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Forged in faith
By MATTHEW KALMAN
12/06/2012
Acquitted antiquities collector Oded Golan discusses his future.
 
It seemed too good to be true.

Within the space of a few short weeks in the winter of 2002, the dry world of Biblical antiquities was electrified by the announcement of two major discoveries.

One was a first-century limestone burial box, or ossuary, inscribed with the Aramaic words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The second was a black stone tablet that appeared to have hung on the wall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

If genuine, they would be the first items ever recovered that could be directly linked with the family of Jesus and the Temple of Solomon. But no sooner had they appeared than they were swept into the dustbin of archaeological scholarship, denounced as forgeries and seized by the Israel Police.

Suspicion of foul play mounted as both items were eventually traced to a single man: Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv antiquities collector and business entrepreneur. Golan was arrested. His home, offices and a string of storehouses in Tel Aviv were raided by police and antiquities officials, who carted away hundreds of papers, artifacts, tools and computer files.

In June 2003, two committees of experts appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) declared both items fakes. A criminal indictment issued in December 2004 placed Golan at the center of a sophisticated international forgery ring. He was charged with 44 separate crimes including fraud, forgery and deception. If found guilty, he faced seven years in prison.

In autumn 2005, Golan and four codefendants went on trial before Judge Aharon Farkash in the Jerusalem District Court. One defendant pleaded guilty. Charges against two others were eventually dropped. In March 2012, Golan was acquitted on all 41 of the most serious crimes and convicted of just three minor misdemeanors unrelated to the ossuary or the tablet. His one remaining codefendant was cleared on all counts.

But despite Golan’s acquittal, the IAA continues to regard him as a crook, refusing to return any of the items they seized in 2003.

Back home at his apartment in Tel Aviv, lined with glass-fronted display cabinets containing dozens of ancient artifacts, Golan says the IAA seems determined to punish him even though he is innocent. He is just as determined to get the artifacts back and put them on public display.

“I think these pieces, the ossuary and the public. Definitely,” Golan tells The Jerusalem Report. “It could be an extremely interesting exhibition even if you devote two-thirds of it to the question of how come somebody thought they are not authentic.”

Witch hunt

“It’s important to get them back.” says.

Golan, who insists he has “never faked any antiquity.” He seems more bemused than bitter at the IAA’s continued campaign that even the judge referred to as a “witch hunt.”

He says he is still considering an appeal against his conviction on the three charges of illegal trade in antiquities and handling goods suspected of being stolen. He believes it is invalid because the items were not from Israel.

“I don’t know. I haven’t decided. I will decide according to the behavior of the government,” he says.

He is likely to be disappointed. Judge Farkash is expected to rule in August on the fate of the artifacts. In the eyes of the archaeological establishment, despite his complete exoneration by the judge after an exhaustive seven-year trial, Golan remains a crook. At the time of his arrest, the police and the IAA believed they had caught a master criminal and major forger.

“We still do,” a senior IAA official tells The Report. “We know that he produced the artifacts.”

Farkash clearly disagrees. In a detailed 475- page written verdict delivered on March 14, Farkash found enough reasonable doubt to acquit Golan on all the forgery charges and shredded the scientific evidence presented by the 74 prosecution witnesses. Scientific arguments about the oxygen isotope values on the items proved unreliable. In one blistering swipe, Farkash describes the prosecution testimony as “illogical, completely unreasonable and totally unacceptable.”

Golan, now 60, makes an unlikely criminal. He was born into the Tel Aviv elite. His grandfather founded one of Israel’s major insurance companies and the family purchased land in the state’s early years that is now worth millions. His father is an engineer and his mother a world-renowned biochemist.

Golan studied engineering and became a serial entrepreneur with successful businesses in travel, architectural seminars and educational software. He is also an accomplished photographer and plays concert-level classical piano on the white baby grand in his living room. If he is guilty of masterminding an international forgery ring, it is not because he needs the money.

It is also hard to understand the psychology that would drive a successful, brilliant man to destroy what is clearly the great love of his life. Golan’s mother recalls that he was only eight years old when he led a group of friends to explore an archaeological mound near his home in Tel Aviv, bringing home pieces of pottery that he glued together in his bedroom.

