Google Honors Howard Carter

Today Google honors Howard Carter, the famous archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.  A little known fact about this: Howard Carter is the man who sparked my interest in ancient history.

When I was just a child, I remember getting a book on ancient Egyptian society and in the book was a small blurb about Howard Carter and Tutankhamun and I was immediately hooked.  I asked my mom for a book just on King Tut and Howard Carter, and she delivered.  For the life of me now I cannot remember the name of the book (it was one of those novelty large paperback books for kids with lots of pictures and infographs and whatnot) but I remember vividly laying in my bed at night, under the covers with a flashlight, reading away.

I must have read that book a hundred times (in between all of those Goosebump books which were wildly popular back then).  It is funny when you think about what influences you when you’re young and how those influences can have such a large impact on our lives.  Reading about the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the mummy, ‘the curse‘, it brought history to life for me as a kid in a way I can’t fully explain now as an adult.  I just recall reading about ‘the curse’ back then and believing, just a bit, in the magic of it all.

So kudos to Google for honoring Carter.

The Qeiyafa Discovery and King David: The Da Vinci Connection

Perhaps you have not heard but there has been some new buzz in the field over some shrines that were discovered.  Here is a snippet of the recent press release:

Jerusalem, May 8, 2012—Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced today the discovery of objects that for the first time shed light on how a cult was organized in Judah at the time of King David. During recent archaeological excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified city in Judah adjacent to the Valley of Elah, Garfinkel and colleagues uncovered rich assemblages of pottery, stone and metal tools, and many art and cult objects. These include three large rooms that served as cultic shrines, which in their architecture and finds correspond to the biblical description of a cult at the time of King David.

via The Hebrew University Press Release on the Qeiyafa Discovery « Zwinglius Redivivus.

Now a couple of things.  First, the link between these shrines and cultic artifacts and a Davidic kingdom or even a historical David are tenuous at best.  Have we found an inscription mentioning David on these artifacts?  Do we have any reference to a Davidic context other than the very tentative link between the C14 dating and the period commonly associated with David?   Then why are certain individuals making exaggerated claims about these artifacts?

Something else that struck me.  Consider this shrine here:

The iconography on this shrine looks similar to the sort found on Asherah shrines:

These may not match perfectly (which would not be crucial) but they do share similar (also common) motifs (lions at the doorstep and birds perched on the roof, for example).  And I see no reason why someone would jump the gun and make some sort of reference to David based upon these rather common-looking shrines which are found throughout the region.

See also this shrine here (via) with the dove on the top (symbols commonly associated with Asherah on these sorts of model shrines) and take note of the pillars (especially):

And I do not find the argument compelling that the context in which these were discovered paint some sort of Davidic or Yahwahistic function.  To me, these look like nothing but stressed connections.

I would also note that the media is reporting the claim (allegedly from Garfinkel) that these are the first ever shrines discovered from the time of David which is just absurd.

This discovery is extraordinary as it is the first time that shrines from the time of early biblical kings were uncovered. Because these shrines pre-date the construction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem by 30 to 40 years, they provide the first physical evidence of a cult in the time of King David, with significant implications for the fields of archaeology, history, biblical and religion studies. (via)

Of course whoever did the research for this claim probably didn’t know how common these shrines are.  Like this model shrine from Tel Rekhesh (dated to Iron I):

And the bizarre claim that these ‘provide the first physical evidence of a cult in the time of King David’ is full of problems.  First, when one places ‘the time of King David’ is debated.  And if we’re placing it during Iron I, one has to wonder what it meant by ‘first physical evidence of a cult’ during this period.  Is there seriously someone suggesting that there is no evidence for cults existing in the region during Iron I?  I certainly hope not!

Then this claim:

The biblical tradition presents the people of Israel as conducting a cult different from all other nations of the ancient Near East by being monotheistic and an-iconic (banning human or animal figures). However, it is not clear when these practices were formulated, if indeed during the time of the monarchy (10-6th centuries BC), or only later, in the Persian or Hellenistic eras.

But this seems to go against the whole find!  After all, shrines like these were common throughout the region (as I’ve stated above) and they hold no special significance to ‘Israelites’ (whatever that term means).  These sorts of shrines were used by Canaanites and those who settled in the hill country of Palestine.  We know that the early settlers believed in multiple gods and goddesses and that includes those who also worshiped Yahweh (again, we have references both biblically and archaeologically to shrines like this which were used to worship the ‘wife’ of Yahweh, Asherah).

And what is this talk of a ‘united monarchy’ for which there is no evidence?  And why is it presumed throughout the many articles arguing for the significance of this common find?  It is very troubling indeed.

I’m glad other scholars are showing their concern for the exaggerated finds:

Model shrines of the type presented Tuesday have been found at many other sites belonging to other local cultures, and their similarity to Temple architecture as described in the Bible has already been noted, said Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, who leads a dig at the ruins of the nearby Philistine city of Gath. And the existence of lions and birds on the clay model undermine the claim that no figures of people or animals have been found at Qeiyafa, he said. (via)

UPDATE: See George Athas’s comments on the discovery here:

The Trial of Oded Golan is Over: The Verdict is In

Oded Golan has been found innocent.  Here is the important part (emphasis mine):

The District Court in Jerusalem acquitted Golan of all charges of forgery and fraud. The judge, Aharon Farkash, convicted him only of minor charges of selling antiquities without a permit and possession of items suspected to be stolen.

