Thursday, January 13, 2005

James Harrell on Forgeries

The Biblical Archaeology Society website has a few new additions to its coverage of the James Ossuary controversy. Although Hershel Shanks still has no comment posted on the forgery indictments or any expression of remorse for his own role in relentlessly publicizing highly questionable artifacts in his magazine, there are some new articles available in PDF form at this site.

A very interesting one is the one entitled "James Harrell on Forgeries." Harrell is the specialist in ancient stone that has been attacking the methods and conclusions of the Israel Antiquities Authority on the James Ossuary. Although I disagree with some of his fundamental attitudes, his paper is well worth reading (scroll down to find the title).

First of all, he is unambiguously in favor of studying unprovenanced artifacts.
I believe that unprovenanced artifacts should be studied. It may well be that publicizing such objects, and thereby giving them value, only encourages thieves to steal more of them. The resulting loss of archaeological context is certainly lamentable; however, I do not think we should compound the tragedy by ignoring real artifacts just because we do not know where they come from. Given that some of these artifacts can be historically significant, I believe it is our duty as students of the past to study them. It is, of course, the potential historical significance of unprovenanced artifacts that is fueling a large forgery industry.
He then goes on to ask how unprovenanced artifacts can be authenticated and proposes convening expert panels following a set of specified analytical protocols, before any conclusion of authenticity is reached. This suggestion seems to me to be a good one; if it is followed, it would pull the rug out from under sensationalizing reports of "exciting finds" like the ones appearing regularly in BAR. I would also add two things: (1) Museums should pledge themselves not to display or charge admission to see any artifacts that are unprovenanced and that have not been analyzed in accordance with the proposed technical protocols; and (2) scholars, experts, and dealers should communicate to the dealers that uncleaned and unrestored artifacts are far more important than those that are treated, cleaned, or restored — as any one who watches "Antiques Roadshow" should know!

Unfortunately, Harrell makes no suggestions on how the trade in unprovenanced artifacts, which he admits is a problem, can be reduced. And it seems clear to me that the more spectacular the find (that is the more it seems to either confirm or deny a sacred text), the heavier the burden of proof must be for the panel and its protocols. For an unprovenanced artifact, the onus probandi lies all on the side of those who claim authenticity — not, as Shanks and his cronies seem to think, with those who deny it.

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