At the age of 10, he stumbled across a small clay tablet inscribed with ancient lettering while walking with his parents near the Sea of Galilee. It proved to be the oldest dictionary yet unearthed, seven lines of a 4,000-year-old phrase book in Akkadian and Sumerian.

He wrote to archaeologist Yigael Yadin to inform him of the discovery. Within days, Yadin came knocking at the door of the family home in Tel Aviv, asking to see “Mr.Golan,” not realizing that the learned scholar who had sent him a postcard was a schoolboy.

Golan escorted the professor to his bedroom to show him the artifact and agreed to let Yadin take it back to Jerusalem for analysis.

His mother served tea and biscuits.

Skipping school

Two years later, when Yadin advertised for volunteers to help him excavate Masada, the site of a doomed last stand by zealot Jews against the Romans, Golan phoned the professor and begged to be allowed to join the expedition, even though the minimum age was 18. Yadin agreed, on condition that the 12-year-old was brought to Masada by his parents. Too small to help with the heavy manual labor, Golan stayed a week at the camp, washing the items discovered at the dig and climbing the Snake Path up the mountain every day to see the excavations.

When Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, the summer that Golan finished 10th grade, he leaped at the opportunity to explore the biblical heartland of ancient Israel.

“I started traveling to the West Bank,” Golan recalls. “I couldn’t tell my parents I was going and there was no public transport.

I didn’t have money for a taxi. So I went to the East Jerusalem bus station and caught buses to Bethlehem, Hebron and other places.

For six months I traveled to the West Bank, skipping school two days a week.”

He became a regular visitor to the antiquities dealers in East Jerusalem, who took a shine to this eager young man with his fast-developing knowledge of antiquities, Arabic and ancient languages.

Golan says it was some time in the early 1970s that he purchased a simple stone ossuary from one of these dealers, Ot’man Waz-Waz, that was typical of the type used by Jews in Roman times. After death, the corpse would be wrapped in a shroud and laid in a cave. After a year, relatives would unseal the tomb, collect the bones and place them in an ossuary. Sometimes, they would inscribe the name of the deceased on the box. Ossuaries of the wealthy were often richly decorated with carved rosettes and other motifs.

The limestone box was added to Golan’s growing collection. A photograph snapped by chance in the mid-1970s – deemed genuine by a former FBI photographic expert – shows it beneath the shelves on the porch outside his bedroom at his parents’ home. Books from the Technion library that Golan was using at the time for his studies are clearly visible, together with a telephone directory from 1974.

This photograph would later become a key piece of evidence in Golan’s defense.

The indictment accused him of adding the second part of the inscription – “brother of Jesus” – to the original text. The words are clearly visible in the photograph. The prosecution was unable to convince Judge Farkash that the picture was another cunning Golan forgery. In interviews published before any criminal charges were even considered, Golan’s parents recalled him taking the box with him when he left home after college.

A former girlfriend who was with Golan between 1972 and 1977 – and whose picture is on the shelf in the photograph – testified that she remembered the box and the inscription because her name was Mor Yosef and she could clearly read the words “bar Yosef” (son of Joseph). She also remembered thinking that it was a disgusting thing to keep in a bedroom and she had urged Golan to get rid of it. Golan says he kept the ossuary but thought little of it. In 2001, Andre Lemaire, a visiting professor of ancient languages from the Sorbonne, was leafing through the albums of Golan’s collection when he came across a photograph of the ossuary with the eyepopping inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

Golan was surprised by Lemaire’s interest.

He had thought the ossuary worthless. “I didn’t know much about Christianity,” he says. “I never knew Jesus had a brother. The inscription meant nothing to me.” Lemaire wanted to publish the ossuary in the Biblical Archeology Review. Golan agreed, but they decided to carry out some scientific tests to add to Lemaire’s language expertise.

A few weeks later, Golan brought the ossuary to Jerusalem for a meeting with Amos Bein, director of the Geological Survey of Israel. Swearing Bein and his staff to secrecy, Golan asked if the box could be checked. Bein called in two of his top scientists: Shimon Ilani and Amnon Rosenfeld. Ilani was an expert in iron and geochemistry. Rosenfeld was a micropaleontologist who specialized in the study of micro-fossils.

