The 2,388th Meeting of the Society

February 9, 2018 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Cultural Heritage and Modern Inscriptional Forgeries in the Marketplace

The Intersection of Law, Ethics, and Biblical Studies

Christopher A. Rollston

Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
George Washington University

About the Lecture

Cultural heritage is a progenitive aspect of human existence. It has become a prominent subject of public discourse in the 21st century, and is increasingly a focus of national and international enforcement actions. The US State Department, for instance, has become active across the globe in efforts to protect cultural heritage. And the US Justice Department also has undertaken actions to enforce cultural heritage protections, recently levying a fine of three million dollars against one US business for crimes of this type.

About the Speaker

Christopher Rollston is Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the George Washington University. Previously, he was a member of the faculty in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, National Endowment Scholar at the Albright Institute for Archeological Research, Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages at Tel Aviv University, National Endowment Scholar at the American Center of Oriental Research, Amman, and Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at the Emmanuel School of Religion.


President Larry Millstein called the 2388th meeting of the Society to order at 8:04 p.m. President Millstein announced the order of business, announced the evening’s lecture would be livestreamed on the internet, and welcomed new members. The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, after which President Millstein reviewed the 40th meeting of the Society held on February 1, 1873.

President Millstein then introduced the speaker for the evening, Christopher Rollston, Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at The George Washington University. His lecture was titled, “Cultural Heritage and Modern Inscriptional Forgeries in the Marketplace: The Intersection of Law, Ethics, and Biblical Studies.”

Rollston began by noting that since artifacts with inscriptions fetch higher prices on the antiquities market, epigraphic forgeries have become particularly troublesome. The ruling principle on epigraphic forgeries is that disproving authenticity is not that difficult, while proving authenticity is almost impossible.

Forgeries purporting to use Northwest Semitic and Greek and Roman inscriptions have been produced for a long time. For example, in the late 1860s, a stele known as the “Mesha Stele” dating from the 9th century BCE was found. The stele has an inscription in ancient Moabite, written in old Hebrew script. Shortly after the stele’s discovery, a man named Moses Shapira began selling thousands of similarly inscribed artifacts, which were even authenticated by a well-respected scholar at the time. These “Shapira Forgeries” were subsequently revealed as fakes.

Epigraphers use inscriptions on artifacts from legitimate excavations to study and to compare to inscriptions that appear on artifacts sold in the antiquities market, which often come from illegal excavations. One example of this is the Moussieff Ostracon which sold for $125,000. The artifact was initially celebrated and used as a basis for a scholarly reconstruction of the status of women in Iron Age Israel. Scholars eventually proved that this was a modern forgery using comparisons with artifacts from legitimate excavations. In this case, the inscription’s letters were accurately shaped, but their relative positioning was incorrect. Multiple other modern forgeries have since been revealed by the same means.

Forgers have various motivations in addition to economics, such as “sour grapes,” and professional rivalry. Rollston noted that the forger of the Jesus Wife Papyrus was a person who “washed-out” of a Coptic Studies program and likely delighted in his ability to dupe world-renowned scholars.

Many forgeries are also pranks. For example, the Philistine Hebron Inscriptions were authenticated by a well-regarded University of Michigan scholar in the late 1960s. Years later, an Israeli scholar revealed the inscription to be an apparent joke – as it is the same text as a famous authentic inscription, but written backwards.

Some forgers are also motivated by professional or personal aggrandizement, since publishing an artifact with scintillating content draws significant attention. For example, one of the highest profile epigraphic forgeries in the last 20 years is the Ya’akov Ossuary, initially valued at $2 million. The ossuary itself is an authentic bone box. But it is the inscription which, translated into English, reads “Jacob the Son of Joseph, the Brother of Jesus,” that is suspect. Rollston pointed to the difference in incision depth, clarity, and kerning between its two parts, contending that the part “Jacob the Son of Joseph” is authentic, and the part “the Brother of Jesus” is a modern forgery.

Religion and politics may also motivate forgers. For example, the Jerusalem Papyrus garnered international attention in October 2016, purporting to be a rare ancient reference to the city. Carbon-14 testing dated the papyrus to 800-300 BCE. Rollston said, however, that ancient papyrus is easy to obtain. Faking ancient ink is also possible if the forger uses carbonized remains of unearthed ancient beans. Ultimately, scholars determined that the Jerusalem Papyrus was a forgery because it contains a grammatical error that a speaker of ancient Hebrew would never have made.

Whatever their motivations, forgers are producing better forgeries, and Rollston suggested that scholars must work together to detect modern forgeries through orthographic, paleographic, and other means. To assist in this process, Rollston recommended that all artifacts from the antiquities market be flagged as such to indicate their lack of authenticated provenance. He also recommended that scholars not base any of their works on these artifacts because they are so often compromised. Rollston further recommended categorizing the inscriptions from these artifacts based upon their likelihood of authenticity.

President Millstein then invited questions from the audience.

One guest asked whether the inevitable arrival of the “perfect forgery” will end the antiquities market. Rollston said the perfect forgery is coming, but that while forgers are becoming better at forging substance, they are still committing basic errors such as the grammatical error in the Jerusalem Papyrus. Nevertheless, to avoid educating forgers, Rollston does not reveal all the techniques he uses to unmask modern forgeries.

After the question and answer period, President Millstein thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to join the Society. At 10:02 p.m., President Millstein adjourned the 2,388th meeting of the Society to the social hour.

Weather: Cloudy
Temperature: 4.5°C
Attendance: 62

Respectfully submitted,
James Heelan
Recording Secretary