Some Considerations About the Iconography on the Ossuary

There has been a lot of various interpretations of the ‘fish’ on the new ossuary in Talpiyot B.  Absalom’s tomb was the primary response initially; this was due to the misrepresentation of the image (in photos the alignment of the image was sideways to make it appear as though the object were swimming) by various media outlets and by those involved in the find.  However Tabor, in response to these criticisms, made the community aware that the orientation of the image was down (that is, the circular object which Tabor, et al, claim to be Jonah being spit out of the mouth of the fish is facing toward the bottom of the ossuary).  Another interpretation of this image was that it was a nephesh monument but again the orientation of the object was not clearly known at the time these interpretations were given.  In a conversation with Mark Goodacre, I had suggested to him that the object, oriented upside-down, reminded me of pottery.  And it seems I was not the only one who had this interpretation (keep in mind that there is no interpretation from the vagary of expert interpretations which has thus concluded ‘fish’–that is to say, none outside of Tabor’s interpretation which has been under heavy criticism).  Currently the discussion has shifted to what type of pottery at which we’re looking (amphora or krater).

But I still feel that there are some important details which must be considered when making our interpretations of the iconography on the ossuary.   First we must remember that we do not have the ossuary itself.  At best we have a “museum quality replica” but I am not sure that we can have a replica of something we can’t accurately depict yet.  Sure, we have some pictures, but these are not entirely trustworthy.  At present there is a general discussion happening in the comments section of Bob Cargill’s ASOR article on the iconography which has focused on digital manipulation.  While it is clear that there has been some digital work done on the image, the question seems to be about the extent of the digital manipulation.   Bob is an expert on the subject (he headed up UCLA’s Center of Digital Humanities and his work has focused on using digital technology in the field of archaeology) and is more than capable of exposing any digitally doctored image, so if he sees the manipulation at play and can demonstrate it adequately, then we must wonder to what extent this museum replica that Jacobovici and Tabor produced is a precise reproduction of the ossuary.

There are still more troubling factors.  The multiple photos of the iconography are not showing the same thing, as Bob Cargill has made clear in his response to Tabor on the ASOR blog.  This may be the result of photo doctoring, but the fact is that part of the iconography is obscured (see this image):

As you can see, the ‘fin’ is obscured partially in this photo.  Whatever is obscuring the image is not there in other images.  Unless someone moved whatever is obscuring it before snapping another photo (it looks like another ossuary), then it was digitally removed from the image and someone ‘filled-in’ the rest of the ‘tail fin’ before it was given to media sources:

The most striking thing about this isn’t just that there is no longer a mass on the upper left corner of the screen obscuring the object but that there is no indication that there ever was something there.  For example, if we presume that the object was removed by the robot with the camera (like by a claw or something) we would expect to see coloration differences, different types of microbial forms, there would be some evidence of an object which has sat on top of this ossuary for hundreds, if not some thousands, of years.  Yet there is nothing there to suggest to us that this has been the case.  That upper corner looks identical to the rest of the ossuary.  This suggests to me that the image has been digitally altered. So there is no way, at present, we can be certain of the dims of the iconography; there is just no trustworthy image we know of that hasn’t been altered to been skewed by angle or hasn’t had someone digitally add in dimensions using digital media.  This also means that the replica used at the press conference is simply unreliable.

Then there is the troubling question: what is it?  Well, speculations about ‘fish’ aside, it looked to me, from the time the orientation was known, that the image is of pottery.  At the beginning, it was suggested that it had been an amphora, but amphora have very specific handles (usually, not always) that this iconography lacked.  The handles one typically finds on amphorae are hooped from the middle of the vessel to the brim at the top:

Though there are exceptions to this; some amphorae have handles akin to those on the ossuary iconography (see the ‘fins’ on the sides):

It is also interesting that there is a ‘ball’ at the bottom of this (this is a Hellenistic glass amphora); this is specifically interesting because Tabor and Jacobovici have claimed ad nauseum that the ‘ball’ at the bottom on their iconography must be a ‘head’ wrapped in seaweed (yep!) and there is no other easier explanation.  But amphorae are not the only types of ancient pottery that sometimes contain a ball bottom like this.  Many unguentarium have this ‘ball bottom’ feature:

Note the shape of this as well; like the glass amphora above, this design contains the ‘fins’, the ‘ball’ at the bottom, and the fish-like shape.  This is why I believe that the ‘fish’ on the ossuary are more than likely an example of this sort of pottery.  As Joan Taylor points out, these ungenutarium serve a specific funeral and ritual purpose and are commonly found in tombs.

