My attempts to avoid this grand discovery have not gone well, to judge from the number of emails I have received suggesting that I must not have seen this story. It’s foolish to think that I can somehow temper enthusiasm by ignoring the report, so I am succumbing to the requests to note the discovery here. If I had delayed one more day (April 1), I would have at least felt some measure of justification in spending my time on this.
The basis for the story as reported by BBC and others is a press release from David and Jennifer Elkington. The best available photographs that I am aware of are at the Daily Mail.
The discovery is a collection of 70 ring-bound books made of lead and copper. Other artifacts were made at the site of discovery, including scrolls and tablets.
In a nutshell, the problems with this discovery include the facts that (1) we don’t know who owns the artifacts; (2) we don’t know where they were found; (3) the artifacts were not excavated by archaeologists but stolen by thieves; (4) nearly all information about the discovery so far has come from a single source of dubious reliability; (5) claims have been made that this find is more significant than the Dead Sea Scrolls; (6) the source of information appears to be positioning himself for fame and fortune.
The discovery was made about five years ago and rumors were circulating on the internet at least by 2007. The apparent reason that a major announcement is being made now is that consultants (the Elkingtons) to the owner of the items fear that the owner may now try to sell the objects. This is possible, but any number of other scenarios involving power and greed can be imagined. Perhaps the Elkingtons were going to lose their access to the items and their attempts to blackmail the owner failed. Perhaps the Elkingtons never really had much to do with the items in the first place but they had enough information and photographs to make a play. Perhaps the Elkingtons are truly the potential saviors of a most outstanding archaeological find.
It is not clear if these items are authentic or forged. The case that they are a modern creation is strengthened by the facts that (1) they were not discovered by scientists but by thieves; (2) no credible authority knows for certain where they were found; (3) no scientific analysis of the artifacts has been published even though they were discovered many years ago; (4) the books are at least partially written in code, a characteristic which may make forgery easier; and (5) Andre Lemaire, a world-class scholar who is not quick to classify illegally excavated items as forgeries, does not believe these are genuine.
On the other hand, I have a hard time believing that someone would forge (if the report is correct) seventy books of this nature. The work involved is much more difficult on such a scope and unless you’re going to try to sell one each to seventy different antiquities collectors, it seems that you run the risk of diminishing returns. In addition, a forger runs an increasing risk of detection with the more material he creates. Success is more likely on a single object that is very carefully prepared.
Personally I am inclined to believe that this find is genuine. Professor Philip Davies has examined some of the finds (or photographs?) and he seems to believe that the script is authentic (see also his comments quoted here).
That does not mean, however, that this discovery is greater than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Or even close.
Such a claim was made by the director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad. The Dead Sea Scrolls included nearly 1,000 different works, including copies from more than 200 Old Testament books. It is very difficult to imagine this discovery topping that, and it is irresponsible to make such a suggestion when so little is known about the artifacts and almost nothing has been translated or decoded.
The theory being proposed now is that these books were hidden by Christians who fled from Jerusalem during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70. The cave where these artifacts were discovered is allegedly in a valley in northern Jordan, and it is in this general area that early church historians state that Christians fled ahead of the Roman siege.
My suspicions of this theory are aroused by the report that these books include depictions of Jerusalem, including markings of the cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. I wonder if Christians at that very early date were already venerating such sites. When I read books like the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts (both written about AD 70), I don’t get the sense that the early church was creating artwork and establishing holy sites. My expectation is that such objects would be more appropriate to a fourth or fifth century setting (but I note that Davies believes the script dates to 200 BC – AD 100).
Finally, the role of David Elkington in all of this is very problematic. In his own press release, he
says of himself that “David is primarily an Egyptologist, specializing in Egypt-Palestinian links that have inevitably drawn him into the field of Biblical studies. He has lectured at universities all over the world and written many papers on ancient history and linguistics.” There is no indication that he has an academic affiliation, or even any academic training. From this description, I believe that he does not have even a college degree, though he did go to an art academy. After the current discovery,
I suspect that his resume will be expanded to include “consulting work” for the Jordan Department of Antiquities as well as appearances on CNN and Oprah.
His press release notes that he is “the author of ‘In the Name of the Gods’, the highly acclaimed academic thesis on the resonance and acoustical origins of religion.” I don’t know what led Mr. Elkington to believe that his own book is “highly acclaimed,” but I see that the publisher is Green Man Publishing Limited. They appear to have been in business for about one year. The book description provided by the publisher begins this way:
Everything that exists does so because of vibration.
Matter comes into being because energy vibrates – any science book will tell you that. But understand the science of vibration, learn how to use it and you will have the key to…
The Earth vibrates, bell-like and deeply, within itself and as a consequence of incoming cosmic rays. In the alpha state man’s own mind is in harmony with the resonance of Mother Earth. Take the Ancient’s knowledge, and the right vibration in the right place can link you to the secrets of the Earth and of the Cosmos too. This spiritual technology requires a sacred laboratory; an acoustically designed building, appropriate in shape and position – like the Great Pyramid for example. Now the mysterious Ancient Egyptian ceremony of ‘the opening of the mouth’ begins to make sense: Sound: The Word.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, let me put it in plainer language: David Elkington has experience in selling horse dung to gullible audiences. And it seems to me that he aims to profit off of his role in this affair. Despite his claims that he “has worked to date entirely on a voluntary basis,” he is smelling the money. He appears to already be selling photographs of the discoveries (via rexfeatures.com). He has certainly been careful to watermark with his name the photos he has made available to the media. More than that, the press release states: “Preparations are being made for a documentary film about the discovery, in conjunction with a leading television network, and the publication of a book.” If you don’t think he’s planning to cash in, I’d like to talk to you about funding my personal research on international recreational activities.
There may be something to this discovery, but first the artifacts must be confiscated by the officials and assigned to reputable scholars. In the meantime, I would not trust anything coming from the mouths of antiquities thieves or Mr. Elkington.
Various scholars have commented on this matter, including Michael Heiser, Jim Davila (also here and follow links), Larry Hurtado (also here and here), and Doug Chaplin.