Of biblical dimensions

Jerusalem Post (Israel), Jan. 23, 2003

A newly found tablet that is either a hoax or pivotal corroboration of the existence of the First Temple is pitting geologists against archeologists

It’s a black stone tablet about the size of a textbook – a small object. But it is making big waves not only in Israel, where it was purportedly found, but throughout the world.

This sandstone tablet, inscribed with 15 lines of ancient Hebrew, is either one of the most important archaeological finds ever – or one of the most outstanding forgeries.

“If this is the work of a forger, I would have to shake his hand,” says Dr. Shimon Ilani, one of the geologists who studied the tablet. “It’s possible, but not probable.”

“If this is authentic, one cannot exaggerate the importance of this find,” says prominent biblical archaeologist Prof. Gabriel Barkay.

The inscription on the tablet, written in the first person, describes Temple repairs ordered by King Joash, who ruled Judea 2,800 years ago, and strongly resembles Biblical passages in the Bible – to the First Temple built by King Solomon, and provide physical evidence supporting the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, regarded as Judaism’s holiest site.

Such evidence would be a direct challenge to the Palestinian Authority and Islamic groups which deny the existence of a Jewish temple on what they regard as Islam’s third holiest site, Haram es-Sharif.

The issue of sovereignty over the Temple Mount was a major stumbling block in the Camp David talks of 2000, and is considered one of the most intractable problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On a more academic level, such a find would be a blow to the minimalist school of scholars who regard the biblical descriptions of David, Solomon, and the First Temple as pure myth.

The tablet could also be the first royal inscription by an Israelite king ever found.

“Until now excavations in this region have unearthed royal inscriptions by monarchs of neighboring kingdoms such as Assyria and Moab,” notes Barkay, a member of Bar-Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies Department, and a laureate of the Jerusalem Prize in Archaeology.

“We would expect to find similar inscriptions by the kings who ruled Judea and Israel from 1000 BCE to 586 BCE [when the First Temple was destroyed]. But after nearly a century of excavations… we have no such inscription.”

The so-called “Joash tablet” would be the first. Such a rare royal inscription would have a direct impact on biblical studies and history, shedding light on the period of the Judean monarchy and the House of David, notes Barkay.

All this hangs on one word: if.

If the tablet is or isn’t authentic. That question that has pitted archaeologists against each other, and against geologists in one of the most heated academic debates in recent years.

It is heated not only because of what’s at stake, but also because of the murky circumstances surrounding the “discovery” of the stone tablet.

The tablet first surfaced in November 2001 when it was brought to the Jerusalem offices of the Israel Geological Institute (IGI), to determine its authenticity. Lawyers representing the owner of the tablet insisted that its existence be kept secret. The IGI researchers studied the tablet, and concluded that it appeared to be authentic. This conclusion was based mainly on an examination of the patina, the thin layer of crust built up over the years on the surface of stone. This view was reinforced by the results of a radiocarbon dating test conducted in Florida, which estimated the patina to be about 2,300 years old. The study, conducted by Dr. Shimon Ilani and Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld of the IGI, is to be published next week in the IGI journal, Current Research, but news of the discovery appeared in the local media last week.

To date, no one knows who owns the tablet, where it was discovered, when or by whom. All dealings were conducted through messengers or lawyers, one of whom is former Barak cabinet secretary Isaac Herzog, an aspiring Labor Party MK, and all parties involved were sworn to secrecy.

Recalls Ilani: “The tablet was sent with a messenger for a few hours at a time, and we studied it in his presence. Then he took it and disappeared.” At some point, the Israel Museum also entered the picture, apparently with the hope of purchasing the tablet. The museum, which will not comment on the affair, was reportedly unconvinced of the authenticity of the piece.

If the tablet is authentic, it is almost certainly stolen, and would be worth millions of dollars. According to the Antiquities Law of 1978, all archaeological finds belong to the state, and anyone who discovers an antiquity is obligated to hand it over to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Only if the piece was found prior to the enactment of the law could it be held legally by a private individual. But it seems highly unlikely that someone would hold such a find for over 25 years before taking it to be assessed.

SO WHY did the IGI, a government body, deal with what is almost certainly a stolen artifact? Apparently, faced with the opportunity of revealing such an important find, the researchers preferred to look the other way.

“We didn’t ask any questions,” admits Ilani. “The lawyers told us they had all the necessary papers. We didn’t ask to see them.

“Anyway, if you read the law carefully, and I have it in front of me, the onus of reporting [stolen artifacts] is on the person who finds them.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority – the body charged with protecting such artifacts, and preventing theft – refuses to comment about the affair.

“If I was the head of the IAA,” says Barkay, ” I would go to the police and ask them to interrogate the Geological Institute people and the lawyers to find out where the object is and confiscate it. That is how a normal regime should work.

“Instead we have one government body publishing a study on stolen material, while another government body looks on in silence.”

The likely origin of the tablet is another sore point for many. It is presumed to have been found on the Temple Mount, possibly amidst the truckloads of soil removed from the compound by the Wakf (the Muslim Trust), during the construction of an underground prayer area there in the late Nineties. Israeli archaeologists have decried these actions, fearing that important artifacts are being destroyed. Since the outbreak of the Palestinian violence, representatives of the Israel Antiquities Authority have been unable to inspect the site which has been off-limits to virtually all non-Muslim visitors.

If the tablet is authentic, archaeologists wonder how many other precious finds may have been discarded.

“It is deplorable that this object could have come from the clandestine, barbaric acts of the Wakf on the Temple compound,” says Barkay.

“This is part of a cultural intifada – an attempt to eliminate anything earlier or different than the Islamic history.”

