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17 September 2014
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The Jehoash Inscription
King Solomon's Tablet of Stone

Questions and answers about the discovery of King Solomon's Tablet of Stone.

Programme summary

Programme transcript

What was the Temple of Solomon?

According to the Bible, it was the Israelites' first permanent 'house' of God, built specifically to house the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, a gold covered wooden chest containing the Ten Commandments, had originally been carried by the chosen people and Moses through the desert.

When they arrived at the promised land of Canaan, they kept the Ark at the heart of the tabernacle, a tent-like structure regarded as God's dwelling place on Earth.

After King Saul unified the Israelites, they settled in Jerusalem under his successor David. It was David's son Solomon who built the luxurious temple, now known as the Temple of Solomon. Eventually it would become the Israelites' only legitimate place of worship.

In Jewish history this time is known as the First Temple period, and begins at around 1,000BC.

What evidence is there that the Temple of Solomon existed?

The only evidence is the Bible. There are no other records describing it, and to date there has been no archaeological evidence of the Temple at all. What's more, other archaeological sites associated with King Solomon - palaces, fortresses and walled cities that seemed to match places and cities from the Bible - are also now in doubt.

There is a growing sense among scholars that most of these archaeological sites are actually later than previously believed. Some now believe there may be little or no archaeological evidence of King Solomon's time at all, and doubt that he ruled the vast empire which is described in the Bible.

Why did the appearance of the stone tablet, the Jehoash inscription, cause such a sensation?

Inscriptions from the First Temple Period are extremely rare. In fact only one other royal inscription from this period has been found in Israel. The 'House of David' Victory Stele, now in the Israel Museum, contains the only reference to Solomon's father David which exists outside the Bible.

The Jehoash inscription appeared to be of even greater importance, offering the only known archaeological evidence for Solomon's most celebrated building. It also seemed to corroborate some verses in the Bible which mentioned the Temple. The description of repairs to the Temple carried out by King Jehoash corresponds closely to Kings 2 Chapter 12. This gave the Inscription potentially enormous significance.

Why did the authorities set up an inquiry?

Although the Geological Survey of Israel concluded that the Jehoash Inscription was genuine, there were a number of issues that worried archaeologists, philologists and the police.

The lack of any authenticated provenance was a major problem. No one could demonstrate where the inscription had been found, and for reputable museums that raised significant doubts. Moreover, some scholars were raising questions about the language of the inscription. Was it consistent with the Hebrew of the First Temple Period?

For the police it was a matter of law. Under Israeli law any ancient artefact discovered after 1978 belongs to the state. So if this stone was genuine and had been recently unearthed, then its sale was illegal. And if it was after all a fake, then the police wanted to find out how and where it had been produced.

Also causing concern was the discovery of a link between the inscription and another Biblical antiquity which had surfaced in Israel and enjoyed similar acclaim. This artefact was hailed as the ossuary - or bone box - of Jesus' brother. Its ancient Aramaic inscription read, 'James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus', and caused a similar worldwide sensation.

It was displayed for the general public in Canada, in the Royal Ontario Museum and the exhibit received almost half a million visitors. Intriguingly, its owner was the same man who was handling the Jehoash Inscription. This coincidence prompted the Israel Antiquities Authority to set up an inquiry to examine both artefacts.

How did the discovery of marine fossils in the patina finally prove that the stone and the ossuary were fakes?

The patina is a layer on ancient stone which builds up over time as the stone reacts chemically with the soil, air or water it touches. An object which has been buried, as the Jehoash Inscription was said to be, will form a patina with the chemical signature of the soil around it. In the Judean hills around Jerusalem, the limestone in the rocks will produce a patina composed mainly of calcite (calcium carbonate).

Although chemically the patina on the Jehoash inscription and the ossuary corresponded very closely to a natural patina from Jerusalem, investigators were astonished to discover that in both cases it contained microfossils of marine organisms called foraminifera. These occur naturally in chalk, a calcium carbonate rock which is produced at the bottom of the sea, but these fossils do not dissolve in water and so cannot occur in a calcium carbonate patina. It was clear to investigators that the patina must be an artificial chemical mix in which chalk had been ground up to produce the required calcium carbonate. The marine fossils were a clear indication of the technique the forgers had used.

Why did investigators conclude that the stone probably came from a crusader castle?

Royal monumental inscriptions were sometimes written on black, rectangular-shaped, basalt stone. The forgers clearly knew this and chose a stone which was black. But mineralogical tests showed they had made a mistake. The tablet was not basalt but the unusual stone greywacke. This type of stone is not native to Israel, and would certainly not have been found in Judah (modern Jerusalem) during the reign of King Jehoash.

In fact, the closest source for the low grade metamorphic greywacke used for the tablet is western Cyprus. Assuming the forgers would not have gone so far afield to obtain a stone tablet, investigators concluded that this Cypriot stone must have been found locally. But why would a stone from Cyprus have been found in Israel?

There seemed one obvious possibility. During the Crusades stones were used as ballast on ships. They were frequently collected from one Crusader port, including Cyprus, and used by them for construction elsewhere. The Fortress of Apollonia, only 15 kilometres up the coast from Tel Aviv, was built by the Crusaders and part of it still stands today. It contains all sorts of exotic rectangular stones - including greywacke.

It seems very probable that the forgers took one of these stones, or one from another Crusader building, knowing it to be old and weathered, and already cut to a rectangular shape. It was also the right colour, and they may never have realised their error: that the stone they had chosen would not have been found in Israel in Biblical times.

What effect has the discovery of this elaborate fake had on the world of archaeology?

Police now suspect that artefacts produced by the same team of forgers may have reached collections and museums all over the world. The same investigators have found many other objects to be fakes. Some Israeli archaeologists are concerned that the whole archaeological record has been seriously contaminated and distorted by the forgers' activities.

They are now suggesting that everything which came on to the antiquities market in Israel in the last 20 years without a clear and unambiguous provenance should be considered a fake unless proven otherwise.

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