2001. A clandestine meeting of leading Israeli archaeologists are shown a remarkable artefact. It's a stone tablet, apparently from 1,000BC. The writing on its face describes repairs to the temple of King Solomon. It is the first archaeological evidence ever found of this legendary building.
The relic caused a sensation. But this was only just the start.
For authentification, the tablet was taken to the Geological Survey of Israel. Here, after a battery of tests, including radiocarbon dating, scientists officially pronounced the stone to be genuine. The tests even revealed microscopic particles of gold in the outer layer of stone. These were apparently the result of the tablet surviving the fire which, according to the bible, destroyed the temple when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586BC.
The stone tablet was offered for sale to the Israel Museum, home to many of Israel's greatest treasures. Rumours suggested the asking price was as high as $10million.
But the museum needed to know where the stone had come from. Even its owner was a mystery. To make matters more complex, the stone itself had disappeared again. The Israeli Antiquities Authority wanted answers. A nine month search for the mysterious stranger who had first appeared with the stone eventually led them to a private detective who had been hired by a well known antiquities collector, Oded Golan.
Golan insisted he too was just a front man for another collector. But the authorities were suspicious. He was known to be the owner of the James Ossuary, another extraordinary artefact which had appeared a couple of years earlier. This was a burial box with an inscription linking it to Jesus' brother.
The authorities raided Golan's apartment and recovered both the ossuary and the elusive stone. It was time to establish once and for all if both were genuine. So they set up a committee of linguists and scientists to examine them.
Looking at the stone, several linguists said 'fake'. Some of the Hebrew, they claimed, was not ancient. Other experts claimed that so little is known of ancient Hebrew that it's impossible to be sure.
The geological evidence
The committee turned to geology. Dr Yuval Goren, a geo-archaeologist and head of the Archaeological Institute at Tel-Aviv University, soon found evidence that a team of sophisticated forgers had led the earlier experts astray.
- The patina on the stone had in fact been manufactured artificially
- The charcoal particles which produced the convincing radiocarbon date had been added by hand
- The gold fragments hinting at an ancient fire were a clever final addition
The authorities presented their conclusions. They announced that the stone tablet, and the James Ossuary, were elaborate fakes.
But who was producing these fakes and how? Dr Goren decided to piece together how the stone tablet had been made. He tracked the origin of the stone itself - apparently a building block taken from a Crusader castle.
It was even possible to work out how the fake patina had been manufactured and the ingredients used. What was clear was the team of forgers included experts in a range of disciplines.
More fakes suspected
When the police took Oded Golan into custody and searched his apartment they discovered a workshop with a range of tools, materials, and half finished 'antiquities'. This was evidence for an operation of a scale far greater than they had suspected.
Investigators have established that collectors around the world have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for artefacts that came through Oded Golan's associates. Dozens of these items have now been examined by Dr Goren, and all have been revealed to be forgeries. Police now suspect that artefacts made by the same team of forgers have found their way into leading museums around the world.
Some archaeologists have now concluded that everything that came to market in the last 20 years without clear provenance should be considered a fake. Many of these objects, like the stone tablet which started the investigation, were cynically playing on the desire of many of the collectors to see the bible confirmed as history. For those in search of the temple of Solomon - their goal is as far away as ever.
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