REL 433 - Biblical Archaeology

Problems in Biblical Archaeology


There are a number of problems in archaeology, of which everyone should be aware. Many of them stem from human ignorance or greed, or the pressure of political or economic situations in the Middle East.
Go here for a description of the tragedy of the antiquities of Iraq


As Museums and private collectors are willing to pay high prices for rare artefacts, so there is a growing industry for producing forgeries and fakes. Forgeries may be of a simple and crude sort, for sale to tourists in the Bazaar. However, some are extremely sophisticated, and may be accepted by Museums and other experts as genuine.
A case in point is the "James' Ossuary". An ossuary is a stone or earthenware box to contain the bones of a dead person after the flesh has dried away - ossuaries were in common use in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The ossuary in this case was in a private collection - there is no record of where and how it was found. It was on display in the home of its owner, when a visitor noticed a faint inscription scratched on one side. The inscription was in Hebrew, and said "James the brother of Jesus". Experts were called in, all sorts of tests were made, and most of the experts thought that the inscription was genuine - that it was made at the time of the New Testament, and that it might indeed refer to James the brother of Jesus. However, some experts were doubtful - the ossuary itself seemed to be of the right age, but there were questions as to whether the inscription had been scratched on at a later date. The Israeli police raided the home of the owner, and found equipment and supplies commonly used by forgers of antiquities, and a forgery trial has dragged on for years. Recently the Israeli court has declared that the James' Ossuary may be genuine (though there is no proof that the "Jesus" of the inscription is Jesus Christ). The current view seems to be that the James' Ossuary belongs better in the category of "unprovenanced artifact" (see below)

Read about the James' Ossuary and other probable forgeries :
James' Ossuary - original news
Ossuary Tales - Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2003
James' Ossuary - Archaeology Magazine, April 17, 2003
Gold Dust and James Bond - Archaeology Magazine, June 18, 2003
James' Ossuary - Archaeology Magazine, June 23, 2003
James' Ossuary - Archaeology Magazine, July 22, 2003 - Golan arrested
Ossuary Dethroned - Archaeology Magazine, July 24, 2003
Faking Biblical History - Archaeology Magazine, September/October 2003
Forgery Fallout - Archaeology Magazine, March/April 2005
Trial of the Century - Archaeology Magazine, March/April 2005
Moses Shapira
Moses Shapira - was he a forger, or was he for real ?
The Jehoash Inscription
The Jehoash Inscription - an evaluation
The Jehoash Inscription - with lots of links to articles pro and con
IAA declares Jehoash Inscription and James' Ossuary to be fakes
"The Jerusalem Syndrome" in relation to forgeries
How a forger might have done it - this is the first slide of a sequence - the little arrows for the next slide are at the bottom of the page - and the forward arrow is to the LEFT (this is an Israeli WebPage - Hebrew is written right to left, so Web-page navigation is often the reverse of what we are used to
Archaeology Vol 54 No. 1, January/February 2001 - Persian Princess is a Fraud


Frauds and Hoaxes and Ignorant Mistakes

I would define a fraud or hoax as something that someone made or did, knowing that the article was not genuine, but without the intention of making money from the sale of the article. It might have started out as a joke, or someone might have been seeking publicity as the discoverer of something unusual. There are several such example in the USA, even in New Mexico - the Los Lunas Inscription. Another famous example is the skull of the Piltdown Man. Another that I regard as being in this category is the Bat Cave Inscription. As an example of an mistaken identification due to ignorance, see the "Bar Kochba Coin" - Simon Bar Kochba led the Second Jewish Revolt in Israel in AD 122-135, and this coin was originally thought to have come from that time and place.

