Forgeries, Inks, and Writing Surfaces

When I was writing God’s Library, I was constantly confronted with how little I knew about several domains of knowledge that are important for the study of ancient manuscripts. One of these areas is the more technical chemical make-up of writing surfaces and inks.

This branch of manuscript studies has come into the news in the last few years in relation to cases of forgery, such as the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment and the fake Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible and other collections. One aspect of the media coverage of these episodes that has been troubling (to others and to me) is the rhetoric of “science” having detected the forgeries, when in fact a combination of various skills and bodies of knowledge contributed to the detection of the forgeries.

Over the last week, I went back through the Final Report (hereafter “the Report“) on the Museum of the Bible “Dead Sea Scrolls” produced by Art Fraud Insights. I wanted to think more about Emanuel Tov’s objections to the Report, briefly summarized in the National Geographic article that announced the findings:

“I will not say that there are no unauthentic fragments among the MOB fragments, but in my view, their inauthenticity as a whole has still not been proven beyond doubt. This doubt is due to the fact that similar testing has not been done on undisputed Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts in order to provide a baseline for comparison, including the fragments from the Judean Desert sites that are later than Qumran. The report expects us to conclude that abnormalities abound without demonstrating what is normal.”

I still do not agree with that (triple-negative!) first sentence. I have been convinced that these pieces are forgeries, but it is not because of the “testing” provided in the Report (the chemical analyses and so forth). Rather, again, it is the combination of several factors, starting most crucially with the lack of secure archaeological provenance. Beyond that, it is the kinds of arguments that Kipp Davis, Michael Langlois, and others have put forward about the irregularities in the script, suspicious correspondences with modern printed editions, the ink being inscribed on top of sediments on the writing surface, the ink falling into damaged surfaces or over the torn edges of fragments, etc. That is to say, it is not so much the chemical make-up of the ink or the accretions on the writing surfaces as it is the cumulative arguments about scribal activity and the unprovenanced nature of the fragments that makes the case for forgery. Nevertheless, there is an important point in the last sentence of Prof. Tov’s statement: We should have a better idea of “what is normal” when it comes to the materials analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The authors of the Report seem to have been relatively cautious when making comparisons between the MOTB fragments and the main corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls (“consistent…with other studied DSS fragments,” p. 110; “have been identified in a study of a Qumran scroll,” p. 122, etc., my italics). That is to say, they have not made broad generalizations but instead referred to specific studies. The studies cited in the Report vary in terms of their sample size.

For the skins themselves, there is a foundational study that is based on a reasonably broad set of evidence:

  • J.B. Poole and R. Reed, “The Preparation of Leather and Parchment by the Dead Sea Scrolls Community,” Technology and Culture 3 (1962), 1-26

I have not found a statement of exactly how many samples the authors used in their study (at one point, however, they mention “forty scroll and leather fragments from Cave 4”). Reed had been given at least 51 small pieces of Dead Sea Scrolls skins that were thought to be uninscribed (just a few days ago Joan Taylor has reported her team’s discovery that some of the fragments were in fact not blank but contained legible text). There are perhaps about 900 different Scrolls represented among the surviving Dead Sea Scrolls fragments (though some of these are papyrus), so the Reed fragments are a small but not insignificant group. Reed’s collection of fragments has also served as a partial basis for several other subsequent studies:

  • Ira Rabin, “Archaeometry of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Dead Sea Discoveries 20 (2013), 124-142 (this study also included the Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book)
  • Marina Bicchieri, Armida Sodo, Ira Rabin, Anka Kohl, and Giovanna Piantanida, “New Results in Dead Sea Scrolls Non-destructive Characterisation: Evidence of Different Parchment Manufacture in the Fragments from Reed Collection,” Journal of Cultural Heritage 32 (2018), 22-29
  • Ioanna Mantouvalou, Timo Wolff, Oliver Hahn, Ira Rabin, Lars Lühl, Marcel Pagels, Wolfgang Malzer, and Birgit Kanngiesser, “3D Micro-XRF for Cultural Heritage Objects: New Analysis Strategies for the Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Analytical Chemistry 83, 16 (2011), 6308-6315.
  • Timo Wolff, Ira Rabin, Ioanna Mantouvalou, Birgit Kanngießer, Wolfgang Malzer, Emanuel Kindzorra, and Oliver Hahn, “Provenance Studies on Dead Sea Scrolls Parchment by Means of Quantitative Micro-XRF,” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 402 (2012), 1493-1503 (this study also included materials from the Shrine of the Book)

