In recent years few artifacts have captured as much attention as the Jehoash inscription. The dark stone tablet, only 10 inches by 12 inches, bears a 15 line Hebrew inscription describing renovations made to the Jerusalem temple by the Judean king Jehoash, son of Ahaziya, around the year 800 BCE. Whether the tablet, reportedly found in Jerusalem, is a real artifact from the First Temple has been an archaeological and legal saga that has lasted over a decade.
I became involved in 2006 when my late friend and colleague, Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld, asked me to join his research team. I had known Amnon since the 1970s when I first visited the Geological Survey of Israel as a visiting scientist in connection with my research. We had lost touch for several years but ran into each other in the library of the American Museum of Natural History in New York when Amnon was on sabbatical leave from the Geological Survey.
As we caught up on our research and families over coffee, Amnon related to me that the authenticity of a stone tablet in the possession of an antiquities collector was being investigated and that he would like my scientific opinion. Amnon reviewed the details of the project and we began to plan a research program that would enable us to determine, using hard science, whether the tablet was authentic or a forgery. We did not plan to examine the philology or epigraphy since we had no expertise in those areas.
My main research involves the geology and paleontology of Jurassic Period invertebrate faunas in the Middle East, that is, fossils from 145 to 200 million years ago. In the course of my career I have published papers on the geology and paleontology of fossils from the Negev, southern Israel, Sinai and Jordan. My colleagues and I often differ on interpretations of the fossils we study in terms of their classification and ancient ecologies; however, our disagreements are almost never based on politics. Thus, I was very surprised to learn that political differences were apparently behind the Jehoash inscription tablet question.
In 2008 our international team wrote a paper entitled “Archaeometric analysis of the Jehoash Inscription tablet” that we submitted for publication. I expected the paper to be accepted pending revisions, as is usually the case in our field. But I did not expect there to be any real controversy, since our study was based on hard science and nothing else. We had no political axe to grind. Thus, we were very surprised when our submission to a geological journal was rejected. Amnon had the impression from one of the reviewer’s comments that the rejection was politically based. I recall that Amnon told me that one of the editors was a former student of our main critic in the Israel Antiquities Authority, the organization that contended the tablet had been forged by its owner, Oded Golan. In addition, while working on the project it became apparent that the archaeologists at the Israel Antiquities Authority (which, along with many paleographers, had declared the tablet a fake) had made some crucial errors in their analysis.
We had examined the tablet’s patina, the thin layer of material that developed on its surface, and found it was consistent with the conclusion that the object had been buried for a long period. Radiocarbon testing of ash particles within the patina dated to between 2340 and 2150 years ago, and we also noted tiny globules of melted gold that could only have been produced in a conflagration of at least 1000 degrees Celsius. We therefore believe the tablet and inscription are ancient.
Perhaps naively, I was very surprised that there was so much politics injected into what I believed was a strictly scientific study. I was then made aware of what Amnon termed “minimalists,” who argue that biblical histories are largely the fictional creation of post-exilic writers who wished to advance their own political, social and religious agendas. If the Jehoash Inscription tablet were authentic, it would form a central element in an historical biblical debate about the Kingdom of Judah and the nature of the Bible itself. The dearth of corroborative evidence from outside the Bible has led, in certain academic circles, to the downgrading of the First Temple from an historical fact to a more mythical proposition. Thus, the authentication of this inscription is very significant.
My experience has taught me that workers in the fields of archaeology and archaeometry would be well served to base research on science to the exclusion of politics. Since I am not active in these fields this impression comes strictly from my own experience working with Amnon and our colleagues. But in science many significant and revolutionary discoveries have been rejected when first proposed. Two examples come to mind, one well-known, and the other a bit more obscure, at least to non-geologists.
The first is the concept of continental drift proposed by the German scientist Alfred Wegener in the early twentieth century. He provided evidence that the continents were once attached but was unable to explain how they drifted apart. He calculated that the rate of movement was around 250 centimeters per year (we now know that the rate ranges from about 2-12 cm per year). But during World War II scientists mapped the Atlantic Ocean floor and discovered the mid-ocean ridge along with high heat flow (from the underlying mantle). Later they discovered magnetic anomalies that lined up and could be correlated on both sides of the mid-ocean ridge; this supported the concept of sea floor spreading. These geophysical techniques were able to substantiate Wegener’s original hypothesis. But his theories about continental drift were not fully accepted until the 1960s.
The second example of a theory that was rejected when first proposed was put forth in the 1920s by geologist J. Harlen Bretz who studied the scoured and almost soilless ‘scablands’ of eastern Washington state, and prehistoric Lake Missoula in Montana. After completing his fieldwork Bretz concluded that the scablands were formed by raging water that eroded basalt deposits as the dam of glacial Lake Missoula was breached at the end of the last Ice Age, some 13,000 years ago.
Evidence for Bretz’s theory included: 1) giant boulders that floated on ice rafts, 2) huge gravel ripple marks, 3) large potholes the size of small craters, and 4) ripple marks almost 50 feet in height near Glacial Lake Missoula. Another geologist, Joseph Pardee, proposed that the ripples indicated the glacial lake was held back by an ice dam that, when was breached, released such a huge volume of water (500 cubic miles) that the scablands were carved in an enormous deluge.
Bretz’s ideas struck the leading figures of geology as too similar to that of the Biblical flood, and the argument raged for decades. It was decades later, only after modern methods like aerial photography had been applied, that Bretz’s conclusions were finally accepted by the geological community. Bretz’s view of the affair was that “Ideas without precedent are generally looked upon with disfavour and men are shocked if their conceptions of an orderly world are challenged.”
I think that the Jehoash case was met with skepticism for several reasons. First, it was “too good to be true” as one critic said. If authentic, it would be the first written evidence that there was indeed a First Temple. Second, the Israel Antiquities Authority wanted to stop the looting of artifacts and thus apparently decided that any unprovenanced find was a forgery. Third, some workers are secularists and did not want to support the idea of a ‘greater Israel’ under King David or his descendents.
But an Israeli court that heard all the evidence over a multi-year trial disagreed; it judged the Jehoash tablet was not a forgery and ordered it returned to Oded Golan. This is not the same as stating it was “real,” but it was a rebuke to the absolute certainty that had prevailed, despite scientific analyses such as our own. It was a powerful reminder that scientists must have an open mind and be able to analyze a problem regardless of the politics involved.
Howard R. Feldman is a professor in the Biology Department of Touro College and a Research Associate, Division of Paleontology (Invertebrates) at The American Museum of Natural History.
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