Sunday, August 22, 2010

Unholy Business A True Tale of Faith, Greed, And Forgery In The Holy Land by Nina Burleigh

This book takes readers into the world of the biblical antiquities trade in which rich collectors vie, often illicitly, for artifacts and relics, often out of a desire to prove The Bible. It is a world in which forgery is rampant. Ms. Burleigh's superbly researched book chronicles one of the most spectacular and daring forgeries in history, the James Ossuary, a limestone bonebox purported to once have held the remains of the brother of Jesus Christ.

When the ossuary's existence was revealed in 2002 it made headlines around the world and ignited heated debate that sometimes degenerated into personal attacks in both the archaeological and religious communities. From the start the box acquired fierce champions, including Hershel Shanks of the popular magazine The Biblical Archaeology Review, and equally adamant detractors who pointed out irregularities in the inscriptions, all of which is detailed in the pages of this book. Two other prominent finds, a sandstone tablet flecked with gold with an inscription regarding repairs for Solomon's Temple and an ivory pomegranate long believed to be the only known relic from Solomon's Temple, are also examined and their now doubtful authenticity discussed.

Ms. Burleigh's book takes readers into the world of biblical archaeology where evangelists and scientists, each with their own agendas, compete in a never-ending battle between science and faith. We also learn about evangelists who raise money to finance expeditions, taking thousands of dollars in donations from the faithful and gullible, in hope of finding Noah's Ark or some other artifact that proves the Bible, when the money should have gone to help people in their communities in genuine need instead. The book is peopled by a colorful cast of scholars, scientists, collectors, antiquities dealers, evangelists, forgers, and detectives, and makes fascinating reading.

At the time it was written the trials resulting from the forgeries were still underway and expected to be of lengthy duration, possibly even several years, so there is no verdict in the legal sense, though the artifacts described are all most likely authentic items from the biblical era that were altered by modern forgers to enhance them and make them more attractive to collectors and more profitable to the dealers and forgers behind them.

I found this book fascinating, it gave me a glimpse into the side of archaeology one doesn't usually see, the black market and back alley trades and how artifacts find their way into private collections, and the battle between men of science and men of faith over the archaeological sites and treasures beneath the soil of the Holy Land. It is a far cry from seeing pictures of these ancient treasures in glossy-paged books and magazines or in the glass display cases in the museums of the world. I do wish the book had included some photographs though, it would have been nice to see these hotly disputed artifacts as I read about them.

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