Lead Codices – Once More into the ‘Reach’

After our two previous posts (here and here) and all the attention from assorted bibliobloggers, I thought the Lead Codices thing would slowly fade away, with subsequent news reports adding nothing new. Strangely enough, however, we continue to get ‘new’ information on this thing and it gets more and more bizarre and causes one to think that there is definitely someone worried about not cashing in as they expected. It seems also very clear (to me, at least) that the recent coverage seems to be calculated to deal — in various ways — with objections which have been raised in various venues last week, although they really aren’t dealt with in a satisfactory manner when compared.

Before getting into the new coverage, however, I do want to highlight a comment by Stephen B-C. in our previous post on this. He astutely notes the resemblance between coin portraits of Alexander the Great and some of the images attached to Peter Thonemann’s letter at Dan McClellan’s blog. I think Stephen B-C is bang on in his commentary. To supplement his analysis, I might note that the (date?) palms which seem omnipresent on all the images that are so far available (some in the new coverage which we will be getting to) are also very reminiscent of palm depictions on coins from Israel in the general period (I don’t think there is an Alexander coin which also has a palm tree, by the way, but I might be mistaken about that). I’m willing to bet that as more images emerge, more ‘coin connections’ will be able to be made.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the most recent coverage in two very different publications which I’ll reference now, because I’ll be jumping back and forth between them (and I’m only presenting a few excerpts … I am skipping over stuff):

Okay … let’s look at this in detail. As mentioned above, it strikes me that these two pieces have been written to respond to objections which assorted scholars have been raising. First, we get the Mail‘s version of how these ‘codices’ were found — as we shall see, the Mail is focussing on the role of  Hassan Saida in all this:

A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the artefacts were originally found in a cave in the village of Saham in Jordan, close to where Israel, Jordan and Syria’s Golan Heights converge – and within three miles of the Israeli spa and hot springs of Hamat Gader, a religious site for thousands of years.

According to sources in Saham, they were discovered five years ago after a flash flood scoured away the dusty mountain soil to reveal what looked like a large capstone. When this was levered aside, a cave was discovered with a large number of small niches set into the walls. Each of these niches contained a booklet. There were also other objects, including some metal plates and rolled lead scrolls.

The area is renowned as an age-old refuge for ancient Jews fleeing the bloody aftermath of a series of revolts against the Roman empire in the First and early Second Century AD.

The Mail goes on to try to make geographical links between this find spot and Qumran, although it seems to be a bit of a stretch. Whatever the case, contrast that description with that in the Telegraph, which is focussing on the Elkingtons’ (hubby and wife) involvement:

How the couple became involved is an intriguing tale. The codices, which could profoundly change the perception of what happened in the years between the death of Jesus and the emergence of the letters of St Paul once they are translated and decoded, were found five years ago in a cave in Jordan.

The cache is believed to have surfaced when a menorah – a Jewish candlestick – was exposed in a flash flood.

So the provenance is still up in the air, and clearly there are two different versions of the find. I wonder in passing if anyone (other than those directly involved) has bothered to ask to be shown this cave. That said, Telegraph coverage goes on to make the provenience even murkier:

Quite how they fell into the hands of Mr Hassan Saeda, an illiterate Israeli Bedouin, remains a mystery, although the fact that he has previous convictions for fraud and smuggling suggests they were not entirely above board.

… which is our first indication of conflict between the Elkingtons and Saeda … this was not apparent in any of the previous coverage as far as I’m aware. For its part, the Mail continues (in a caption in a photo) with the line that Saeda inherited the things from his grandfather. But their text paints a possibly different story:

The books are currently in the possession of Hassan Saida, in Umm al-Ghanim, Shibli, which is at the foot of Mount Tabor, 18 miles west of the Sea of Galilee.

Saida owns and operates a haulage business consisting of at least nine large flatbed lorries. He is regarded in his village as a wealthy man. His grandfather settled there more than 50 years ago and his mother and four brothers still live there.

Saida, who is in his mid-30s and married with five or six children, claims he inherited the booklets from his grandfather.

However, The Mail on Sunday has learned of claims that they first came to light five years ago when his Bedouin business partner met a villager in Jordan who said he had some ancient artefacts to sell.

The business partner was apparently shown two very small metal books. He brought them back over the border to Israel and Saida became entranced by them, coming to believe they had magical properties and that it was his fate to collect as many as he could.

The arid, mountainous area where they were found is both militarily sensitive and agriculturally poor. The local people have for generations supplemented their income by hoarding and selling archeological artefacts found in caves.

More of the booklets were clandestinely smuggled across the border by drivers working for Saida – the smaller ones were typically worn openly as charms hanging from chains around the drivers’ necks, the larger concealed behind car and lorry dashboards.