When it comes to other specific aspects of the skins and the ink of the Scrolls, however, it seems like we have a much more limited basis for comparison. These are the studies of non-disputed Dead Sea Scrolls cited in the Report (I have added the sample sizes for each study in bold):

  • Michele Derrick, “Evaluation of the State of Degradation of Dead Sea Scroll Samples Using Ft-Ir- Spectroscopy,” Book and Paper Group Annual 10 (1991), 49-65 (9 samples)
  • Yoram Nir-El and Magen Broshi, “The Black Ink of the Qumran Scrolls,” Dead Sea Discoveries 3 (1996), 157- 67 (11 samples)
  • Yoram Nir-El and Magen Broshi, “The Red Ink of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Archaeometry 38 (1996), 97-102 (4 samples; there are only 4 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments with red ink)
  • Ira Rabin, Oliver Hahn, Timo Wolff, Emanuel Kindzorra, Admir Masic, Ulrich Schade, and Gisela Weinberg, “Characterization Of The Writing Media Of The Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Holistic Qumran: Trans-disciplinary Research of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. Jan Gunneweg, Annemie Adriaens, and Joris Dik; Leiden: Brill, 2010), 123-134 (1 sample, plus samples of modern materials)
  • Harry Sobel and Henry Ajie, “Modification in Amino Acids of Dead Sea Scroll Parchments,” Free Radical Biology and Medicine 13 (1992), 701-702 (apparently 1 sample, cut into 3 pieces)
  • Arie Wallert, “Deliquescence and Recrystallization of Salts in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Archaeological Conservation and its Consequences (ed. A. Roy and P. Smith; London: International Institute for Conservation, 1996), 198-201 (not available to me for consultation)

Clearly, we could have a larger basis of evidence for studies of writing surfaces and inks, as it seems the holdings of Dead Dead Scrolls by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) appear to be a largely untapped resource in this regard. I asked Ira Rabin of the University of Hamburg about the prospects for such a broad study. According to her:

“It is crucial to obtain an overview of the composition of the writing surfaces and the inks of the majority of the material found in the Judean desert. I hope that one day the IAA will allow it.  Admittedly, it would be a laborious and time consuming undertaking because it requires specific high-resolution equipment, expertise to run it, and a lot of patience. On the other hand, the information we would gain is of such tremendous historical importance that recognition of the forgeries would be a mere by-product of such knowledge.”

It would be ideal to have a database containing materials analyses not only for the Dead Sea Scrolls but for all ancient manuscripts. Several non-destructive technologies are already being used by different projects. At the University of Hamburg, there is “Understanding Written Artifacts” cluster (especially the project History of Writing: Black Inks and Writing Surfaces). The project has already built up a good deal of knowledge about materials used in the production of Jewish manuscripts:

  • Ira Rabin, “Building a Bridge from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Mediaeval Hebrew Manuscripts,” in Jewish Manuscript Cultures. New Perspectives (ed. I. Wandrey; Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), 309-322.
  • Roman Schuetz, Janille M. Maragh, James C. Weaver, Ira Rabin, Admir Masic, “The Temple Scroll: Reconstructing an Ancient Manufacturing Practice,” Science Advances 5 (2019): eaaw7494

Another project, PAThs (Tracking Papyrus and Parchment Paths: An Archaeological Atlas of Coptic Literature), based at Sapienza University of Rome contains a component of technical ink research on Coptic manuscripts. Some of their results were published earlier this year:

