Sunday 3 April 2011

"Lead Codices" Saga continues: the Jordanian Response

On Sunday, the Jordanian government announced that it was beginning moves to retrieve dozens of artefacts believed to have been stolen from sites in north Jordan and smuggled to Israel by an Israeli merchant.
"The Jordanian government has obtained data and documents from a British expert which prove that an Israeli merchant has illegally smuggled important artefacts from northern Jordan to Israel,” Director of the Antiquities Department Ziyad Saad told a press conference. He said that the stolen antiquities included 70 lead codices, scrolls and copper plates, all of them date back to the early Christian era of the 1st century A.C. The artifacts are believed to have been stolen from Jordan between 2005 and 2007, officials said.
The identity of the "British expert" was not revealed. Thus the sorry saga of the so-called "Lead codices" which have been in the news recently gets even more complicated. The current owner Hassan Saida, an illiterate Israeli Bedouin truck company owner from the northern Israeli village of Um-al-Ghanam (now) claims that the artefacts were originally found about five years ago in a cave in the village of Saham in Jordan, close to where Israel, Jordan and Syria’s Golan Heights converge and near to the site at Umm Qais (ancient Gadara/ Antiochia Semiramis), a popular tourist destination. Allegedly
a flash flood scoured away the dusty mountain soil to reveal what looked like a large capstone. When this was levered aside, a cave was discovered with a large number of small niches set into the walls. Each of these niches contained a booklet. There were also other objects, including some metal plates and rolled lead scrolls.
So, a story like many which account for the appearance of decontextualised artefacts on the global antiquities market. Accidental discovery not reported to the authorities, objects smuggled out of the country, various attempts to authenticate them and market them. A writer David Ellington has got involved in attempting to prove their authenticity as ancient objects. His efforts are hindered by the appearance of the codices themselves. Already in March, as news was breaking about what the press was hailing as a momentous discovery, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), dismissed the books as a forgery and as being a "mixture of incompatible periods and styles … without any connection or logic. Such forged motifs can be found in their thousands in the antiquities markets of Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East". So they are, many of the images that can be seen on the photos released to date look as if they are drawn from coins and pictures in books of antiquities (including a garbled legend obviously miscopied from the tombstone of a certain Abgar [note the name] in Amman Museum).

Photo: a comedy codex (Yahoo news)

Photo: Some of the imagery on a copper plate apparently part of the cache being studied by David Elkington: (Elkington via Palaeojudaica)

Of course none of these doubts would exist if the objects had been reported to the authorities upon discovery as Jordanian law requires and the alleged findspot immediately examined by archaeologists, and the objects subjected to proper study. Instead they were smuggled out of the country and now apparently are on the market with various scholar being approached to offer opinions on selected aspects of the objects. Those that do so obviously have no scruples about dealing with smuggled antiquities.

According to the Telegraph, Saida's Bedouin business partner:
met a villager in Jordan who said he had some ancient artefacts to sell. The business partner was apparently shown two very small metal books. He brought them back over the border to Israel and Saida became entranced by them, coming to believe they had magical properties and that it was his fate to collect as many as he could. The arid, mountainous area where they were found is both militarily sensitive and agriculturally poor. The local people have for generations supplemented their income by hoarding and selling archeological artefacts found in caves. More of the booklets were clandestinely smuggled across the border by drivers working for Saida – the smaller ones were typically worn openly as charms hanging from chains around the drivers’ necks, the larger concealed behind car and lorry dashboards. In order to finance the purchase of booklets from the Jordanians who had initially discovered them, Saida allegedly went into partnership with a number of other people – including his lawyer from Haifa, Israel. [...] The artefacts have been seen by multi-millionaire collectors of antiquities in both Israel and Europe – and Saida has been offered tens of millions of pounds for just a few of them, but has declined to sell any.
when David Ellington's book comes out maybe Saida (photo right from Daily Mail) was planning on changing his mind.

