Monday, August 21, 2017

The Jordanian lead codices: (1) The materials tests

AS PROMISED at the beginning of the month, I have some comments on Samuel Zinnner's comprehensive report on the Jordanian Lead Codices: Son of the Star: Bar Kokhba and the Jordanian lead books, which has been published online by the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books. It is a massive work, over 1100 pages long. I will not attempt a detailed response, which would have to be very lengthy indeed. But I do want to address what I see as the main points raised in the report and to give you my views about them. So think of this as a long book review. This is the first of four blog posts on the report.

The second post, on the inscriptions on the codices, is here.
The third post, on the quotation of the Abgar-Selaman epitaph in the codices, is here.
The fourth post, with concluding remarks, is here.

I begin with some comments on the materials tests on the lead. Apparently the definitive result of the tests at the University of Surry is that the tested codices in their current form must be at least 100 years old. More specifically, there were tests on the (polonium) radiation content of the lead and on alpha particle emission from the lead, and both gave results of zero. Reportedly the first indicates an age of not less than 100 years and the second an age of not less than 200 years. This is what the Lead Book Center report and the films say.

That said, there is an anomaly that I would like to have clarified. The University of Surrey’s press release refers to both tests and only claims that the they indicate that the lead is “more likely” to be over 100 years old. It says nothing about 200 years. And in the films, in an interview clip with Chris Jeynes (of the University of Surrey) repeated twice, he says that it is “very unlikely that the artifacts are less than fifty years old.” So we are hearing somewhat inconsistent claims here. I imagine that this is just a matter of confused presentation, but I do think it needs to be cleared up.

The films, the Surrey press release, and the report also make various claims about analysis of the corrosion on the codices as seen on the high-resolution photographs. These claims are not about tests done at Surrey and should be kept separate from those tests. The basic claims are that the corrosion would have taken at least a century, probably multiple centuries, and perhaps many centuries, to build up and the analyzers can think of no way that the effect could have been faked by a modern forger.

I am not specialist in metallurgy, ancient or otherwise, or in ancient material culture. I am not capable of a specialist’s critical evaluation of the tests and analyses. At the same time, I think that it is fair to demand a high standard of transparency and scholarly process when we deal with them.

The metals tests are potentially important, but I would like clarification on what exactly the Surrey tests prove. I also think the claims about the corrosion need to be filtered through peer-review in a journal on ancient material culture. Any of those claims that make the peer-review cut would need to be taken very seriously.

It is also unfortunate that none of the numerous lab reports on the tests on the codices have ever been published in full. I understand that this is largely or completely outside the control of the Lead Book Centre, but again I call upon those who own copyright of the lab reports to publish them in full.

I will anticipate my forthcoming comments to the extent of saying that what I see now is a confusing lack of correspondence between the physical evidence (the metals texts and analysis) and the textual and iconographic evidence. The textual and iconographic evidence does not align with the codices being ancient artifacts. Rather it points to their being clumsy modern productions. The physical evidence indicates that they are old and possibly very old. When the scientific tests and the more traditional forms of analysis do not line up, we have a problem.

This is not the first time we have been here. Remember the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? The early reports told us that analysis of the physical appearance of the papyrus (by two professional papyrologists!) indicated considerable age.

There were materials tests for the GJW as well. The first round of Carbon-14 testing gave a date in the pre-Christian era, which was not particularly helpful. The second round gave it a still relatively ancient date of the eighth century CE. The ink used was also found to be consistent with an ancient origin. These were highly credible tests at the University of Arizona and Harvard University.

At the same time, from the beginning there were serious textual, linguistic, and paleographical problems with the GJW. In due course more information was uncovered, and now no specialist wishes to defend its authenticity. It’s a forgery.

Now all this should give us pause in relation to the Jordanian lead codices. On the one hand, the (duly vetted) opinions of scientists based on materials testing should be taken into account and indeed should be given considerable weight. But on the other hand, neither the tests nor the scientists are infallible. And there are serious problems with the idea that the codices are ancient artifacts.

I am willing to concede for the sake of argument that there is a core group of codices that are at least 100 years old and perhaps 200. But I regard any claims of greater age to be as yet not proven. And I cannot decisively rule out the possibility that even these results could have been faked by a clever modern forger. I think Dr. Zinner and I do not have any serious disagreements on this subject.

In my next post I will turn to more familiar (to me) matters regarding the inscriptions on the metal codices. Having now seen the full report and gone over its main points, I can say that I do not think there is a credible case that the lead codices are genuine ancient artifacts.

Cross-file under Fake Metal Codices Watch. I acknowledge that various elements of the current discussion may point to some of the codices being something other than fake, but I remain to be convinced. See my coming posts for more. In any case, I continue to include this cross-file rubric so that readers can search it to find all my posts on the subject. For past posts on the codices, start here and follow the many links.

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