned itself a daunting investigation. The alleged forgers of the ossuary had to become experts in multiple disciplines, including biblical epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), onomastics (the study of names), and geochemistry, to pull off such a masterpiece of forgery. The detectives who ruled it forgery had to use even more advanced science to determine that the ossuary was a fake. In the end, this is a story of science and the scientists who matched wits with some very learned fraudsters.

This how-they-dunnit story begins with the birth of Oded Golan to a middle class Tel Aviv family. At the age of eight, according to an Israeli newspaper profile of him,4 Golan had organized a group of playmates to excavate a hillock in his neighborhood, where they uncovered several ancient shards of pottery. As a teenager he volunteered on the dig at Masada, the site of the last resistance to the Romans before the expulsion of the Jews from Israel, a defining moment in modern Israel's relationship to its ancient past. Legendary archaeologist (and one of Israel's founding fathers) Yigal Yadin befriended the youngster and helped teach him about the science of archaeology. However, despite such a promising beginning, Golan went into the construction industry, although he remained an avid hobbyist and collector.

According to Golan's written testimonial5 (he did not reply to phone calls and E-mails from The Scientist), he bought the James Ossuary sometime around 1967 from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer. Ancient ossuaries are common in Israel and even today can be had for a few hundred dollars. Golan says that he didn't notice the inscription on the side of the box and kept it stored in his family's apartment over the years, during which time his mother frequently washed it with soap and water, using an iron brush. In 2001 he met epigrapher Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris at a cocktail party and asked him to evaluate the ossuary. Lemaire was the first to identify the Jesus inscription. Soon thereafter, the ossuary was shipped to Canada for the exhibition; it was heavily damaged during transportation, making examination of it even more difficult.

PATINA PROBE

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Courtesy of Yuval Goren

When Yuval Goren and his IAA team began their investigation, they were expecting it to be routine. Any major archaeological find in Israel must endure a similar investigation in order to be accepted by the field. "I was confident it would prove to be authentic," says Goren, chair of the archaeology department at Tel Aviv University and head of the IAA committee.

Goren, however, discovered three different types of patina on the box. On all sides was a general brown varnish that probably came from centuries of algae or bacterial growth while the box lay in a dank cave. Inside most of the chiseled letters was a greenish patina that consisted of a recrystallization of calcite. Finally, inside the letters that made up the words "brother of Jesus" was a patina of similar green color but which had a different chemical makeup. "Essentially," says Goren, "it was ground-up chalk."

Yet it could still have conceivably been the same material, which for some reason had developed differently over the centuries from the patina in the rest of the inscription. So Goren scratched a few grains from each of the letters and had a geochemist from the Israel Geological Survey, Avner Ayalon, examine the oxygen isotope composition of the various patinas on the ossuary. To do that, he had to take precise readings of oxygen-18 (18O) and compare them to oxygen-16 (16O). The resulting ratio is known as delta 18O. If authentic, the patinas' delta 18O should have ranged between 4 and -6, based on other readings of ossuaries found in the region. The brownish patina on the sides of the box did fall within that range. The patina inside of the carved letters, however, registered between -7.5 and -10. One letter fell within the expected range, but Ayalon thinks that was due to experimental error.

What does that mean? The report issued by the committee says it means that the patina inside the letters was formed at temperatures of around 122°F, which can't occur naturally. Goren conjectures that somebody ground calcite into hot water along with something acidic until it formed a paste, and then recrystallized the calcite. "It's the same recrystallization you find on your teapot after boiling hard water," he says. Goren says the forger then rubbed the material into all the letters of the inscription to make it blend in better with the rest of the box. The best guess of the committee is that the ossuary itself is authentic and bears the words "James, son of Joseph," but that the words "brother of Jesus" were added recently by someone well versed in the philology of Second Temple-era inscriptions.

Antiquities conservator Orna Cohen writes in her report to the committee that Golan had approached her 10 years before and asked her how to artificially recreate a biblical patina for a construction project on which he was working. She discussed some of the scientific properties of patina, which is composed of oxylates that are the byproduct of organic activity. She gave him some scientific papers about patina and, she writes, never heard from him again. However, Cohen writes that the patina is a "simple forgery" using ground stone or soil: "No use was made of the information for producing patina that I had given Mr. Golan in the past."

Cohen's report is a part of the IAA committee statement, which has settled the scientific argument, Goren says. "Now it's a debate between this political party and that religious group," he adds. "It's no longer a scientific debate."

DIVERGING CONCLUSIONS

Not all archaeologists and scientists related to the field are willing to accept the ruling of the IAA committee. One is James Harrell, a geologist at the University of Toledo, Ohio, who printed a paper in the nonpeer-reviewed Biblical Archaeological Review, calling for further study of the James Ossuary.6 He is especially concerned about the odd isotope reading of one letter in the inscription. Others, including Lemaire, argue that because formal, peer-reviewed papers haven't yet been published by the committee members, it's scientifically unethical to draw conclusions.3 Several such papers, Goren says, are soon to be published by various journals.

That hasn't stopped the Israeli press, which has covered this case extensively, from drawing its own conclusions. A recent documentary by a news program called "The Fact" alleged that Golan ran a counterfeit ring for years, selling other items to gullible collectors for small fortunes. Golan has publicly claimed his innocence, although he has written that for legal reasons, he can't comment on specifics of the case while it is still under investigation.

If the committee is correct in ruling (as many archaeologists agree) that the ossuary inscription is inauthentic, then it will have successfully uncovered one of the most technically advanced archaeological forgeries in the history of the field. And as the science of archaeology acquires ever more powerful tools, so do the forgers. 6

Sam Jaffe can be reached at sjaffe@the-scientist.com.