In order to finance the purchase of booklets from the Jordanians who had initially discovered them, Saida allegedly went into partnership with a number of other people – including his lawyer from Haifa, Israel.

Saida’s motives are complex. He constantly studies the booklets, but does not take particularly good care of them, opening some and coating them in olive oil in order to ‘preserve’ them.

The artefacts have been seen by multi-millionaire collectors of antiquities in both Israel and Europe – and Saida has been offered tens of millions of pounds for just a few of them, but has declined to sell any.

When he first obtained the booklets, he had no idea what they were or even if they were genuine.

He contacted Sotheby’s in London in 2007 in an attempt to find an expert opinion, but the famous auction house declined to handle them because their provenance was not known.

So Saeda comes across rather well. The Elkingtons — via the Telegraph – paint a somewhat different picture:

The Elkingtons are vague about how they became aware of the treasure trove three years ago, insisting a ”friend” was emailed images of them.

“When I first saw them I thought they had to be fakes,” Elkington says. ”I could see the language was ancient Hebrew and I thought: ‘these are bloody good fakes.’ But when I researched the sealed books in the book of Revelations I knew these codices had to be examined by experts.”

Elkington tracked down Mr Saeda who initially agreed that the historian could help have the codices authenticated.

”What I didn’t know is that he was double dealing,” says Elkington. ”On the one hand he had me wanting to do this legitimately, involving the Jordanians who naturally want the artefacts repatriated. On the other he had a consortium of ”businessmen” pushing him to sell them on the black market, promising that he – and they – would make a lot of money.”

We also get details about the ‘danger’ which was hinted at in previous coverage … first, among the introductory paragraphs of the piece:

A tirade of vicious death threats, they claimed, had left them fearful for their safety and they retreated to a remote rent farmhouse in Gloucestershire where, last week, The Sunday Telegraph tracked them down.

… oh my, they’re in seclusion but still available to the press! How wikileaks-like. A little later:

Their story, remarkable by all accounts, is certainly worthy of a Raiders of the Lost Ark film: it is a tale of gory death threats and gun shots; sinister mafia-style gangs, fearful academics in flight and double dealings.

”We’ve had guns fired at us in Jordan, which was a warning we had got too close, and told if we didn’t back off our ‘heads would be cut off and put on spikes,” says Elkington. ”We’ve even been contacted by Robert Watts who was involved in producing the Indiana Jones films about the possibility of a movie.”

Guns fired at you in Jordan? Tell us about that (a bit later):

When the Elkingtons travelled to Jordan in 2008 to visit the caves where the codices were found, they were accompanied by Jordanian soldiers as the site lies within a military zone.

“We were just emerging from the caves when someone, from up above on a ridge, opened fire on us,” says Mrs Elkington.

“We knew it was a warning that we were getting too close. Getting in the way of the men who wanted to make money from these priceless, precious items. Someone had also set fire to a tyre by our jeep. Another warning.”

… hmmm … you go to a place that requires military accompaniment and you interpret people shooting at you as necessarily being connected to these codices … maybe, maybe not. This is probably a good place to remind folks of the other person in this story — Robert Feather — whose ‘side’ was presented in the Jewish Chronicle. That article included a picture of  him in front of the cave, supposedly … I wonder if he had a military guard too.  But I digress … what about the head-cutting-off thing? This bit is a bit more elaborate and clearly we have established that this is a ripping yarn. After doing some research of their own, the Telegraph continues the Elkingtons’ tale:

Encouraged by the experts’ views the Elkingtons again contacted Mr Saeda who, to their astonishment, flew to Britain and arrived on their doorstep. ”It was like something out of a movie, they appeared out of the blue dressed in heavy coats during the summer. He and his hench men looked like a bunch of mafia men.” During dinner with the couple Saeda astonished them further by suddenly pulling a velvet pouch from around his neck and extracting one of the artefacts. ”He was touching it lovingly,” says Elkington. ”He was like Gollum with the ring in Lord of the Rings. He was obsessed with it.”

Saeda allowed the couple access to two of the codices which, amazingly, they still possess. Although Elkingham won’t reveal where he keeps them, he did show us the ones he has. One of them, heavily inscribed, bears the words ”congregation of the faith” in ancient Hebrew, he says. Another he believes may have been a type of identity card that would have been sewn into the hem of a robe.

”Once Saeda realised that our intention was to have the cache returned to Jordan – and we plan to return the pair we have within weeks – he began a series of threatening phone calls,” Elkington says. ”He is one of those extremely mercurial men. One minute quiet, the next threatening. When we travelled out to Israel to meet him again a few months later he became vicious and started asking for £250,000 as a fee to have the codices filmed. We got endless phone calls saying we would be beheaded.”