If we follow the recent Telegraph and Mail stories, we may attempt a reconstruction of events. Is it the case that a truck driver working for Saida saw a business opportunity when approached by a dodgy dealer in Jordan who proffered what he took to be ancient artefacts with the story about them being discovered in a cave (the cave somebody showed a journalist and is pictured in a Daily Mail photo looks to be artificial, perhaps a tomb) and there being more available for purchase? Did he then take them across the border where his employer agreed that there was an opportunity to make money from 'liberating' what they took to be genuine artefacts from getting into the hands of Jordanian archaeologists? Is it the case therefore that over a period of time these objects were bought from the Jordanian - unaware that the man was in fact peddling fake artefacts recently made in Jordan probably with an eye to the tourist market? Were they then smuggled piecemeal across the border in the normal manner in which small illicitly obtained ancient artefacts are removed from their country - either hidden about the person of the smuggler, or hidden away in a place hard for customs and border officials to locate and search? Then the new owner would presumably have started looking about for a buyer, Sotheby's approached in 2007 was reportedly not interested due to the problems of the origins and nature of the objects and the owner's title to them. Then writer David Ellington became interested and after a while there was an initial flurry of international interest. Then when the nature of the objects became clear, questions started to be raised. Meanwhile is it not the case that a Jordanian artefact faker is counting the money he got from two Israeli truckers, and Mr Saida is going to find himself with some unsaleable lead scrap on his hands? If these things had been bought from a "reputable dealer", at least the buyer could sue for his money back when the fraud came to light.

The only people who have not yet had a chance to examine this material thoroughly are precisely the people who should have been the first, the Jordanians on whose territory these objects were allegedly found. They are now forced to attempt to get full access to them by legal means, which would be difficult enough if they were real, I suspect there could be serious legal problems when the verdict is out that they are not necessarily so, and so in point of fact no offence would necessarily have been committed in moving them across a border. I hope if they have been recently smuggled out of Jordan, the Jordanians do get the artefacts back. I hope they publish photos of them all and the results of the examination which I am confident will show they are a modern pastiche and act as a warning to all who try to pull a fast one and attempt to invest in illicit antiquities. (Let Mr Ellington go ahead by all means and publish his reasons for deducing they are not, though bearing in mind that he is describing what seem likely to be illicitly obtained artefacts). Let the Jordanians question the truck driver(s) mentioned by the Telegraph, who reportedly illegally failed to declare what he had bought as dug-up antiquities, and let everybody learn that the no-questions-asked buying and selling and transporting of dugup artefacts across international borders carries a multitude of risks of many types, of which falsification of history is one.

Rogue Classicism (David Meadows): Lead Codices Silliness (March 30th 2011) and Lead Codices – Once More into the ‘Reach’ (April 3rd 2011)

Palaeojudaica (Jim Davila): Hebrew-inscribed-metal-codices watch, a fake (April 1st 2011), quoting a letter by Peter Thonemann.

Olga Craig: 'Could this couple's Bible 'codices' tell the true story of Christ's life?', Telegraph 3rd April 2011.

Nick Pryer, 'Is this the first ever portrait of Jesus? The incredible story of 70 ancient books hidden in a cave for nearly 2,000 years', Daily Mail 3rd April 2011.

Abdul Jalil Mustafa, 'Jordan in bid to regain artifacts stolen by Israeli merchant', Arab News Apr 3, 2011.

See now Tom Verenna, 'New Roundup on Lead Codices and Additional Information', April 3, 2011,

Robert Deutsch: "A Follow up by Robert Deutsch on the ‘Lead Codices’" on the 'Zwinglius Redivivus' blog, 5 April 2011

and Peter Thonemann, "The Messiah codex decoded", Times Literary Supplement, 6 April 2011.

Vignette at top:Ziad al-Saad at an April 3 conference about the bid to retrieve the artefacts (India Times).


archeohistorian said...

I’m neither standing with the Elkingtons, nor with any Consensus or pressure group. I just want to make my point that texts has been written on lead before and after first century AD. One can’t change this fact even if he or she doesn’t have much confidence in my academic credentials.
For details of other Leaden Books please consult:
1. An Inquiry into the Nature and form of the books of the ancients... 1873 London Pp 28-35
2. Septuaginta-Studien. II. 1904 Pp.14-17
3. The Gnostics and their Remains. London Pp.147-153
4. Une Excursion Gnostique en Italie.Paris 1852. Plate I tillplate.xii
5. The Septuagent in context. Brill 2000. Pp.267-268
6. Ancient Jewish Magic. Pp.114 and 144-146 etc.
7. Curse Tablets and binding spells from the ancient world.Oxford. 1992

And what about Job 19:24.

Paul Barford said...

Texts are written on paper too, but that does not make the "Hitler Diaries" authentic. It is not the material they are written on that is the problem, it is the actual contents of the tablets which are obvious falsifications.

But, if you want to believe they are "real", go ahead, no skin off my nose.

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