The UnAustralian

Friday, July 25, 2003
The Forging of the Ossuary of Ya'acob bar Yosef

During late 2002 a significant announcement in the field of Biblical archeology was made by Professor André Lemaire. The box used to store the body of Jesus's brother James had been discovered. Since then, the ossuary attracted lots of attention in the academic community, caused a fair few intense debates, been the subject of a book, toured the Royal Ontario Museum and finally been exposed as an elaborate forgery. This post is aimed as an introduction to this tale. It should also be noted that I'm about as far from an expert as you can get, so be prepared for large numbers of mistakes.

The Ossuary

The ossuary was a trapezoid, with one end being 12 inches wide and the other slightly shorter. The box was about 20 inches long.

The ossuary was constructed from limestone. It has a rough surface, which has two important natural features. One is a very thin layer of clay known as rock varnish. This is caused by the actions of bacteria and alga over a long period of time. The other feature is a coating of minerals in small "cauliflower" patterns known as the patina. This is caused by minerals leaching out of the limestone.

There is evidence of increased phosphate levels inside the ossuary, which may be due to leaching from that bones that it once held, however, now the ossuary is empty.

The ossuary had some small patterns carved into it (and possible painted on, however, this has worn away), but most importantly, there is a inscription on one side of it, naming the body that was once within it. Another significant detail is that the patina has grown over the inscription, indicating that the inscription is very old.

The inscription on it reads:

Yakov son of Josef brother of Yeshua

Translating these names into their english equivalent we get:

Jacob son of Joseph brother of Joshua

or in more familiar terms:

James son of Joseph brother of Jesus

Why is it important

An ossuary is essentially a coffin. It is used to store the bones of a dead person. They became popular among Jews in Jerusalem around 30 BCE, and the practice ended with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In other areas of Judea, the practice of storing bones in ossuaries lasted until approximately the third century.

Ossuary's were commonly inscribed with the name of the occupant, and their fathers name. The addition of the brothers name is very rare (this is suggestive that the brother was important).

Jesus died in approximately 30 AD, and James in approximately 50 AD, putting James in the right time period for an ossuary. The frequency of the names Jesus, James and Joseph make in unlikely that there were many people named James, with a brother called Jesus, and a father called Joseph. As noted above the use of the brothers name on the ossuary suggests that he was a significant figure.

This is all suggestive that the ossuary did belong to the brother of Jesus.

The ossuary takes on greater significance when it is compared with early clues about Jesus. There are no Christian writings contemporary with Jesus. The earliest Christian writings (some of Paul's letters) were made in-between 50 and 60 CE. The Jewish historian Josephus has the earliest non-Christian mention of Jesus, however this was written after 70 CE, and there is considerable debate as to whether or not his mention of Jesus was a later Christian interpolation. The oldest Christian documents are fragments of certain gospels, which date to around 125 CE. So basically, there is a lack of archaeological data during the early origins of Christian Church. Rather we depend on what later generations wrote about this time period in order to study it.

If the ossuary did belong to James, then it would be the earliest known Christian artifact.

Altman's Analysis

One of the first serious challenges to the ossuary came from Dr. Rochelle Altman. She looked at the text of the inscription, and came to the conclusion that first part of the inscription (James son of Joseph) was written one person, whereas, the second part was written by a different person. Even more interestingly, from clues in the writing style the following can be said about the first author:

The person who wrote the first part of the inscription was necessarily a surviving member of the family. He was fully literate; he clearly was familiar with the formal square script (those cuneiform wedges), the writing is internally consistent, and this part of the inscription is his expertly written holograph. The ease with which he wrote on stone further implies a mercantile family; commercial contracts and real property transactions were often painted on stone and over-carved. The carver of the ossuary inscription was an expert.

whereas about the second author:

The person who wrote the second part may have been literate, but it is doubtful that he was literate in Aramaic or Hebrew scripts. The script of the second part is a conglomeration of unrelated graphs from across the centuries and not a coherent script design. This peculiar diversity suggests that the writer chose graphs from examples on other ossuaries and/or documents stored in a tomb-cave or other dug-out family “mausoleum.” (Ossuaries in Greek-Hebrew and Greek-Aramaic have been found. Perhaps the questionable upsilon/dalet is the result of imitating the inscription on one of these dual language ossuaries.)

