Archaeology'It's a one-in-a-million story'

Too-good-to-be-true Darius ostracon mix-up teaches a public lesson etched in pottery

While archaeologists worry about forgeries, the IAA vows to implement more rigorous testing after a highly touted potsherd thought to be from 498 BCE was found to be inauthentic

A potsherd discovered in Tel Lachish with an Aramaic inscription 'Year 24 of Darius.' It was announced by the IAA as the first written evidence of Persian king Darius the Great discovered in Israel, but on March 3, 2023 was declared to not be authentic. (Yoli Schwartz/IAA)
A potsherd discovered in Tel Lachish with an Aramaic inscription 'Year 24 of Darius.' It was announced by the IAA as the first written evidence of Persian king Darius the Great discovered in Israel, but on March 3, 2023 was declared to not be authentic. (Yoli Schwartz/IAA)

When Eylon Levy, international spokesperson for President Isaac Herzog, picked up an ancient potsherd inscribed with Aramaic markings last December while hiking in Tel Lachish, he thought it was part of an “elaborate prank.”

After turning it over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), however, experts there believed that the potsherd was authentic, and that it contained the only known reference to Darius, the father of Ahasuerus, one of the main characters of the Purim story.

“It seemed so serendipitous, such an extraordinary find right under everyone’s noses,” Levy told The Times of Israel when the “artifact” was announced to the public. “I was a little suspicious. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s too good to be true.’”

That turned out to be the case.

The day after publication, a European researcher reached out to the IAA and said that she had inscribed the potsherd as a demonstration for a class of students visiting Israel, and had accidentally forgotten it on site.

Now, the high-profile fiasco is forcing the IAA to implement new protocols for authenticating inscriptions, and archaeologists are renewing calls for more communication and peer reviewing before publicizing finds in the media, especially when they are discovered outside of an authorized archaeological excavation.

‘The writing was just perfect’

The inscription on the potsherd said “Year 24 of Darius” in such accurate ancient Aramaic that it fooled all of the IAA’s top epigraphers, or inscription experts, including Hebrew University’s Dr. Haggai Misgav, a renowned expert in Aramaic and ancient Hebrew inscriptions.

“There’s really only one person in the world who can write [Ancient Aramaic] with such expertise,” explained Gideon Avni, the chief archaeologist of the IAA.

It never crossed their minds that the single person who could write Aramaic on that level would take an ancient potsherd to etch upon as an example and then accidentally leave it on site. Avni called the situation “a one-in-a-million story.”

“We just thought the writing was so authentic… When there’s a suspicion about the writing we do much more in-depth tests [on the inscription],” he said. “But here, the writing was just perfect, so that’s why we didn’t do more tests.”

The IAA quickly identified that the potsherd itself was an authentic potsherd, which led to the assumption that the inscription on it was also authentic. However, there are thousands of potsherds similar to the unauthenticated ostracon lying around Lachish.

Avni said the experts fell into a mistake common not just in archaeology, but in all types of science: they already believed the item was real, and they performed tests that confirmed that bias.

The potsherd discovered in Tel Lachish with an Aramaic inscription ‘Year 24 of Darius,’ dating it to 498 BCE, revealed by the Israel Antiquities Authority on March 1, 2023. (Shai Haloy/IAA)

“We believed it was real, so that’s how we were investigating it,” Avni said. “This was a lesson, not just for the Israel Antiquities Authority, but for everyone in this field. Now we’re going to be a lot more careful.”

Specifically, when it comes to inscriptions, he said the IAA will focus less on the epigraph, or inscription, itself, and more on investigating the patina, which is material that’s collected in the nooks and crannies of an inscription.

Ariel University Prof. Shlomo Ben-David during a Zoom interview with The Times of Israel, July 2020. (Screenshot)

Patina can tell archaeologists many things about an inscription, explained Prof. David Ben Shlomo, an ancient pottery expert at Ariel University. Finding little material inside the indentations of an inscription indicates it is new. A noticeable amount of patina, naturally occurring material built up over time, can point toward an authentic inscription. Scanning electron microscopes can determine if the patina inside the inscription matches the patina on the surface of the pottery, meaning that the inscription and the pottery would likely be the same age.

When instruments are used to make indentations in fired pottery, they can leave trace elements behind as they scratch the hard surface, said Prof. Christopher Rollston, a professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University. Trace elements of modern tools, such as aluminum from an Exacto knife or modern steel from a new awl, could discount the inscription as fake.

Experts work to examine and preserve the Darius I potsherd discovered in Tel Lachish in December 2022. The potsherd was believed to be the first written evidence of Persian king Darius the Great discovered in Israel, but later found to not be authentic. (Saar Ganon/IAA)

Avni said the IAA did run some patina tests on the ostracon, but they were not thorough enough, which he said will change in the future.

‘The simplest of all kinds of modern forgeries’

Other archaeologists worry that a highly publicized incident such as this could embolden nefarious actors to make more forgeries.

“An incised inscription on a potsherd is the simplest of all kinds of modern forgeries to make, and it can be among the more difficult to detect if the lab doing the scientific test and the epigrapher doing the epigraphic analysis are not particularly careful,” Rollston, the chair of GWU’s Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, wrote in an email. He added that he was suspicious of the ostracon from the beginning, and asked to see the tests that were performed.

Still, he cautioned that laboratory testing itself is not infallible.