In his decision, the judge was careful to say his acquittal of Golan did not mean the artifacts were necessarily genuine, only that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Golan had faked them.

You can read the full report here:

Matthew Kalman also reports on the events (as a person who has researched the trail extensively).  He marks the following point regarding the ossuary (emphasis mine):

But Judge Farkash, who said he had heard from 126 witnesses and sat through 120 sessions that produced more than 12,000 pages of testimony, acknowledged that the collapse of the criminal trial did not signal the end of the scientific debate over the authenticity of the ossuary.

This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written 2,000 years ago,” he said. “We can expect this matter to continue to be researched in the archaeological and scientific worlds and only the future will tell. Moreover, it has not been proved in any way that the words ‘brother of Jesus’ definitely refer to the Jesus who appears in Christian writings.’

Read his report here:

All of my reflections on this trial and on the ossuary in general can be found in a forthcoming paper.

Bob Cargill Destroys the Jonah/Fish Argument

Absolutely definitive evidence of photo manipulation in order to support a conclusion. The whole ‘fish’ interpretation is completely blown away by this article. Outstanding work, once more, from Bob Cargill!

Unfortunately, if we take into account the visual evidence that has been omitted, and we acknowledge the digital manipulations that have been committed to the images, we are left with the following conclusions:

1) The “fish swimming in the margins” are the result of digital “inking” and are not fish after all, but simple unclosed, oval shapes used as decorations in the border.
2) The “half fish” on the side panel of the ossuary has clearly visible handles, and is therefore not a fish, but actually some kind of representation of a vessel.
3) The “Jonah fish,” which possesses oval loop handles similar to the “half fish” inscribed vessel (but which were not represented by the authors), is therefore not a fish, but actually an attempt at a representation of some other kind of vessel.

Because, once again, fish don’t have handles.

Thus the entire theory appears to be one big digitally manipulated fish tale (and not a fish’s tail).


A Possible Handle on Image 5 of the Amphora?

The other day while writing my post up using Rahmani’s catalog, I noticed something in image 5 from the Jesus Discovery website.  I went ahead and highlighted the image:

It is faint, but it looks like it belongs to the rest if the iconography.  Now compare that to my posted images courtesy of Rahmani and the amphora motif is ever more clear.

Now this makes me wonder…I wonder why this is not on the ‘museum quality replica’?  And why is this not a part of the ‘composite’ CGI image passed along to media sources?  Many questions remain unanswered.


Mark Goodacre posts an excellent article on the side ‘falf-fish’ iconography, suggesting that there are handles clearly depicted on it as well.  Check it out.  I believe he is correct.


After looking at other photos, it is clear the long red line is part of the border of the image.  However, there is a distinct handle on both sides of the ‘tail’, one of which is clear in the image above.  I will update this article once I have additional information since, I believe, one of my colleagues will be blogging about this subject relatively soon.


Bab Cargill not only exposes the handle in his recent post on the subject but he eviscerates the argument that we are looking at fish–anywhere–on this ossuary.  Well done, Bob!

Again – It’s Not a Fish…and Stop using Doctored Photos!

I just received this image in an email from someone (who I shall not name):

First, the image you’re using is the GCI’d (re: doctored) image.  It’s not the actual photo of the iconography.

Second, you have it oriented incorrectly.  It isn’t oriented sideways (Simcha is really to blame for this since he produced a press kit full of images like this with the iconography oriented incorrectly).  The iconography should be ‘nose’ down.

Third, this is the problem when you use anecdotal evidence (when scholars rely upon laypeople try to analyze the evidence and follow their interpretations).  Here are reasons why this interpretation doesn’t work:

  1.  The whole ‘toothy smile’ bit is anachronistic as it is; fish depicted on ancient carvings on ossuaries or on buildings do not have ‘toothy mouths’.  They nearly alwayshave their mouths open or the head isn’t drawn at all.  See this image from an ossuary (you can see it in Rahmani’s catalog; h/t to Antonio Lombatti for the image):
  2. ‘Fins’ in this fashion aren’t found on fish iconography.  Again, examine the image closely above.
  3. It’s not a fish.  Once you orient it correctly, it is clearly…CLEARLY…a vessel (an amphora or an unguentarium).  Look closely at the sketch on the Jesus Discovery website:
  4. The most common criticism is the ‘ball-bottom’ of the iconography.  But we see more often than not on ossuaries, using the vase-motif (amphorae or an unguentarium), a ball-bottom.  Consider these examples from Rahmani’s catalog (image quality is poor because I took them from my cell phone; apologies in advance for your squinting):

    Now these were all done by professional artists in antiquity.  They are deeply cut and symmetrical.  But not all were done so well.  In the instance of our ‘Jonah’ ossuary, we don’t have the original photos from a good angle and it appears to be done by someone who was not as talented (or was pressed for time; like an afterthought after they had already decorated the rest of the ossuary).  Also, not that all the styles of these vessels are different, but they all have similar dimensions and all similarly have a ‘ball-bottom’ or something similar.  Which means that my suggestion that the artist was using an unguentarium or a glass amphora is a lot closer than ‘fish’ (again see the comparison above).