Working with Michael Dvorachek, an expert in the use of a scanning electron microscope, they had developed a reputation for their pioneering use of geological tools to study archaeological items. For more than a decade, Israeli museums and archaeologists had beaten a path to their door, asking them to examine a wide variety of items. The results of their research had been published in scientific journals around the world, earning them international respect. Over the several sessions, the scientists submitted the ossuary to a barrage of tests to determine its authenticity.

The surface of the ossuary and the grooves of the engraved letters were covered in a thin film known as patina, a naturally-occurring crust that forms on ancient objects that is a mixture of water, calcium carbonate, windborn particles and local minerals. Through a microscope, the geologists observed that the same patina, varying in color from gray to beige, was found on the ossuary and inside some of the letters. They took six samples of patina from the surface of the ossuary and inside the inscription and studied them with a scanning electron microscope equipped with an electron dispersive spectrometer.

Authenticity

In a letter dated September 17, 2002, to the editor of the Biblical Archeology Review, Rosenfeld and Ilani wrote that the patina bore no traces of any modern elements and they saw no indication of the use of modern tools or instruments. “No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found,” they concluded.

Golan did not draw the attention of the geologists to the potential importance of the inscription and they, all Jews, were equally ignorant of Christianity. “We were not at all excited,” Amnon Rosenfeld tells The Report.

“I did not know that Jesus had siblings.”

Meanwhile, in September 2001, a private detective called Itzhak Tsuriel arrived at the Geological Survey of Israel on Malchei Yisrael Street in Jerusalem carrying a briefcase. Inside, wrapped in a cloth generally used to clean floors, was a rectangular black stone tablet about 12 inches long, 10 inches wide and just over 3 inches thick. The top was broken and there was a crack across the middle. One face of the stone was polished and very flat, while the reverse was wavy and smooth. The flat side was covered in engraved letters forming 15 lines in ancient script meticulously inscribed into a rectangular panel set inside a neatly chiseled border.

Tsuriel was carrying the tablet on behalf of Isaac Herzog, a respected attorney and former cabinet minister. Herzog had been instructed by the owner of the tablet to send it to Amos Bein. It seemed like one more obscure archaeological artifact – until they read it.

“When we saw it, we started to laugh,” Rosenfeld recalls. The text appeared to be a famous passage from the Second Book of Kings recording repairs made to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem around 800 BCE.

Nothing like this had ever been found before.

If it was authentic, it was worth a fortune.

It could be the only artifact ever found that might prove the existence of the First Temple, built in the 9th century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians 300-400 years later.

“We immediately said it was a forgery. We couldn’t believe our eyes. It’s obvious what’s written on it. You can read it. Suddenly you find some piece of the Bible in front of you. It was impossible,” he says.

The scientists asked Tsuriel to leave the tablet with them, but he refused to let it out of his sight. He returned three times so they could carry out their tests.

“Our starting point was that this is a forgery and we should find something bad about it,” says Rosenfeld. But the three-man team, sworn to secrecy, was disappointed – and elated.

“We examined it over a period of one year and we couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” he says.

What they did find amazed them.

Embedded in the patina were thousands of sub-microscopic globules of pure gold – as if the tablet had been close to a raging inferno in which golden objects had melted and then diffused into tiny droplets in the intense heat.

The gold globules, each less than five microns in diameter, were visible only under the electron scanning microscope, an instrument so sensitive it would be able to detect the slightest particles of modern material. There were none.

Samples of the patina were sent for Carbon-14 dating to the Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Miami, Florida. According to the lab report dated 5 June, 2002, the patina was approximately 2,200 years old.

King Jehoash

 In a paper prepared for the in-house journal of the Geological Survey, the geologists said they “did not find any petrographic or chemical evidence that the patina was artificially added to the stone.” Gently, they proposed that the results of their examination “may lead to the hypothesis that the tablet is a royal inscription that was placed in Jerusalem at the time of King Jehoash.”
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