Wow! At this point in the metastory, I really can’t turn off that ‘conspiracy’ part of my brain. The Mail‘s coverage is clearly designed to portray Mr Saeda as a somewhat sympathetic person, including a photo of him posing with some of the codices; the Elkingtons are not even mentioned. The Telegraph piece is clearly written to portray the Elkingtons as the ‘good guys’, who only wanted to do the right thing (i.e. return the pieces to Jordan) but have had to deal with some illiterate Bedouin mafioso. On many occasions in the past, when criticizing television treatment of historical matters, I have noted that it is a common documentary strategy to establish ‘drama’ by suggesting there is conflict of some sort. Usually this involves disparate views of scholars, or even more commonly, scholars and some ‘outsider’, but it is increasingly looking like the conflict that will be exploited in this one will be between the Elkingtons and Saeda! So we won’t have to worry about what scholars really have to say! And all the theats of gun play will, no doubt, keep journalists from asking to be shown the caves in person! Perfect!

That said, however, we should also make note of some details on the ‘lead dating’. The Daily Mail continues from his above-mentioned contacting of Sotheby’s:

Soon afterwards, the British author and journalist Nick Fielding was approached by a Palestinian woman who was concerned that the booklets would be sold on the black market. Fielding was asked to approach the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and other places.

Fielding travelled to Israel and obtained a letter from the Israeli Antiquities Authority saying it had no objection to their being taken abroad for analysis. It appears the IAA believed the booklets were forgeries on the basis that nothing like them had been discovered before.

None of the museums wanted to get involved, again because of concerns over provenance. Fielding was then asked to approach experts to find out what they were and if they were genuine. David Feather, who is a metallurgist as well as an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, recommended submitting the samples for metal analysis at Oxford University.

The work was carried out by Dr Peter Northover, head of the Materials Science-based Archaeology Group and a world expert on the analysis of ancient metal materials.

The samples were then sent to the Swiss National Materials Laboratory at Dubendorf, Switzerland. The results show they were consistent with ancient (Roman) period lead production and that the metal was smelted from ore that originated in the Mediterranean. Dr Northover also said that corrosion on the books was unlikely to be modern.

The Telegraph side of the story is rather less detailed:

Proper laboratory tests on the entire cache cannot be carried out until it is safely repatriated but initial metallalurogical tests indicate that some of the lead used may date from the first century, based upon the form of corrosion detected. According to Elkington the experts he consulted insisted the effect could not be achieved artificially.

Okay … I’m confused. Is Saeda behind the tests or is Elkington? The piece in the Jewish Chronicle had yet another dating story. There seem to be a series of tests being done and we’re getting incredibly vague details about them. Perhaps a journalist should track down the people supposedly doing these tests?

The Telegraph goes on to end on a cynical note, indulging in praeteritio about book deals and the like … we’ve already mentioned that Elkington’s book has been listed on the web for over a year, but is ‘not available’. If he’s just looking for a publisher now, why was the book listed as being published in May of last year? Could difficulties getting it published then account for the spinning of the yarn now?

UPDATE (the next day):  folks more interested in the ‘codices’ themselves should definitely check out Daniel McClellan’s post analyzing the images and the like. While we thought we stuck the fork in this the other day, he gives it that final twist: Thoughts on the Jordan Lead Codices. In a similar vein is Tom Verenna’s latest ’roundup’ post: New Roundup on Lead Codices and Additional Information. Satis superque, I think.

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7 thoughts on “Lead Codices – Once More into the ‘Reach’

  1. Palms were a Maccabean symbol, & found on M. coinage (perhaps too Bar Kochba?), with messianic overtones. Hence … Palm Sunday (coming up soon), where the crowds greet Jesus w/ palms (specified only in John), yet he rejects this overtly-political and military understandings, and comes humbly.

    So, I’m not surprised at the use of lots of palms for something “messianic.”

    Tx. for an entrancing story.

  2. I want to thank you so much for covering all this nonsense as diligently and responsibly as you have. It makes it much easier to respond to the volume of e-mail I’ve gotten this week about whether these codices are genuine are not. You’ve said everything I wanted to say about the twists and turns here.

  3. I’m still laughing over the Daily Mail’s attempt to describe the location.

    A “cave in the hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee” cannot be the same as “a cave in the village of Saham in Jordan”.

    And “less than 100 miles from Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and around 60 miles from Masada, scene of the last stand and mass suicide” does not triangulate to “within three miles of the Israeli spa and hot springs of Hamat Gader”.

    And “Syria’s Golan Heights” might seem odd to the Israelis, who took the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War of 1967.

    I realize that staying sober is hard for reporters, so I blame no one.

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