Oddly, however, even though this is likely, Tabor continues to point to ‘fish’ and, even more strange still, he continues to suggest that the ball at the bottom of the fish (or, rather, what is coming out of its closed mouth) is Jonah.  And he feels this is the most likely and easiest explanation.  He gives some reasons why he believes that the fish is more likely than the pottery:

1. The “tail” of our image is sharply pointed and quite elongated on the left side. In fact, when we first got a glimpse of the partial image we thought it was the prow of a boat! In contrast, the mouths of amphora and perfume bottles are round and quite symmetrical.

But this is irrelevant, since we don’t know the exact shape of the tail of the ‘fish’.  The fact is the images we have are digitally changed, and often in extreme and tragic ways (see Bob Cargill’s comments here and judge for yourself).  The tail seems to be shaped by digital means and clearly, as demonstrated above, the tail is partially obscured in whatever image we have left. And we can’t rely upon any of our ‘images’ since frankly we can’t trust them.  And that is criminal.  Truly criminal.  Alas, like with the lead codices, we can only go by the photos since we do not have the physical ossuary to examine.  And unless Tabor wants to release unaltered photos that can be examined by experts–and I mean experts not on any payroll associated with this discovery–then the photos must be dismissed as admissible evidence.

2. The clear stick figure in our image with the enlarged “ball” or head at the bottom seems to be in contrast to the typical flattened or knob like ends of some perfume bottles.

One must wonder if Tabor has ever seen glass amphorae or unguentarium?  If not, there are some on site at the Metropolitan Museum he should consider evaluating.

The arms of the figure are positioned in a classic eastern pose (oaanes), in contrast to what we find in the west–the orans position of supplication with both arms raised. This is a major point and we are presently preparing a special paper dealing with the motifs associated with the various sea-man figures of the eastern Mediterrean world in this period.

Here are the facts: the stick figure appears more or less to be wishful thinking.  Let us examine more closely this ‘figure':

Note how completely ‘unhuman’ the ‘stickfigure’ looks when you isolate the lines (in red) and see what is really there.  Frankly, I’m finding any resemblance to a ‘stickfigure’ to be completely disingenuous.  Also, take note of all the red squares.  Those are repeated notches which indicate to me that this item was not just digitally modified but parts of it were copied and pasted into the image to fill it out.  The left side of one notch in the middle-upper-left of the image has been cut off (and looks like a smudging effect was applied). So how is it that Tabor expects us to carefully examine this iconography in any detail when the iconography presented is not an accurate representation of what is on the ossuary?

The “head” itself has a very distinctive pattern on it which we have taken to be the artists attempt to represent seaweed “wrapped about my head” as mentioned in the text of Jonah (2:5). The “eye” of the fish is also etched on the lower right side, with a curved line. We are not yet certain what the Etruscan “F-like” marking is to the left of the figure’s body as it is now oriented but our guess is it has to do with an eastern mythical hero motif and several suggestions have been made by two of our ancient art historians.

This is simply nothing more than a case of pareidolia.  Tabor is seeing Jesus in a burnt piece of toast and calling it the ‘find of a lifetime’.

3. The patterned body of the “fish” with its scale/tile like patterns, which led some to conclude it was the brickwork of a tower, we understand to be akin to the armor of the mythical fish Leviathan (aka Behemoth, Rahab, etc.)–which in modern Hebrew still means “whale.” In Jewish tradition this unique sea creature represents “death” and the righteous are to eat its flesh in the last days, thus “swallowing up death” forever (Isaiah 27:1; 25:8; Baba Bathra 74b). When this happens the “dew of light” will shine on the world of the death and those in the land of shades will live or be resurrected (Isaiah 26:19).