Read about them :
Los Lunas Inscription || Los Lunas Inscription
The "Bar Kochba Coin" from Kentucky
The Bat Creek Stone - Palaeo-Hebrew ?? - or a Native American Alphabet ? - or a prankster ? || Bat Creek Stone - critique || The Bat Creek Fraud || the Bat Creek Stone - good theory of who did it
Piltdown Man - fake || Piltdown Man || The man that never was
A Japanese Hoax


Unprovenanced Artefacts

"Unprovenanced" means that we do not know where the artefact came from - there is no record of where it was found, what else was found with it, or who found it. Some unprovenanced articles are due to excavators or museums not keeping good records, but most are probably due to illegal digging and sale of articles to private collectors. It is much harder to date an unprovenanced find, as it cannot be related to the stratigraphic levels of a dig.
The James' Ossuary is a case in point - there seems to be no record of its existence before its present owner.

What appears to be a genuine article in this category is the ivory head of a scepter, carved to resemble a pomegranate, which was found in 1979 when Andre' Lemaire visited an antique shop in Jerusalem. The pomegranate also has an inscription in palaeo-hebrew scratched on it, identifying it as being for use in "the House of the Lord". No one knows where the pomegranate was found, or how the antiquities dealer acquired it. Lemaire was not able to buy the pomegranate, but he did manage to take photos of it. By the time the significance of the inscription was realized, the antiquities dealer had disappeared, and could not be located. In 1987, a tour guide named Meir Urbach offered the Israel Museum the pomegranate for $600,000. Meir Urbach claimed to know who actually owned the pomegranate. Amid all the intrigue and haggling, the Museum tried to raise the $600,000, but was not able to do so. In the meantime, the piece was smuggled to Paris and was exhibited at the Grand Palais. In 1988 an agent informed the Israel Museum that it would receive a gift of $675,000 to purchase the Pomegranate. Anonymous gifts such as this are not unheard of, but Museum officials usually know the donor. However, this was not the case here. No one knows who gave the Museum the money. According to sources, the original antiquities dealer sold the pomegranate for $3,000. In spite of its clouded history, the scepter head has generally been accepted as a genuine relic from the Temple of Solomon.

Read about it :
The Ivory Pomegranate, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Private Collections

There is an ongoing discussion amongst archaeologists and collectors as to whether private collections are a good or a bad thing. The fact that someone is willing to pay large amounts of money for items for a collection is one of the main reasons for the trade in antiquities, and for illegal digs and the looting of archaeological sites. On the positive side, some collectors make their collections available for others to study, or even build museums to display their collection publicly.

Read about them :
The Bible Lands Museum


Illegal Digs

Most countries now have strict regulations intended to protect their cultural heritage - one cannot just go and dig haphazardly anywhere one wants. Modern regulations usually require that any artefacts found remain in the country - in Israel archaeologists are allowed to keep artefacts for study until they have published a report of the dig, then the artefacts are put in a storehouse - they may be loaned to other countries to go on exhibition in public museums, but they remain the property of the State of Israel. Also, the leader of a legal licensed dig in Israel must publish the results of the dig within 10 years (though many drag their feet and take longer than this). In an illegal dig, there is no intention of studying the strata and carrying out a scientific examination of the finds, and certainly not of publishing the results - all that is intended is to find something to sell. So the whole of the Middle East is plagued by desperately poor people digging holes into ancient sites merely to look for anything that they might sell to the antiquities dealers or private collectors.