To add insult to injury, archaeologists are peeved that this potentially monumental find was publicized by geologists.

“Since when do geologists publish ancient texts?” asks Barkay. “It’s as if I, an archaeologist, were to publish a report about the prospects of oil discovery beneath the Knesset building.”

Ilani dismisses that analogy.

“What we’re dealing with here is material – stone, gold, patina. Where do you conduct tests of materials if not in a geological lab?

“We say this is our discovery because we identified the particles of carbon and flecks of pure gold in the patina. The gold would have to have been exposed to temperatures of over 1,000 degrees centigrade – clear evidence of a fire,” explains Ilani, who argues in his soon-to-be-published paper that the tablet was probably burned during the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and buried underground afterwards.

This would explain the presence of gold, which was abundant in the Temple. It might also explain why the patina, which accumulates only after an object is buried, was dated to the third century BCE even though the tablet’s inscription is associated with a monarch who ruled five centuries earlier.

IT’S IN this heated atmosphere – rife with accusations of theft, cultural intifada and academic irresponsibility – that the scholarly debate about the language, script, and letter-spacing of the inscription is taking place.

How does the evidence line up?

The language of the inscription has all the characteristics of biblical Hebrew, says Barkay. The Phoenician script is similar to that used in the royal inscription of Moabite King Mesha, who ruled in approximately the same period as Joash. The patina has accumulated inside the letters and cracks in the tablet, and carbon dating tests have determined that it is ancient.

So why suspect forgery?

Several experts of biblical Hebrew point to the use of certain modern expressions in the inscription which make its authenticity doubtful. Hebrew University archaeology professor Joseph Naveh, who examined the tablet last year, pronounced it “a fake” this week, citing “technical weaknesses” and irregularities in the letter shapes which vary from ninth century BCE Hebrew to seventh-century Aramaic and Phoenician.

Above all, many archaeologists are suspicious of a find that surfaced so mysteriously.

“I am highly skeptical about any ‘find’ that is not discovered as part of an archaeological dig,” said Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar.

“We have nothing else found together with this object which might indicate what period it is from,” says Barkay. “It has no context.”

Even the dating of the artifact is questionable. Although the carbon tests were performed by a reputable lab, the largest in the world, the results may be meaningless, according to Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the Weizmann Institute’s carbon-14 dating lab. Boaretto, who examined the tablet last year, was asked to date it, but declined.

“To come up with a reliable date, you need to work with an archaeologist who can define the exact question: How long was the piece underground? Was it burned? Depending on the question, you choose a particular component of the patina to undergo dating – sediment, or carbon, or charcoal. If you take a general sample, you get an average that is meaningless. One number is as right or wrong as any other number.”

The inability to collaborate with an archaeologist, the atmosphere of secrecy, and the minute amount of patina available for analysis all led Boaretto to turn down the assignment.

The Israel Museum then sent a sample of the tablet to Beta Analytic, a private laboratory in Florida, for dating.

If the tablet is a forgery, experts say it is a very sophisticated one.

Perhaps the forger engraved the tablet, using the Mesha inscription as a model, and buried it in the soil of an ancient archaeological site. But how did the forger get gold flecks to penetrate the stone and the patina?

Besides, patina takes centuries to accumulate, Ilani points out.

“If it is a forgery, it is the work of someone who studied the subject in great depth,” says Barkay. “The motivation might not have been money, but ego and scientific jealousy,” he speculates.

“This could be the work of a frustrated scholar, who didn’t get a university position and wants to be able to laugh at his colleagues for falling for this.”

The discovery of the ninth century BCE Mesha tablet inspired the fabrication of numerous fake Moabite artifacts which flooded the antiquities market, notes Barkay.

Whether this is another such ruse, or the first extra-biblical written reference to Solomon’s Temple, remains to be seen.

The dating game

Radio carbon dating, was pioneered in the Fifties at the University of Chicago by Willard F. Libby, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work. Today it is the most widely used method for estimating the age of ancient objects.

There are approximately 130 radio carbon-dating laboratories in the world.

Israel has one, at the Weizmann Institute of Science, which has been operating since 1970. It’s the only such lab in the Middle East, and performs work for local archaeologists as well as teams from abroad. Among the most famous artifacts examined in the Rehovot lab is the so-called “Jesus Boat,” an ancient wooden fishing boat from the Sea of Galilee, which the lab dated to the time of Jesus.

The method works by measuring the amount of radioactive Carbon 14 remaining in organic or carbon-containing objects (such as wood, charcoal, bone, and seeds.) It is assumed that the proportion of carbon-14 in any living organism is constant – that is, an ancient tree originally contained the same amount of C14 as does a modern tree. Since scientists know the rate of decay of C14 – it loses half its atoms over the period of 5,730 years – they can tell the age of an object by measuring how much of the original C14 is left. The method works up to about 40,000 years beyond which the quantity of C14 that remains is so minute that accuracy becomes questionable. The margin of error is approximately 120 years, depending on the particular sample.

For all of its power, the method is not sufficient to confirm the authenticity of an artifact. Many forgers have used ancient parchment to fool collectors.

Moreover, in order to date an artifact, scientists must scrape off a small sample which is then burned in the course of the test. The decision of which part of the sample to choose may have great bearing on the final result, and certainly on the interpretation of that result.

Many major finds – among them the Mesha tablet discovered in Transjordan and estimated to date to the ninth century BCE – never even underwent radio carbon dating. If an artifact is discovered in an organized excavation, it is possible to determine its age based on the stratum in which it was found, and through comparison with other artifacts on the same layer.

Archaeologists regard carbon dating as an important tool, but only one piece in the puzzle surrounding any artifact.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 25, 2003.
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