Dec 1, 2008

Archaeology on Trial in Israel

And it is losing.  So notes Nina Burleigh in an Op-Ed in the LA Times:

Prosecutors have been hamstrung. A craftsman based in Cairo's Khan al Khalili souk told police he made some objects for the collector, but he wasn't inclined to testify and they cannot compel him to come to Israel. So prosecutors instead called a long list of archaeologists and epigraphers, experts in the minutia of ancient Christian and Jewish artifacts. These men and women, accustomed to working on dusty digs or answering questions from somnambulant students, were no match for nimble, expensive attorneys, among the best in Israel, working for the defense.

One by one, they either contradicted themselves on various scientific technicalities or had their conclusions ripped apart by the defense's expert witnesses. One veteran Israeli archaeologist, Meyer Ben Dov, was so disheartened by what was happening that he told me "archaeology is on trial" -- and it did not appear to be winning.

The case isn't over, but after the judge's comments last month, the American publisher Shanks issued a news release calling the James ossuary "vindicated," a claim religious bloggers have since disseminated worldwide.

Pictured here is the James Ossuary, the most notable object at issue in the trial.   Is it real or a modern forgery?  The Israeli Antiquities Authority thinks it is a fake. 

The difficulty in providing sufficient evidence is a foundational problem with heritage law.  The antiquities trade as it is currently structured is too focused on hiding the history of objects.  Even Lord Colin Renfrew, a passionate campaigner for a reformed antiquities trade noted recently:

I’m much in favour of collecting, so long as it doesn’t involve objects recently taken from the ground. In my opinion all too many collections are scandalous for this very reason. I don’t mind so much people buying antiquities looted a century ago, but not if the items in question entered the market post-1970 when the convention on the illegal trade in antiquities was signed.

Buying and selling established objects may still have violation national patrimony laws though.  Even collecting antiquities which surfaced pre-1970 produces powerful incentives for dealers and buyers to either fabricate a pre-1970 surface date, or even lead to very superficial investigation of an object's history.  The current legal framework does not guarantee an object's history is authentic or clean of looting, whether it occurred in 1970 or 1870. 

Burleigh is the author of the recent work "Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in The Holy Land."
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