Pitfalls of Using Science to Authenticate Archaeological Artifacts

Marc Walton

A recent volume of the Harvard Theological Review was dedicated to a small piece of papyrus that has become known as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (King, 2014). A first attempt to publish this object in 2012 was met with controversy over its authenticity (Goodstein, 2012), specifically of its ancient Coptic writing that when translated into English states:

 “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”

The content of this writing is indeed compelling and has raised the eyebrows of theologians and biblical archaeologists (Depuydt, 2014) alike. However, it is the way that scientific analysis was used to authenticate this object that underscores many longstanding issues about the appropriate use of science to characterize ancient objects stripped of their original contexts either through looting, excavation in an un-systematic manner one or two centuries ago, or outright forgeries intentionally produced to deceive and alter the archaeological record for ideological purposes. Many archaeological scientists have deliberately decided not to authenticate these orphaned objects (Inskeep, 1992) because analysis can lead to their commodification and higher valuation as they enter into the art market thereby providing a monetary incentive for continued looting of archaeological sites. Another little discussed side effect of analysis is that it can provide a false legitimacy for forged works, otherwise known as laundering. This is likely the case for the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (henceforth GJW).

As reported recently in several news outlets, most notably the New York Times (Goodstein, 2014), the GJW was 

“...More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say”

The published scientific data for the GJW (Yardley and Hagadorn, 2014, Azzarelli et al., 2014, Hodgins, 2014, Tuross, 2014) provides no specific evidence that proves such a headline. In fact, the scientific analysis of the GJW offered little new data to move the debate forward on the authenticity of this object and may have instead confused and obfuscated its true nature— one of the primary dangers of undertaking analysis on a work like the GJW.  Even more problematic, as reported the science seems to have been purposely marshaled to present the object as an authentic document instead of allowing the data to objectively stand on its own merits.

The Evidence

The Coptic writing on the GJW was made with lamp-black, a simple ink made from burning organic material (Eastaugh et al., 2008). Modern commercial lamp-black pigments (tube paints) are composed of soot from the burning coke and coal, whereas their counterparts from the 4th-8th centuries AD would have been derived from soot made by burning animal and plant-based fuels such as fat, olive oil, or resin. It is possible to differentiate between lamp-blacks made of mineral (coal) or organic (plant/animal fuels) using the spectroscopic techniques of Raman and FTIR (Coccato et al., 2014) as was done by the investigators of the GJW at Columbia University and MIT. The Columbia University spectroscopists concluded that the presence of organic lamp-black was consistent with other ancient objects to which they compared the GJW papyrus and was thus of an ancient date (Yardley and Hagadorn, 2014). However, it is equally within the realm of possibility that even a not-so-sophisticated forger would forego using modern off-the-shelf tube paints and instead replicate lamp-black by the pyrolysis of animals, plants, or resins that would be indistinguishable from the ancient black pigment. For instance, one could easily imagine filling a small ceramic pot with olive oil and heating it until it produced a charred black residue. Mix this residue with water as well as a gum Arabic binder, and black ink is produced with identical material characteristics to the ancient pigment.

Ancient Papyrus Scroll for sale on eBay

The analysis of the papyrus by accelerator mass-spectrometry conducted at the University of Arizona (Hodgins, 2014) and at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (Tuross, 2014), clearly indicates that the papyrus substrate was old, dating specifically to the 8th century AD (not 4th as originally presented in 2012). However, what might not have been taken into account, is that there is a long tradition of forging documents and drawings using actual historic paper as a starting point as was so persuasively chronicled by Eric Hebborn in The Art Forgers Handbook (Hebborn, 1997). Again, it is not a stretch to think that a potential forger would have been able to obtain a small 4 cm by 8 cm portion of ancient Egyptian papyrus to create the GJW (Depuydt, 2014). A recent search on the auction site eBay for “ancient papyrus” revealed one potential source for this material (Figure 1).

Based on this alternative interpretation of the data, it is clear that it is all too easy to create a faked or forged object that challenges the assumptions and critical powers of even the most erudite scholars and scientists. 

Data Interpretation

Careful scholarship raises questions about why Karen King, a prominent Harvard theologian who was the lead investigator of the GJW, would not have considered this alternative reading of the data. I believe the answer may lie in the scholarly practice of connoisseurship combined with a limited understanding of what scientific analysis can achieve.

