By: Heather Dana Davis Parker
For an accurate and complete understanding of history and culture, it is crucial that written sources be authentic. But what if they are not?
The surest way to verify the authenticity of ancient documents is to determine if they were recovered from secure archaeological contexts. In contrast, the antiquities market is how most modern hoaxes are circulated, including forgeries of ancient texts. Alleged ancient texts are often said to come from particular archaeological sites, but there is rarely a way to verify such assertions.
There are various motivations for forging ancient documents, notably money, ego, and ideology, including religious and political motivations. The most obvious fact is that ancient inscriptions often sell for large amounts of money on the antiquities market, with tiny scraps of papyri no more than an inch long going for hundreds of dollars. Also, individuals who have been ostracized within academic circles, purged from academic programs, or who were never recognized in the first place, might wish to deceive their former and would-be colleagues.
Ancient objects that seem to affirm religious beliefs or political land claims are also highly valued and thus inspire replication. For example, inscriptions related in some way to the Bible and/or the lands of the Bible, particularly those written in Northwest Semitic languages, including Hebrew, are among the most commonly imitated texts. In fact, forgers frequently attempt to make texts that parallel or allude to biblical passages. While other types of ancient documents are certainly forged, the relative abundance of authentic Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts make such documents less valuable, as well as the fact that the Egyptian, Sumerian, and Akkadian writing systems are much more difficult to imitate.
Some famous modern forgeries related to the biblical world include the famous 19th century Moses Shapira fragments allegedly from the Book of Deuteronomy and his so-called Moabity forgeries, 20th century fragments of ‘Philistine scrolls’ from Hebron, a Sidonian Phoenician inscription associated with biblical Ezion-Geber reportedly found in Brazil in the 1870s, Aramaic inscriptions allegedly from the Jewish colony in Egypt at Elephantine, a 19th-century Greek copy of the Gospel of Matthew, various Northwest Semitic seals and bullae, early Christian amulets, and recently, the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.’
From 2004 to 2012, a high profile court case in Israel investigated several purportedly ancient artifacts, including an ossuary inscribed with the phrase “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” an ivory pomegranate associated with the First Temple in Jerusalem, and a tablet describing repairs made to that temple by J(eh)oash, King of Judah in the 9th century BCE. The results of this trial were inconclusive. Scholars consulted by both the prosecution and the defense were at odds, and while the current consensus of much of the academic community is that these items are forgeries, the court acquitted the defendants.
Forgeries are not unique to the modern period. Even in antiquity, forgeries were created, often to promote religious or political ideologies. For example, the ancient Old Akkadian (3rd millennium BCE) cruciform monument of King Manishtushu was actually made in the Neo-Babylonian period (likely in the 6th century BCE) in order to associate the favor afforded the Sippar Temple with earlier times. In the purported 4th-century CE text, the Donation of Constantine, Emperor Constantine declares that the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is to be privileged above all priests in the empire; this text was likely produced in the 9th century CE.
Forging an ancient document is difficult and requires expertise in several fields and a variety of resources. However, the same resources produced by scholars who study genuinely ancient texts are available to everyone. Handbooks and reference volumes on the languages and scripts of the Bible and its world are available in libraries and increasingly online. Software and digital fonts replicate both linguistic and script forms are also readily available, as well as are volumes on the archaeology, history, and culture of the ancient world, complete with maps of archeological sites. The forger’s job is easier than ever.
Often forgers will inscribe a fake text on a genuine artifact such as a potsherd, stone object, or piece of papyrus. Such artifacts can often be stolen with relative ease while excavating – legally or illegally – ancient archaeological sites. Looters have ready illegal access to many archaeological sites throughout the Middle East where limited resources or political upheaval prevent adequate protection. Economic conditions also make the illegal antiquities trade particularly lucrative. One recent estimate is that 80% of the items currently being smuggled from Syria into Lebanon and marketed as antiquities are fakes.
Moreover, in the past, forgeries could be readily detected by scientific methods. For example, any ancient object recovered from the ground, as well as any ancient inscription written on such an object, will be covered with a patina – a film that accrues on an object over time as the result of various chemical processes, such as oxidation and calcification. Patinas can be analyzed spectroscopically to determine their precise chemical makeup, and whether they include any modern elements. However, forgers, with the proper means, who wish to bolster the authenticity of their products, can now forge patinas using ancient organic materials that would pass various scientific rests, such as carbon-14 dating. Ancient organic materials can also be used to produce “ancient” inks with which to create inscriptions. As the resources for producing forgeries improve, forgers are better equipped than ever to defraud the unwary.
It is important to have a well-trained and skeptical academic community. Many academic societies have recently convened special committees and sessions to deal with the issues surrounding unprovenanced artifacts and forgeries and have begun to enact strict policies regarding the publication of such.
It is also important that the general public become more aware of the forgery issue, particularly as it relates to both the legal and illegal antiquities markets. Raising awareness of the damage done to archaeological sites by looting and to science by forging is key.
Heather Dana Davis Parker is a lecturer in the Center for Leadership Education at the Johns Hopkins University.
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