Now the fact that you saw ‘fish’ is not your fault.  You were misled by a marketing campaign.  But the sensationalism has to take a back seat at some point for actual scholarship to be done.  And the consensus right now is that this is definitely not a fish; it is a vessel.  We know the vase-motif was prominent in ossuary iconography.  We also know that ‘fish’ were not used nearly as often, and the reason for their existence on ossuaries has been linked only to profession (cf. Rahmani), like if someone were a fishmonger–they might have fish on the outside of their ossuary.  But frankly, this just isn’t a fish.  The only way one gets ‘fish’ from the actual image is when you take that image, fabricate a brand new one (the image you used to create the ‘toothy fish’ above) and orient it incorrectly.


What makes this more likely to be an unguentarium or an amphora might also be related to the fact that we have evidence from ossuaries (again, via Rahmani’s catalog) utilizing the vase-motif will, at times, produce amphora on both the front and sides of the ossuary.  According to Simcha, the ossuary in question has ‘another fish tail’ on the side.  But let us examine this more closely:

And the unfortunate part of this image is that it is cut off and we don’t see what is below what we see.   Simcha and others argue that this is the part of the ‘fish tail’ which, as it were, looks very post modern in development.  Who puts half a fish tail on an ossuary?  What a waste of space.

Instead, I will argue this is another amphora or at the very least part of the vase-motif.  Consider this image from Rahmani’s catalog (better quality image supplied by commenter below):

Note that this is the same ossuary, but the amphorae are on the front and sides.  This is common (and we see this in several other ossuaries in Rahmani’s catalog) and should not be overlooked here.


I may have uncovered what appears to be a handle in one of the press kit photos.  Take a closer look and compare to those from Rahmani’s catalog above:

Anecdotal Evidence Isn’t Really Evidence

It appears that Simcha, or those with him, really wants this completely CGI’d image of an actual amphora/unguentarium ossuary iconography–wrongly oriented even in their header below–to be a fish:

The iconography in this image is oriented incorrectly, making it appear as though the amphora is a swimming fish.

I mean they really, really want this to be a fish.  Some members of the ‘Christian fish cohort’ (descriptors fail me today) have gone so far as to produce anecdotal statements like ‘almost all nonexperts agree this is a fish!’  Well, okay, maybe it has something to do with how the image is oriented, as Bob Cargill rightly points out using images like this:

But maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe it is just the sort of person you ask.  After all, nonexperts are not able to critically analyze or compare ossuary iconography.  Not everyone owns a copy of Rahmani’s catalog, nor of Figueras’s excellent volume on ossuary iconography, and while they could go to the library to research these images I doubt many will or even have the background to give them context once they do locate the motifs.  So really what a nonexpert ‘sees’ in the iconography is really dependent upon their own bias, their own contexts–like a Rorschach test.  You can give the test to ten people and ten people will tell you ten different interpretations.  Also, it doesn’t help that nonexperts are going to base their judgement of an image upon what they’ve read from media sources like the BBC–if they are that critically minded–or Fox News or CNN or even their local paper (inevitably, since chances are they don’t have access to the thousands of monographs, journals, and peer-reviewed articles on the subject).  So I’m not at all impressed by the anecdotal notion that ‘its a fish because nonexperts agree it is’; it depends on the nonexperts you ask.

As an experiment, I took a copy of the image with me to my monthly freethought group–about a dozen or so members attended with varied ages and different backgrounds–and posed the picture to them.  None of them had read about the ‘new discovery’ so when I shoped them the image in the orientation above (sideways), I got all sorts of conclusions.  They ranged from a woman’s womb to exotic animals but nobody said ‘fish.’  When I oriented the image correctly (‘nose’ down), everyone said it was an ancient vessel of some sort.  And these are nonexperts, none with any background in the field of archaeology or Biblical Studies.  I was shocked that they had figuired it out so quickly.  And I mean everyone said vessel.  Not a single interpretation of ‘fish’ was given.  So does this mean that my anecdotal evidence undermines the ‘Christian fish cohort’s’ anecdotal evidence?

This is why this iconography needs to be examined by people with experience and an understanding of the social-cultural constructs (this includes prevailing motifs in literature and iconography) of the time from whence this ossuary came.   But more important than this is the vital truth here: all unpaid or unassociated scholars (those who have the understanding of these motifs and constructs) who have looked at the iconography agree that it is not a fish.  That says something.  Some in the ‘Christian fish cohort’ argue that this implies a universal bias against the ‘cohort’ but that is simply insulting.  Every scholar wishes for the opportunity to write on a new amazing discovery, to publish something unique and interesting about a new find that changes the way we view the past.  That the academic community, so full of this mentality, isn’t rushing forth to snatch up this discovery in open arms says a lot about the quality of the arguments made by those proposing specious origins (i.e., that it belongs to an early follower of Jesus).

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