Read about them :
Illegal digs in Turkey ?
Illegal digs in Israel


Black Market

Along with illegal digs, there is a black market in antiquities. Some antiquities dealers are prepared to sell the finds from illegal digs, and some collectors are prepared to pay high prices, and arrange to smuggle the objects out of their country of origin. The artefacts then disappear into a private collection, and their whereabouts is unknown to the rest of the world. This has happened to a number of objects, and is probably what has happened to some of the articles from the Iraq National Museum.
One instance involved the Dead Sea Scrolls - the first scrolls were found in 1947, by a Bedouin goatherd who took them to a dealer in Bethlehem. The dealer put them in a cardboard shoe-box and hid them under the floor of his house, during the war between Israel and the Arab nations, while he haggled with museums and collectors around the world to see how high he could drive the price. Meanwhile, the scrolls were deteriorating from the dampness of their hiding place. Eventually the Israeli government managed to out-bid their competitors, and bought the Scrolls.
A second example is that of the "Moabite Stone", also called the "Mesha Stele" - a stele is an upright stone with an inscription or carving on it. The Moabite Stone has an inscription honoring Mesha, king of Moab. Moab was to the east of Israel; it was subjugated by King David, but rebelled during the reign of King Jehoram of the northern kingdom of Israel, and regained independence, with its own king, Mesha of Moab. The Moabite stone was found in 1868 by bedouin at Dibon, in what was then Transjordan (now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan). A German pastor working for the French government was traveling in that region at the time, and was shown the stone - it was in one almost complete piece, and he was allowed to make a "squeeze" of the stone so that he could study the inscription. A squeeze is made by pressing a wet paper paste onto a stone, metal, or other object, then allowing it to dry, and peeling the dried layer carefully off the object.
Accounts as to what happened next vary from one source to another : either the bedouin decided to have a party and blew up the stone by accident, or else they thought that if they could break the stone up they would get more money by selling small pieces to various collectors - so they either blew it up with gunpowder, or they lit a fire on it and then poured water on it to crack it. The stone was indeed broken up, and in the process several pieces were lost. Then the remaining pieces were sold to different buyers. Eventually the Louvre Museum in Paris managed to assemble all the pieces that could be found, and rebuilt the stone, using the squeeze to reconstruct the missing pieces.

Read about them :
In 1995 Swiss police found stolen and smuggled archaeological artifacts worth $35 million
Archaeology, April 20, 1998 - Afghanistan Museum under siege
Plundering Afghanistan - Archaeology magazine page of links to articles
Selling the Past - Archaeology, April 22, 2002
Archaeology, March 19, 2002 - Taking on the Black Market in Antiquities
Dead Sea Scrolls - history of their discovery and sale
The Moabite Stone
The Moabite Stone



Any object of great value is a temptation to thieves. In the case of archaeological objects, although they can be insured, there is no adequate compensation for the loss of part of the world's cultural heritage. Most museums have anti-theft devices installed, and guards near some of the most valuable objects, but there are thousands of objects kept in storage and not on public display. There have been cases of theft from museums and private collections, but they are often not made public. It would seem that some of the antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq may have been stolen by inside workers or sold illegally by Saddam Hussein even before the general looting of the Museum, to finance his building and military projects - the total loss from the Museum is not known with certainty.

Read about them :
Theft in Egypt
Thefts from Iraq - Archaeology, December 30, 1996
Archaeology, vol. 49 no.6, 1996 November/December - Assyrian Wall Reliefs for Sale



I would define theft as the stealing of a particular article, or articles, which a thief premeditated and planned in advance. The article itself might be damaged in the process of the theft, but the other pieces of a collection might be left untouched. Looting, on the other hand, involves wholesale taking of anything of apparent value, and often the destruction of whatever else remains. The looters are usually soldiers, in the case of a war, or local people who steal from nearby archaeological sites, which usually cannot be guarded adequately. Whatever is stolen is often damaged because those involved do not know how to take care of antiquities, and are in a hurry to get to the illegal dealers.
Widespread looting has been taking place for years in Afghanistan, and in Iraq even before the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime

Read about them :
Afghanistan Museum under Siege - Archaeology 1998, April 20
Afghanistan Museum Plunder continues - May 26, 1998



In a war between nations, the aim is to win the war, regardless of the cost. Museums, and also some archaeological sites, are usually located in the capital city of a nation, and so are likely to be damaged or destroyed during a war. Civilized nations will try to avoid damage to our world-wide cultural heritage - in WW II the allies agreed not to bomb the German city of Heidelberg because of its history and culture; and the treasures from the British Museum, located in London, were removed and stored in safer places in Britain.
In the case of the war in Iraq, measures were supposed to be taken to safeguard the treasures of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad - but that presupposed the co-operation of the museum staff, who were intimidated by the Saddam Hussein regime