“Laboratory testing is useful and necessary, but it is not the panacea that some in the humanities believe it is,” he said.  “After all, some labs have authenticated objects which are, in fact, modern forgeries,” Rollston added, citing the Moussaieff ostraca, two Iron Age ostraca belonging to private collector Shlomo Moussaieff that garnered headlines for their inscriptions relating to the Temple donations before later being alleged to be forged.

Prof. Christopher Rollston inspecting the inscribed late 9th or early 8th century BCE altar that was discovered in a Moabite sanctuary at the Khirbat Ataruz site in central Jordan in 2010. (Courtesy)

“Generally speaking, another methodological principle should always be considered: If it sounds too good to be true, it often is,” Rollston added. “In the case of the Darius inscription, what are the chances of someone finding on the surface of a tel (a tel that has been carefully excavated, and a tel which archaeologists and ordinary people are walking around on all the time) a sensational find mentioning a famous Persian king, the likes of which have never appeared previously in Israel, in spite of intensive excavations in the area for more than a century? Not high. Not impossible, but not high. On the other hand, what are the chances of such a chance find as this one being [placed] on the tel as some sort of prank? Pretty high.”

Ben Shlomo of Ariel University is no stranger to archaeological pranks.

“Every excavation has this joke, where they decide they want to make a practical joke on the director of the excavation,” Ben Shlomo said. They’ll make a fake item and bury it somewhere, “then let him dig it up and say, wow, I found this!”

He’s quick to point out that it’s never happened to him, and he’s never heard of a prank accidentally getting characterized or published as a genuine discovery. That would defeat the purpose of the prank, he said.

“Usually they’re not so professionally done,” Ben Shlomo explained. “Usually, it’ll be recognized right away, or whoever did it, they’ll say it was a joke.”

A class lesson gone wrong

The Darius ostracon was created as an educational demonstration, not as a prank, and while it was unintentionally left at the site, some archaeologists bristled at the fact that a professional knowingly defaced ancient artifacts, even for educational purposes.

“The person who made the sherd to instruct students was not very smart in altering an ancient object, that’s one thing, but in particular leaving it on site, that was also not a very smart thing to do,” said Prof. Aren Maeir, the head of the Institute of Archaeology at Bar Ilan University.

Prof. Aren Maeir in the lab of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project at Bar Ilan University (courtesy)

“I would highly recommend the IAA make it very clear to all expeditions that altering ancient finds and in particular leaving fake things on site is a total no-no, and that if something like that is done you can rescind their right to excavate,” he added. “There should be clear punishment so it’s a learning opportunity for all excavations you don’t do that.”

Dr. Katharina Streit of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who oversaw the researcher who made the inscription, said in an email that “all relevant information was passed onto the Antiquities Authority once the mix-up became apparent.”

“The succession of very unlikely events that lead to the unfortunate mix-up was entirely unprecedented to my knowledge,” said Streit, who is one of three archaeologists currently running different excavations at Lachish. “Doubtlessly, this case will result in much stricter codes of conduct and scientific rigor in all phases of handling and researching antiquities in the entire international scientific community.”

Please, take your time

The biggest concern that archaeologists have with the Darius ostracon mix-up is that it was announced to the public so quickly, and that there was little communication with the archaeologists working active digs at the site.

Last year, Maeir organized a public declaration signed by more than 30 Israeli archaeologists imploring archaeologists and institutions to refrain from publishing archaeological finds in the press or social media until they have been peer-reviewed.

Granted, the Darius ostracon was submitted and accepted to the Israel Antiquities Authority journal ‘Atiqot, vol. 110: The Ancient Written Wor(l)d, which has a double peer review process. But the IAA didn’t get in touch with other archaeologists who were working at Tel Lachish to let them know about the ostracon.

From right to left, Yakov Ashkenazi, Eylon Levy, Dr. Haggai Misgav, and Saar Ganor with the potsherd at Tel Lachish, revealed by the Israel Antiquities Authority on March 1, 2023. (Yoli Schwartz/IAA)

“There’s no legal or moral requirements to talk to other archaeologists about a find,” said Maeir. “But due to the fact it was found on the surface, and not in any excavations, it might have made sense to ask if they knew anything about this.”

He added that he found the timeline of the December discovery to the March announcement just ahead of the Purim holiday “much too rushed,” and that proper testing and reviewing should take longer.

Ben Shlomo agreed, stating, “The main problem is not to publish so quickly and check [the results]. If you find an inscription not in the excavation process, but from someone else on the site, or someone gives you a sherd that wasn’t dug up, then you should be more suspicious.”

Maeir emphasized that “even though there was no reason to suspect it was fake, this is the proof in the pudding anything found in uncontrolled excavations on surface should be related to with much suspicion.”

File: Prof. Gideon Avni, head of the Archaeological Division in the Israel Antiquities Authority, displays the original Magdala Stone, bearing the seven-branched Menorah (candelabrum) which was discovered in a Galilean synagogue dating to the Second Temple period (50 BC-100 AD), during a press tour at the national treasures storerooms of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beit Shemesh on March 19, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

All archaeologists contacted by The Times of Israel hailed the IAA for taking immediate and full responsibility for the mistake.

“It’s not easy to admit you made a mistake, and I respect them for doing that in a clear and unambiguous manner,” Maeir said.

The IAA’s Avni, who has decided to treat the saga as a learning moment, is philosophical about the very public ordeal.

“Maybe, in the end, this whole situation was for the best,” he said. “If we hadn’t published it, we wouldn’t have gotten in touch with the researcher, and then there would be this error in our understanding of the history. And that’s the worst thing that could happen.”

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