The Israel Antiquities Authority on Sunday denied accusations by two prominent archeologists questioning the authenticity of last week’s unveiled 7th-century BCE papyrus document, purportedly inscribed with the earliest known reference to Jerusalem outside of the Bible.
Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir and George Washington University Prof. Christopher Rollston called into question the legitimacy of the relic two days after it was revealed by the authority and Hebrew University at a Jerusalem press conference.
According to the authority, the small document was seized following a protracted investigation by the Antiquity Authority’s Robbery Unit into a band of black-market thieves accused of plundering the find from one of the Judean Desert caves.
Authority director Israel Hasson attested that a paleographic examination of the letters and Carbon 14 analysis determined that the artifact, written in ancient Hebrew script, definitively dated back to the 7th-century BCE, at the end of the First Temple period.
The two lines of text, inscribed on the pith of the papyrus plant, read: “From the king’s maidservant, from Naharata, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”
“The document specifies the status of the sender of the shipment [the king’s maidservant]; the name of the settlement from which the shipment was dispatched [Naharata]; the contents of the vessels [wine]; their number or amount [jars] and their destination [ Jerusalem],” Hasson said.
However, during an archeology conference at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Thursday, Maeir contended that the authority did not carry out the necessary due diligence to ensure the finding’s authenticity.
“In my humble opinion, the need for additional tests is glaring – especially if a government agency is publishing this and giving it a seal of approval,” Maeir said.
Moreover, without presenting any evidence, Maeir alleged that the thieves may have forged the writing on an authentic papyri, with the goal of charging exorbitant fees on the international black market, where similar findings can garner over $1 million.
Casting more doubt on the authority’s claims, Rollston took to his blog to challenge the papyrus’s authenticity.
“The fact that the papyrus itself has been carbon dated to the 7th century BCE certainly does not mean that the writing on the papyrus is ancient,” Rollston wrote. “In fact, it really means nothing.
After all, ancient papyrus is readily available for purchase online (check the web and see!), thus, no modern forger worth his or her salt would forge an inscription on modern papyrus.”
Asked to respond to the allegations of impropriety, Prof. Gideon Avny, head of the Antiquities Authority’s Archaeological Division and a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, said the onus of disproving such a rare find falls on Maeir and Rollston.
“We cannot say that the accusations are false, but on the other hand they cannot prove in any way that this is a forgery,” Avny said by phone.
Conceding that doubt could arise because the relic was apprehended on the black market and not during a normal excavation – compounded by the fact that it is difficult to accurately analyze the date of ink – he nonetheless reasserted its authenticity as genuine.
“Yes, we didn’t have an archeologist [on site] testifying that it came out of [an excavation], but at the same time, if someone wants to say it is fake, they need to bring some kind of proof,” Avny said.
“The issue of the ink is problematic, because so far we don’t have any accurate methodology to date ink,” he added. “But the bottom line is that this item is now in the state’s collection and can be checked with all methodologies, and we welcome every researcher in the world to come and test [its authenticity].”
In terms of the timing of the unveiling, which came on the same day UNESCO approved a resolution ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, Avny said the determination was made eight months ago, well before the vote took place.
“In this case, we thought it was important to bring it to the attention of the scientific community rather than keep it locked in some place where no one would know about it,” he said. “This is now open to all scholars – everyone can come to put forward any ideas of how to test it.”