Archaeology – forgeries

Nevuchadnetzer’s men did such a thorough job of destroying the first Beis Hamikdash that not a trace of it remained. As Sefer Tehillim (137:7) predicted, they ripped out its mighty stones, yelling, “Aru, aru ad hayesod ba!” “Raze it raze it, until its foundations!” Consequently, archeologists never discovered the smallest trace of its building stones and keilim.

THE UNBELIEVABLE

Then the unbelievable happened. In 5748/1988 an ancient, thumbsized ivory pomegranate was offered to the Israel Museum by the agent of an anonymous seller. That which made the pomegranate unique was its old Hebrew script bearing the inscription, “Belonging to the Temp (of Hash)em, holy to the kohanim.” This ancient script placed this artifact firmly in the time of the first Beis Hamikdash and experts decided that here, for the first time in modern history, was a tangible remnant of the most sacred building ever to exist. For a measly $550,000 dollars dropped into a numbered Swiss account, the museum became the proud owner of one of the rarest artifacts in history.

Three years later in 5761/2001 the unbelievable happened once again when a mysterious personage appeared with an ancient stone that seemed to have leaped straight from the Tanach. In the Haftorah of Parshas Shekalim (Melachim II chapter 12) we read about King Yehoash of Yehuda who became king at the age of seven and ruled in Yerushalayim for forty years. The verses describe how he repaired the bedek Habayis (damaged walls of the Beis Hamikdash) during his twenty-third year.

“Yehoyada the Kohen took a box and made a hole in its lid and put it at the altar at the right of where people enter the house of Hashem, and the kohanim who guarded the entrance placed there all the money brought to the house of Hashem. And they gave the counted money
into the hands of those who did the work that were appointed [over] the house of Hashem, and they gave it to the carpenters and builders that worked in the house of Hashem. And to stone-masons and stonecutters, and to buy wood and hewed stone to strengthen the damage of the house of Hashem. They did not make reckoning with the men to whom they gave the money to give to workmen, for they were acting with integrity.”

Amazingly, carved on this mysterious tablet was exactly the same story. Briefly, its ancient Hebrew letters commemorate how the cities of Yehuda have given great amounts of consecrated silver in order to buy quarried stone, timber, copper and labor to carry out the labor with faith. Yehoash concludes by declaring: “I fixed the damage of the house and the surrounding walls and the extension and the lattice work and the steps and the niche and the doors. And this day is a testimony. Because the work is successful Hashem will send a blessing on his people.”

But was the tablet genuine? The Geological Survey of Israel subjected it to a series of exacting examinations and it passed them all with flying colors. Carbon particles imbedded on the stone indicated that it had passed through fire which would be expected of an artifact that had gone through the Churban. Carbon-dating of these burnt particles revealed that they dated back to the days of the Mikdash and on top of that, tiny gold particles on the tablet gave the impression that it had been inside the gold coated sanctuary when it was consumed by fire.

The experts scrutinized the tablet’s surface. Genuine old rocks develop a patina on their surface, a mineral coating that forms as chemicals percolate onto rocks from the air, water, and soil over hundreds of years. Examination revealed that not only was the tablet covered with an ancient patina but also the engraved letters, and their patina exactly matched the rest of the tablet. This meant that the letters must have been cut thousands of years
back when the tablet was freshly quarried. In January 5663/2003 the stone was pronounced genuine and offered to the Israel Museum for at least four million dollars, not bad for a fragment of stone almost small enough to fit into your sink.

HARD QUESTIONS

For that amount of money the museum directors were not satisfied to rely on circumstantial evidence and began asking hard questions. Where did the tablet come from? Who was its original owner? At this stage the mysterious stranger got cold feet and disappeared with his priceless stone. Reluctant to allow the prize of the century to disappear, the Israeli Antiquities Authority mounted a nine-month search until an investigator tracked down the stone to O.G., an Israeli engineer who is the proud owner of what may be the largest private collection of antiquities in the world. O.G. claimed that a Palestinian had found the stone in the Moslem cemetery lying in front of the Shaarei Rachamim in the east wall of makom Hamikdash.