Read about them :
Archaeology, Vol 56 No.4, July/August 2003 - The Spoils of War - in Iraq and elsewhere
Archaeology, 2003, March 27 - War and Heritage - Is Ancient Iraq being protected?
The hidden Gold of Iraq and Afghanistan


Political and Ethnic problems

In some of the regions of the Middle East and the Mediterranean the population is not homogeneous but is composed of groups with different ethnic or religious backgrounds. What is important to one group may not be of importance to the other, and may be targeted for destruction as being associated with the "other" group. Archaeological remains are often such targets.
During the Turkish regime in Greece, the Turks used the Parthenon in Athens for shelling practice.
In Afghanistan, the Moslem regime decided to destroy Buddhist sites, and blew up statues which were centuries old.
In Israel/Palestine, and in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Jewish and Christian remains have been destroyed or mutilated by Muslim Arabs - "Joseph's Tomb" was destroyed by an Arab mob, the face of David was gouged out of a mosaic on the floor of a synagogue in Gaza, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was used as a refuge by Palestinian gunmen and eventually set on fire - and then allowed by the Israelis to burn for several days. Of particular concern is the ongoing unsupervised excavation under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the dumping of excavated dirt, containing archaeological remains, by the Muslim authorities who claim to be extending an underground mosque, and making an emergency exit for the mosque. Because of the religious sensitivities in regard to the Temple Mount, and probably for the sake of peace and quiet, the Israeli authorities are not enforcing the usual regulations for supervising excavation and licensing the digging.

Read about them :
Cultural Terrorism in Afghanistan - destruction of Buddha statues
Destruction on the Temple Mount
The Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount
The Pit on the Temple Mount - scroll down for photos
Excavation on the Temple Mount
Destruction on the Temple Mount - from the Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2000
Temple Mount Lintel - from the Jerusalem Post, January 5, 2001
Afghanistan - The Taliban destroys pre-Islamic antiquities
Destruction of "Joseph's Tomb"
Bethlehem - Church of the Nativity set on fire
Fighting at the Church of the Nativity
Fighting at the Church of the Nativity


Removal of Cultural Heritage

In the early days of archaeology, when the emphasis was more that of a treasure hunt than on learning about how people had lived in earlier times, archaeologists usually sent their finds back to their own country, either for themselves, or for a Museum in that country. This was also one of the main ways of financing a dig in those times. There are good and bad sides to this. In some cases the finds were preserved and made available for study by anyone in the world, rather than being left in remote and inaccessible places where they were endangered and uncared for. On the other hand, the cultural heritage of a people, and their national identity, is affected by the remains of their ancestors, and there is a growing movement nowadays to return some of these treasures to their country or place of origin. As an example, the bones of ancient Native Americans are being returned for burial in their traditional burial grounds rather then being kept in museums.
Items of ongoing international debate and dispute are the Elgin Marbles, taken by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens and later sold to the British Museum (he did save them from destruction by the Turks); the Rosetta Stone, taken by Napoleon from Egypt, then captured by the British, and presently in the British Museum with a modern copy in the Cairo Museum; and the Siloam Inscription - during the Turkish regime in Jerusalem this inscription was secretly chiseled out of the wall of Hezekiah's Water Tunnel and smuggled to Turkey, where it is still kept.
There are, however, some problems - because of population changes and the movement of nations, a land that "belongs" to one people now may have antiquities which are of more cultural importance to another group. For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in Hebrew by Jewish Essenes living near the Dead Sea, are now claimed by the Palestinians who have been ceded the region where the Scrolls were found.