Connoisseurship, or the critical judgment of an object based on its aesthetic attributes, remains the most common way to authenticate archaeological objects (Neer, 2005). The connoisseur who studies the characteristics of line, shape, and form as they comprise an artifact or writing, stores a mental database often so vast as to include details of thousands of objects. These databases can be astonishingly accurate. The most respected connoisseurs have honed their critical eyes to such an extent that they can comfortably stake their careers on the ability to spot the authentic object. However, a connoisseur’s mental database acquired from a lifetime of looking is ultimately un-sharable. One must simply trust their opinions.

Recognizing a diamond in the rough, as the GJW purportedly is, can accrue enormous prestige to any connoisseur. However, if ultimately it turns out that the object is not genuine, it could seriously damage an academic reputation. After Dr. King’s initial connoisseurship approach failed to convince the world of the GJW’s authenticity in 2012, it is possible that she sought to rehabilitate her reputation by throwing what was believed to be the objective truth of science at the GJW. The only problem with this approach is that while scientific data are inherently objective, their interpretation is almost always subjective.

As a case in point, almost three decades ago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased a purportedly archaic Greek Kouros sculpture that created a stir similar to the GJW. The events surrounding its acquisition were brought into popular culture by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Gladwell, 2007). A camp of archaeologists and art historians pointed out stylistic inconsistencies between the Getty Kouros and comparable sculptures, notably the Anavyssos Youth in Athens that came from a controlled archaeological excavation. So they turned to scientific analysis which was unable to furnish evidence that was proof-positive for the Getty Kouros’s authenticity (Preusser, 1993). Yet depending on which side of the argument you stood, science could be used to bolster your position. It is for this reason that, to this day, the Getty’s label for the Kouros states: “Greek, about 530 BC or modern forgery”.

Even Dr. Marion True the Getty’s curator of antiquities at that time acknowledged, “everything about the Kouros is problematic… I always considered scientific opinion more objective than esthetic judgments. Now I realize I was wrong.” (Kimmelman, 1991)

Dr. True’s revelation that the interpretation of scientific data can be subjective, is at the heart of this discussion of the role science plays in authentication. In scientific disciplines outside the analysis of cultural objects, the subjectivity of interpretation is greatly diminished by the ability to confirm a measurement by repeating it numerous times, with different analytical techniques, and by more than one scientific group. However, in archaeology there are often greater limitations on analysis: an individual object is often the unique example (like the GJW), and more often than not it is not possible to take a sample of the object. Moreover, the analyst typically has limited access to the object which means scientific experiments cannot always be repeated and confirmed by other scientists.

Is Scientific Authentication Really Science?

As regards repeatability of the analysis in authentication studies, the distinction between science and connoisseurship may be a false dichotomy. Both the connoisseur and scientist collect data about an object but using different tools. Connoisseurs use their visual acuity and vast mental databases to make judgments about a work of art. Scientists use tools sensitive to different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and databases on analytical data to make their assessment. Neither approach provides a comprehensive understanding of the object. Neither discipline is infallible in its ultimate conclusions about what is an authentic object. Both disciplines are needed to produce a balanced understanding of the archaeological artifact.

It is therefore particularly problematic when connoisseurs attempt to use science to validate their critical eye rather than allowing the scientific data to stand on their own merits. In the case of the GJW papyrus, the collection of the scientific data was rigorous, but it could be interpreted in many different ways.

What to do with orphaned objects

While it may be tempting, and advisable, for many archaeological scientists to take a stand against the analysis of artifacts that are devoid of an archaeological context, it is not always practical. These orphaned objects will persist as cultural artifacts that demand the attention of the scholarly community. There is no question that the study of artifacts to establish authenticity is an important academic exercise since counterfeits only serve to misrepresent the archaeological record though it may be argued that fakes and forgeries, once they are revealed as such, say something meaningful about the impulses of the creators of these objects as well as the consumers who desire them (Merryman, 1992). The debate here is about how to use our analytical and critical powers to arrive at the correct answer regarding what these objects are and without triggering negative consequence like the looting of an archaeological site or the trafficking of illicit goods. In the case of the GJW, the scientific analysis was naïve at best and did not move our understanding of this object forward. The scientific analysis instead served as a sleight-of-hand to distract attention from the more vexing problems with its epigraphy which is much more important in contextualizing the historical and social meaning of this object as well as determining its authenticity. Such analysis confuses rather than enlightens and must be avoided at all costs by archaeological scientists if we are to remain credible.

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