She concluded that ossuary was genuine, but somebody (perhaps around 3rd or 4th century CE) added the second part of the inscription. One important point to note, is that other experts in ancient writings have also examined the text. Some agree with her analysis, others do not.

Interestingly she also adds this to her report:

When I first saw digital photographs of the so-called James Ossuary, I immediately knew the inscription was fake without giving a paleographic analysis for two reasons: biovermiculation and patina.

Biovermiculation is limestone erosion and dissolution caused by bacteria over time in the form of pitting and etching. The ossuary had plenty, except in and around the area of the inscription. This is not normal. The patina consisted of the appropriate minerals, but it was reported to have been cleaned off the inscription. This is impossible since patina cannot be cleaned off limestone with any solvent or cleanser since it is essentially baked-on glass. It is possible to forge patina, but when it is, it cracks off. This appears to be what happened with the ossuary.

Microscopic and Isotopic Analysis

A in-depth study of the inscription was also carried out by Israel Antiquities Authority.

Several interesting observations were made:

* The inscription has been cut through the cave varnish, rather than the varnish growing on the top of the inscription.

* Around the inscription, the patina appeared to be different. It was nicknamed the James Bond.

* The James Bond had significant amounts of microfossils known as coccoliths. This is unusual as coccoliths are insoluble in water, and hence don't leach out of limestone in natural patina. They are however, common in normal chalk.

* Isotopic data taken from the patina around the inscription indicated that it was very different from the patina covering the rest of the ossuary. And from other ossuaries.

* The isotopic data also indicated water which laid down the James Bond was hot, in direct contradiction to the cool damp conditions which were responsible for natural patina.

They concluded:

At some time long after the natural processes of varnish and patination in a damp cave environment had been completed, someone carved a series of letters through the natural varnish on the ossuary. Then he or she covered the freshly cut letters with an imitation patina made from water and ground chalk.

On the issue of multiple authors the mag Archaeology have raised an interesting point:

The physical examination showed that the entire inscription was carved at the same time, so two different hands seemed unlikely in an inscription of only five words. Or did it? And examination of the very same catalogue of published ossuaries that Professor Lemaire had used as comparison for the letter forms in the ossuary Inscription, now seemed possibly to be their source. In an age of readily available scanning software it is entirely possible to make flawless copies of ancient letters as they appear on genuine artifacts. For example, taking the word "Jacob" (from catalogue no. 396); the words "son of Joseph (from catalogue no. 573); "brother of" (from catalogue no. 570); "Jesus" (common enough to have many examples) and resizing them and aligning them with the computer software Photoshop or PageMaker could have created an extraordinarily authentic template for a faked inscription, that seemed to be carved by more than one hand.

Subsequent Events

Unsurprisingly, the report by the Israel Antiquities Authority caused a mini-shitstorm. The ossuary had previously been examined by a number of experts, who now look bad. The first geologists to look at it, were made to look even worse, as another artifact (the Jehoash Inscription) which they had pronounced genuine turned out to be a forgery. The ossuary, which had been valued at over US$2 million, changed from a important archaeological artifact to a joke. Hershel Shanks, who had just co-authored a book on the ossuary, fought back, challenging the objectivity of the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority and by attacking the scientific credentials of the team which examined the patina (interestingly, he acted as if four of the five examiners didn't exist, and then attacking the fifth for not being been an expert in all of the various fields used in the examination - these gaps were filled by the other four experts).

In what is probably the final twist to this story Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary was recently arrested by Israeli police for the forging of artifacts. An Israeli police officer, Gil Kleiman, stated that during a search of Golan's home ''[t]hey found storage rooms with antiquities they suspect were forgeries and very advanced equipment to make forgeries.''


Burial Box of James - Biblical Archaeology Review
New Tests Bolster Case for Authenticity - Biblical Archaeology Review
Early Christian Writings - Peter Kirby
Official Report on the James Ossuary - Dr. Rochelle Altman (an update to this report can be found here).
Observing the Ossuary - Dr. Paul Flesher
Does the James' Ossuary Really Refer To Jesus - Dr. Paul Flesher
Gold Dust and James Bond - Archaeology
Ossuary Patina Faked - Geological Survey of Israel
Exchange Between Yuval Goren And Hershel Shanks - Biblical Archaeology Society
Israeli Held In Suspected Forgery of Artifacts - The Boston Globe
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