The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ancient Codices, Real or Fake?

You might recall a post back in late March in which I mentioned an archaeological find that purported to be of early, perhaps first-century, Jewish and Christian origin. (See: Major Archaeological Find.) The find consists of 70 small books, each with five to fifteen leaves made of lead and copper, containing what appears to be ancient Hebrew writing, possibly some coded text, as well as Jewish and Christian images.
One of the lead codices

If the codices are authentic, they represent a significant find. Their provenance, however, seems a bit shaky. I don't think most archaeologists like "accidental" finds, and would prefer such artifacts to be uncovered during well-planned, scientifically conducted digs. And there was nothing scientific about this find. One version claims the codices were discovered in a cave by a Jordanian Bedouin, finally ending up in the possession of his great-grandson, an Israeli Bedouin, who says they have been in his family for a century or more. Another story suggests the codices were found in Jordan only five years ago when they surfaced after a flash flood. They then made their way to the antiquities black market and were sold to an Israeli dealer. Like most things in the Middle East, it's all very strange. Whatever the truth, these revelations have led the Jordanian government to claim ownership since the codices were supposedly found originally in Jordanian territory.

The more important issue, however, is the authenticity of the codices. If they turn out to be fakes, ownership becomes unimportant; but it they are authentic, resolving the ownership issue could take quite a while. I suppose if these items had been discovered 200 years ago there would have been little doubt as to their authenticity. But in recent years things have changed drastically in the archaeology "business". As both the legitimate and the underground markets for ancient artifacts has expanded, the value of such items has skyrocketed, leading to the development of a whole new industry: the manufacture of fake antiquities. Some of these fakes are apparently quite good and have regularly fooled the experts and even ended up in museums. In this particular case, the Israeli Antiquities Authority doubts the authenticity of the codices, claiming that they display a "mixture of incompatible periods and styles without any connection or logic. Such forged motifs can be found in their thousands in the antiquities markets of Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East." The IAA is not alone in believing the codices are fake.

Others, however, disagree and a number of archaeologists, researchers and academics believe the items are authentic. Ziad Saad. head of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities appears to be waiting before passing judgment. He recently told The Jordan Times, “There has been a debate all over the net - some think they are fakes, some think they are very genuine - but we have yet to have a definitive conclusion based on a scientific approach.” In the meantime, the "debate" as he calls it can get pretty nasty, as archaeologists, metallurgists, historians, biblical scholars and other academics all make their claims, in most instances, without having examined the items. I suppose, given time, the experts will eventually arrive at a consensus. Until then, I must confess, I enjoy watching the archaeological soap opera as it plays out.

Of course, some elements of the soap opera are a bit odd. One YouTube video claims -- without any discussion or supporting evidence whatsoever -- that the find verifies the prophesies of Joseph Smith found in the Book of Mormon. And then, of course, Art Bell on his weird, conspiracy-theory radio show, Coast to Coast AM, has predictably given the find some airtime. Yes, it's all very strange.

If you are truly interested in this story and would enjoy reading a lively overview of how it has been distorted by a mainstream media that loves to sensationalize (and also by bloggers...oops!), then check out Thomas Verenna's review of the entire story: Artifacts and the Media.

I find archaeology interesting simply because it opens a different sort of window to the past. It is also remarkable that so many recent finds strongly support the historical accuracy of Sacred Scripture. But my faith is a wonderful gift from God and certainly doesn't need archaeological support.

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