However, the discovery of O.G. as the man behind the tablet set alarm bells ringing because he was also the proud owner of another recent find that had driven people wild – an ancient ossuary (stone box used to store bones) that once, purportedly, held the bones of a close relative of Yeshu. Was it probable that one person had fortuitously made two of the two most sensational finds of the century within a couple of years, or was it more likely that he was a fraud? This question led to a raid on O.G.’s apartment where police reportedly discovered the famous ossuary and tablet in the midst of a veritable workshop of half-finished “antiques” and forging equipment.

Now a new team of investigators subjected the stone and ossuary to even greater scrutiny and they were not happy with the results. For example, an archeologist discovered tiny marine fossils in the patina covering the engraved letters of the tablet. Was Yerushalayim once under water? Obviously, the patina had been hand-made from sea-based calcium carbonate that contained marine organisms.

On top of that, the tablet was made from rock found nowhere in Eretz Yisroel. Investigators guessed that half empty ships coming in from Europe during the Crusades used to load their holds with rock ballast to keep them from riding too high above water. The rocks were dumped on land and some of them were used to build a Crusader castle near Tel Aviv. O.G. then salvaged the rock for his nefarious purposes.

The committee’s report concluded, “We, members of the committee for examination of the content and script in the Yehoash inscription and the James Ossuary (James son of Joseph brother of Jesus) conclude that to the best of our scientific judgment: A) the Yehoash inscription is a forgery. B) The James Ossuary inscription is a forgery. We, the committee members for
examination of the materials of the Yehoash inscription and the James Ossuary conclude that the patina on both items is forged and significantly varies from the original patina on the items.”

INDICTMENT

After eighteen months of investigation, police handed O.G. and his associates an indictment that stated among other things:

“In the course of the year 2001 or shortly before, the Accused No. 1 [O.G.] planned to forge an inscription on a stone tablet, in order that it should appear to be an inscription from the age of King Jehoash, in which was described the renovation of the First Temple… The accused used an ancient tablet of stone. On the stone tablet the accused engraved, with the help of another, the inscription called today the “temple repair inscription” or the “Jehoash inscription” (hereinafter: the temple repair inscription) containing scores of letters in ancient Hebrew script.

“The accused did the actions described in order to be the possessor of an inscription that was to all appearances the only surviving remnant from the First Temple, one that corresponds to the written description in the Tanach relating to the Temple. The accused did this with the knowledge that he would be able to sell the artifact for millions of dollars. The accused acted in a methodical and premeditated manner for the purpose of creating a forged artifact, and the accused. was liable to deceive millions of believing Jews throughout the world, as well as researchers in history and archaeology throughout the world. In addition to this, the accused by these false pretenses was likely to make a profit by fraud of sums of money estimated at least in the millions of dollars, as well as the realization of other advantages.”

O.G. had his own version of the facts. Claiming that he hardly ever sold any antiques at all, he insisted the whole affair is a conspiracy of the Israeli Geological Authority to put private collectors out of business. The number of times he has sold or mediated in antiquity sales was “smaller than the number of fingers on my hands,” he insists. A tiny minority of experts are not convinced that his tablet and ossuary are fakes and as the trial drags into its fourth year it seems that it will still be a while before the court reaches a consensus.

Meanwhile, experts had determined that the Israeli Museum’s famous Temple Pomegranate was also an expertly contrived fake after discovering synthetic chemicals underneath the patina of its letters.

The alarm bells are ringing. With such sophisticated fakes in existence who knows what else is lurking in public displays and private collections? Thousands of archeological treasures worldwide might be fakes! So next time you are offered an antiquity for your collection beware – it may be a forgery even if the salesman insists he made it himself.

 

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