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Ancient metal plates found in Middle East

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 3:26 p.m. MDT

JERUSALEM — A discovery in the Middle East of more than 20 ancient lead plate "books" — each with five to 15 pages — is being hailed by some as one of the most important religious discoveries of the past. Others are calling it ridiculous.

The director of the country of Jordan's Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, told BBC that the books might have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion. "They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls," Saad said. "It seems that we are looking at a very important and significant discovery, maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology."

Jeff Chadwick, a practicing field archeologist who is in Israel as BYU's Jerusalem Center Professor of Archeology and Near Eastern studies thinks it is a silly story. "Almost everybody is getting wrong. I couldn't believe that Fox News picked it up," he said. "This is not going to pass the smell test in the end run."

One of the sticking points is the origin of the plates.

The first story, related by the BBC, is that a Jordanian Bedouin spotted them after a flash flood exposed part of a cave. This happened about five years ago. Then, another Bedouin smuggled them into Israel. This does not make the Jordanian government happy and they want them back.

The second story is from the Israeli Bedouin who now has the books. The Jewish Chronicle Online identified the Bedouin as "Hassan Saeda, from the northern Israeli village of Um-al-Ghanam." Saeda said they have been in his family for a century — found by his great-grandfather in a cave in Jordan.

David Elkington, an author and archeology enthusiast, appears to be the main person pushing the recent interest in the plates, according to a report on BBC radio. He told BBC that the small business-card-sized books are judged to be Christian because of their covers. He said there are symbols and signs that could be interpreted by early Christians as representing Jesus. Those symbols are next to other symbols that represent the presence of God.

There is also a representation of a seven-branched menorah, which Elkington told BBC that Jews were forbidden to represent.

If this all wasn't enough, he said there is also a map of ancient Jerusalem. It has a cross on it next to what appears to be a small building with an open door — possibly representing the open tomb of Jesus.

Margaret Barker, a New Testament scholar who focuses on ancient temple worship, told BBC that Christians were more likely to use books than scrolls and that "sealed books in particular (are) a part of the secret tradition of early Christianity." The Daily Mail also quoted her as saying "Other texts from the period tell of sealed books of wisdom and of a secret tradition passed on by Jesus to his closest disciples. That is the context for this discovery."

Barker, however, did not vouch that the books are genuine.

Chadwick is an expert in ancient inscriptions and epigraphy. He bases his opinions on the plates from the photographs he has seen. And nothing he has seen looks new. If they are not proven to be modern forgeries, Chadwick thinks they could date anywhere from BC 200 to A.D. 600. But this doesn't mean they are significant. "They are typical of Jewish magical amulets," he said. "I see no indication whatsoever that they have anything to do with Biblical texts — Old or New Testament, with New Testament Christianity, or even early Christianity at all. They look to me like early Jewish mediaeval amulets. And of those we have lots of examples."

Earlier this month, The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), dismissed the books as a forgery and as being a "mixture of incompatible periods and styles … without any connection or logic. Such forged motifs can be found in their thousands in the antiquities markets of Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East."

One blogger, RogueClassicism.com, called the enthusiasm "silliness" and pointed out many of the contradictions in reports — such as some reports saying there were 70 books and others saying more than 20.

Another blogger, Zwinglius Redivivus, said, "Not buying it." The blogger continued, "A bevy of tests need to be administered, the 'script' needs to be deciphered and translated, and the materials must be independently authenticated as ancient before we can even begin to talk about some astonishing discovery. And even then, since the little objects were 'found' and no archaeological context for their discovery is available, they will nonetheless always remain tainted as untrustworthy. Without provenance, without context, there is no meaning. This is true of both texts and artifacts."

Others point to Elkington's involvement as a factor to instill doubt. This push of information seems to come out of a forthcoming book on the topic. His previous book was "In the Name of the Gods" which examined the vibrations of the universe. His bio says, "For 20 years David has been led on a revelatory trail through world mythology, linguistics and philology into geophysics, architecture, acoustics, music, neuro-physiology, theology and still further into the all-encompassing, resonant atmosphere of the planet."

A press release from Elkington said: "Initial metallurgical tests (spectrographic and crystallographic) indicate that the books made of lead could date from the first century AD, based on the form of corrosion which has taken place, which experts believe would be impossible to achieve artificially."

Chadwick thinks, however, that in situations like this it is best to see how many legitimate scholars are working on the discovery. Here, he said, that is lacking. At best they have a few scholars looking at them who, although perhaps good in their particular fields, do not have the particular expertise to pass judgment on these items.

But even if the reality does not match up to the hype on BBC and Fox News, Chadwick sees something positive in the interest it and other discoveries have generated. "It illustrates how very interested we are in the discovery of new things," he said. "I don't think it is a bad thing for people to have an interest in this. It does fall to us, both in the academic world and in the world of reporting to really get the facts right before we release stuff."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: twitter.com/degroote

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