Again, Tabor is seeing what he needs to see in order to force ‘fish’ into this pottery motif. These are not ‘scales’ at all but resemble more the patterns associated with what one would find on ancient pottery.  Here is an example of ‘scales’ on pottery (or, more specifically, the patterns one might find on amphorae in antiquity):

Again, consider looking more closely at these doctored images:

Looks to me to be patterns one might see on a piece of pottery.  It certainly doesn’t resemble anything I’ve seen of fish scales.  James talks about the oaanes poses but based on his observations that the pose is similar, he doesn’t seem to recall what the representations look like:

Anyone with even a mediocre degree of observation could see that the two are not even close.  And while we’re on the subject, has anyone noticed that the ‘head’ of the images that Tabor provides have been altered in size?  Consider this for reference:


The green lines represent the ‘closeup’ of the image to show the ‘stickfigure’ located on the right.  The red lines are the far-away shot of the whole image on the left. One is flatter than the other.  How anyone could deny some level of image modification and tampering is beyond me.

4. The downward orientation of our fish image, which some have taken as an objection to it being a fish, is to the contrary just what one would expect, as we understand Jonah is being spat out on land in this depiction. To have the nose of the fish oriented upward (heavenward), or to right or left, would be to spit him into the waters of “chaos,” which he is now to escape, by being vomited on dry land. The head of our “Jonah” figure is actually touching the border of the bottom of the ossuary, which seems to represent that land.

Tabor may not be aware of these image modifications, and if that is the case at the very least we could say Tabor has quite the imagination–he would have to in order to present a rationalization like this.  Again, one must ask if Tabor really believes that this is a better explanation than that for pottery.  First, I have never seen any example of a fish spitting out a human before–even in images of Jonah and the fish, the orientation is never down and the mouth is never closed:

And frankly why would it be?  It makes no sense for an artist to draw an image which goes against the known motif of all the images of the fish which would have been commonplace for Christian or Jew in antiquity.  Why would one change the orientation to ‘down’ and make the iconography so counter to what one expects to see?  Now consider more carefully the pottery iconography:

Without accurate representations of the iconography, there is no way to know how the lip (or ‘tail fin’) actually looks.  But even if this is precisely how the image looks, the pottery iconography simply makes more sense.  It explains the orientation (in this case ‘down’ would be ‘up’ and would not require additional explanation), it explains the patterns (pottery patterns rather than the most bizarre form of ‘scales’ ever seen), and the ‘fins’ (top of pottery and handles rather than ‘fins’) and base (part of many glass pottery motifs rather than ‘sea-weed covered Jonah head’).

I have nothing but respect for James Tabor; I think that when he is not working with Jacobovici, he is lucid and erudite and an exceptional scholar.  But every time he backs one of these sensational stories, I do have my concerns.  I can’t fathom–not now, perhaps never–how someone can look at all this data and say ‘Yes, that is definitely Jonah and the Whale’.  It mystifies me.  It should concern Tabor; if nothing else the evidence of the manipulation of the photos should concern Tabor!  It certainly concerns me.

UPDATE 3/5/2012:

Bob Cargill has posted a very thorough article on the digital manipulation of the images and why it matters.  here is a snippet:

Unfortunately, the visual evidence detailed above compels us to conclude that Fig. 21 from pg. 42 of Dr. James Tabor’s original Feb 28, 2012 Bible and Interpretation article entitled, “A Preliminary Report of an Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem,” has experienced a high degree of digital manipulation. Given the changes to the “tail fin” of the supposed “fish,” and given the deliberate rotation of the image’s orientation causing it to more resemble the natural orientation of a fish without offering a compass point or any indication on the image whatsoever that the image has been rotated, it can be argued that the motivation behind making these digital alterations to the image was the desire to create, or at least “enhance” the illusion of a “great fish” swimming freely in the ocean, while vomiting forth a human head.

Read on here: http://robertcargill.com/2012/03/05/if-the-evidence-doesnt-fit-photoshop-it/

His most damaging point, in my opinion, is the revision of pg. 42 of Tabor’s Bible and Interpretation article:

Make specific note of how the orientation of the fish sideways in the original version has an image from the Roman catacombs depicting Jonah and the Whale sideways as if to suggest a similar motif.  In the context of the new version, having that image makes no sense (see my argument above).  The motif is usually always sideways up oriented up, never down.

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