Read about them :
US Government Web page relating to "Cultural Resource Crime"
The Elgin Marbles
The Return of the Aidonia Treasure
The Siloam Inscription
Where the Siloam Inscription used to be


Economic Problems

Many nations are faced with economic problems which it seems cannot be resolved without the destruction of ancient remains.
Egypt needed to control the flooding of the Nile, and have a safe water supply. The answer to this was to build a dam at Aswan - but the waters of the dam would cover the temples which Ramesses II had built at Abu Simbel, and which are a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Similarly, Turkey and Iraq are both constructing dams which will inundate important archaeological sites.
In many cities with a long cultural history, people are still living on top of the archaeological remains from centuries of the past - Jerusalem, Mexico City, Rome, Athens, London, are all built over previous layers of occupation. One cannot dig the foundations for a new building, or make a parking lot, or put in sewers, without digging into archaeological remains.
A partial answer to this is to mount a "Rescue Dig" or "Salvage Dig" - archaeologists do as much work as they can before the bulldozers move in, and photograph and/or remove artefacts before they are destroyed. In the case of the Aswan dam, an international team cut the statues and temples of Abu Simbel into pieces, and re-assembled the whole complex above the water level.
As another example, in one of the hotels in Athens, the foundations of the hotel uncovered the city wall from the time of the Persian Wars - the building was modified, so now one goes to the dining room of the hotel, in the basement, and walks past glass display windows which look out at the excavated underground portions of the wall.
In the case of Jerusalem, the modern dwelling-houses near the Temple Mount and parts of the Ophel were cleared away, to allow ongoing archaeological excavation and the construction of an archaeological park. This contributed to the tension between Arabs and Israelis because it caused hardship to the Arab inhabitants of the houses, who had lived there for generations.

Read about them :
Samosata and Zeugma
Zeugma - use the left side bar to link to parts of the website
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel Virtual Tour


Damage by Tourists and Nut Cases

Archaeological sites are generally fragile - although they may look to be "just piles of stones" they can start to disintegrate or be destroyed by people walking over them. In the case of caves or enclosed spaces, the moisture in the air caused by numbers of people breathing can cause fibres to rot, and paintings to start peeling off walls. A further problem is that tourists often "pick up" what they regard as a little insignificant piece of something from a site, and take it home with them - and in so doing remove a valuable piece of evidence for the site. As one example, a tourist took a small tablet from a site, and only after he had had it for several years did he notice that there was some writing on it. On further examination by experts, the writing was deciphered, and gave the name of the city where it was found, which up until then had not been known with certainty.
Most such damage is done inadvertently and in ignorance. However, there are some instances of deranged people who, for no apparent reason, attack and smash an article on display in a museum - the Portland Vase was a (probable) Roman vase on display in the British Museum. In 1845 someone took an axe and smashed it, or else stumbled in a drunken stupor and fell against it - accounts vary. It has been re-assembled and pieced together again.

Read about them :
Archaeology Magazine - World Monuments Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites, 2004
World Monuments Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites, 2008
The Portland Vase
The Portland Vase restored
Lascaux Caves - not "Biblical", but of importance historically, and for example of visitors causing damage due to environmental changes. Use your mouse like a flashlight to illuminate parts of the artwork until the page loads fully - it is rather slow-loading. Then click on "Discover" to go further into the Website. See "Closing of the Cave" to learn about environmental damage; follow the small white arrows at the lower right corner to go through the series of pages
Chauvet Cave - protective measures for cave paintings


Academic jealousy and personal antagonism between archaeologists

It would be nice if archaeologists all got along together, and co-operated with one another, and for the most part they do. However, as in Portales, there are "3 or 4 Old Grouches". The work on the Dead Sea Scrolls brought out personal feuds, accusations, even law cases, as one of the scholars claimed that he had prior rights to translation, and would not let others see "his" scroll fragments - not even to show them a photograph. The whole mess dragged on for years, and the work of translating the scrolls was greatly delayed by the in-fighting and personal rivalry that went on.

Reading about them is unedifying


Copyright © 1999 Shirley J. Rollinson, all Rights Reserved

Dr. Rollinson

ENMU Station 19
Portales, NM 88130

Last Updated : January 7, 2016

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional   Valid CSS!