Sunday, November 04, 2007

Official science: A study

Outside the world of archeology, it's almost unknown, but the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is poised to wreck archeology in and around the Holy Land with its recent vendettas against archeologists and forgery-accusation craze. The result is a growing, yet artificial, crisis, one completely manufactured by the IAA's eminently qualified director, Shuka Dorfman, a former general who knows nothing about archeology. It's an interesting and revealing case of "official science" and how it rides roughshod over the real thing. The basic crisis is a wave of mostly bogus claims of forgery against some well-known antiquities, like the "James ossuary" (with its "James, bother of Jesus" carving) and the First Temple ivory pomegranate. These items are almost certainly authentic, yet the IAA, determined to declare them forgeries, has gotten enmeshed in harassing and persecuting archeologists for doing their job.*

You can read about the surreal situation at the Biblical Archaeology Review web site. You can also read about the IAA's refusal to apply existing laws to the Muslim Waqf (religious endowment) that controls the Temple Mount compound and stop the destructive new trench-digging that the Waqf launched this past summer.

Part of the problem is a misguided international campaign against looted antiquities that the IAA has now signed on to. This campaign sounds like a good idea, but like most such crusades, is full of paradoxes and hypocrisy. Many of the most prominent campaigners own private collections that include such antiquities. While antiquities that appear on the market without provenance (that is, without scientific control as to their place and circumstances of discovery) have less-than-ideal scientific value, it doesn't make them worthless. They sometimes have artistic value as well, which is why they end up in private collections. Anti-looting laws should be enforced - when looters are caught in the act - but enforcement is nowhere close to being able catch all looters. Persecuting and prosecuting people who openly attempt to rescue such items on the lucrative antiquities market is completely counterproductive and, actually, outrageous: it ensures that looted antiquities are lost for good, into some private collection not accessible to scientists and the public, and that the entire flow of such items is driven underground.

The "James ossuary" was declared a forgery by an Israeli-only team that was handpicked by the IAA, then subject to serious arm-twisting. Scholars outside the handpicked team have all concluded it's authentic. Individual team members themselves could not find anything wrong with the ossuary, nor is there any evidence that its most recent private owner forged it. (It's highly unlikely he could have in any case.) Yet he was prosecuted by the IAA for this non-forgery. The entire affair was a Keystone Kops farce of scientists saying, "Well, I can't find anything wrong with it, but my colleagues ...."

That's how "official" science works. Someone political, usually a non-scientist or someone at the fringe of science, wants a result, then bullies an officially-convened body. Pseudoscientific ventriloquism results.

In the case of archeology and antiquities, amateurs and an educated public can make a real difference. Abuses like this are made possible, in part, by overspecialization and a loss of interest by outsiders. Specialization and technical mastery are crucial, but specialization can be carried too far, and modern academia has carried it too far.

BONUS TRACKS: They Might Be Giants, who covered that crucial lesson in astrophysics, "The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas," now give us "The Mesopotamians." It's the least we can get out of Iraq, now that cheap oil seems gone forever, and it beats limp pita and undercooked felafel.
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* By "authentic," I mean that the materials, figurative art, and inscriptions on these two items are ancient and actually are what they appear to be, from the Second and First Temple periods, respectively.

To clarify about the James ossuary: its Aramaic inscription reads Ya‘akov bar Yosef achui diYeshua, or "Jacob [James], son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua [Jesus]." ("James" and "Jesus" are Latin versions of Ya'akov and Yeshua, which itself is an Aramaic form of the Hebrew Yehoshua, Joshua.) Whether this ossuary (bone box for secondary reburial of bones) pertains to the Jesus and his brother, the James, of New Testament fame, is a different question and the subject of intense debate and research.

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