Forgery mystery creates a Pandora's Box (The Globe and Mail, Canada)
The dispute [over the authenticity of the "James Ossuary"] has already besmirched the reputation of [Oded] Golan, the ossuary's owner. Yesterday, the middle-aged Israeli entrepreneur, an important collector of biblical artifacts, was released from an Israeli jail, where he had been questioned for five days on suspicion of forgery. No charges were laid.
Police officials said they had found the ossuary, said to be worth as much as $2-million (U.S.), sitting on a toilet in a shed on the roof of Golan's modest Tel Aviv apartment. They also claimed to have found forging tools on the premises and several semi-completed forgeries.
"I do not know whether Oded Golan is a forger," said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review and a champion of the ossuary's legitimacy. "What I do know is that the police, pressured by the IAA, have been sweating him to confess.'' Golan's release is unlikely to end the controversy.
His detention followed a report earlier this month by the IAA concluding that both the ossuary, and another controversial relic to which Golan has a middleman connection -- the so-called Yoash tablet, dating from the ninth century BC -- are frauds.
The IAA report was signed by 14 prominent Israeli academics. One has since defected, saying the oxygen isotope test on which the IAA based its conclusion was flawed. Even more problematically, Amos Bein, director of the Geological Survey of Israel, which conducted the test, is now saying he's agnostic on the question of the box's legitimacy.
Another very distinguished scholar, Israeli paleographer Ada Yardeni, has also cast a vote in favour of authenticity. The problem with trying to determine whether the ossuary is real or a fabrication is that for every analysis pointing in one direction, there are counter-indications and arguments. Neither geology nor epigraphy seems capable of providing a definitive answer.
Reading the IAA report with all its appendices for the first time this week, Royal Ontario Museum archeologist Ed Keall said that, considered in isolation, some of the evidence of forgery seems persuasive.
"I am open to the idea that I have been duped by an extremely clever forger," Keall wrote in a formal response. But "there may be other explanations for the isotope readings," he added in an interview. "We really don't know the circumstances of the ossuary's life. For scientific data to be statistically valid, the physical history of the object must be the same as that of the others. And I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that the authenticity of the artifact is being determined by machines.''
Meanwhile, the debate continues. Tomorrow night in Jerusalem, voices on either side of the issue will square off in a public forum. The discussion will follow the screening of Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici's hour-long documentary on the ossuary, James, Brother of Jesus. Unless he is arrested, Oded Golan has said he will attend.
The IAA report is out? Is it available online? Anybody know?