  • Tea Ghigo, Ira Rabin, Paola Buzi, “Black Egyptian Inks in Late Antiquity: New Insights on their Manufacture and Use,” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2020) 12:70

The organized accumulation of this kind of data is a very welcome development for all of us who work on ancient manuscripts. Of course, as forgers grow in sophistication, a database like this could become an asset for producers of forgeries, a kind of guide book for making more convincing fakes. But this is the nature of the symbiotic relationship between forgers and scholars: As forgers produce more advanced products, scholars must respond with even more exacting examinations of unprovenanced pieces (if they wish to use unprovenanced materials at all, a question that is looming on the horizon for all students of ancient manuscripts).

Fragment of 4Q174; image source: Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library
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12 Responses to Forgeries, Inks, and Writing Surfaces

  1. Greg Matthews says:

    Your degrees may all be in the liberal arts but what you use is scientific analysis. Science is analysis through observation and experiment. Everything you have described is observation and experiment. Experiment doesn’t have to be chemicals sitting in test tubes or engineers powering up dynamos. It can be merely a set of procedures or observations one uses to come to a conclusion about a hypothesis. When you make a determination as to whether or not a fragment is genuine or not, whether it be by testing inks and media or from comparing handwriting, you use science to come to your conclusion.

    • Thanks, Greg. Yes, in the broader sense that you lay out, “science” is indeed an appropriate term. What I am talking about in this piece might better be termed “SCIENCE!!” (as in synonymous with “high tech”). So, for instance, this blurb from the Washington Post: “investigators used a variety of high-tech tools and techniques to uncover the fabrications.”

      • Greg Matthews says:

        Yes I agree with you in that regard. High tech tools can be fooled if the forger uses media and inks made from the time period, but you guys can see things the high tech tools can’t like inappropriately formed letters for the time period, inks written over salt on papyrus (like was shown in the PBS show late last year on the DSS the MotB has) etc.

    • Michael T says:

      Indeed it’s just a bizarre accident that in English ‘science’ was contracted to mean ‘natural science’ – the English expression properly means something quite different and as knowledge of Latin will suggest. Classical music reviews in America referred to the ‘scientific’ merits of new compositions before the first World War. There has been no revelant alteration in the complex of available disciplines since that period, only in the going use of the word. Here it is above all the intervention of the Cold War that seems to be decisive. That ‘Papyrologie’ is science (‘Wissenschaft’) even apart from uses of ‘naturwissenschaftliche’ methods like those described above is taken for granted on e.g. the de.wikipedia page

  2. Timothy Joseph says:

    Dr. N.,
    First, thanks for this article. It certainly seems like the development of a database, as suggested by Dr. Rabin would make authentication much more systematic. Of course, as your article noted, forgeries will still slip in! Two final thoughts, the propensity of authenticators to continue to defend their decisions even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary seems a bit immature. The use of unprovenanced documents, certainly increases the chances that a forgery will slip in.

  3. Herschel Hepler says:

    Thanks, Dr. Nongbri, for this great outline of the various fields of research (provenance, script irregularities, and science/conservation) needed to investigate mss and potential ms forgeries. Indeed, all three fields contribute necessary information. It seems the sequence of research and the way it progressed, beginning with provenance/paleography concerns and concluding with scientific investigations, caused the media to see “science” in the climactic and definitive role. As you say here, the importance of all the roles should not be forgotten.
    Re the DSS and specious provenance, what provenance details do you believe (in hindsight) should’ve been red flags for prospective buyers? Setting aside the ethics of private collectors owning DSS mss at all, how would a buyer (circa 2002-2014) critique provenance if they’re buying directly from a member of the Kando family? Museums and collectors regularly receive donations and purchase items from the descendants of famous collectors. I see several approaches, but how do you navigate this nuance?
    Finally, an aside. I suggest we tighten our language a bit when critiquing provenance. “Provenance” (ownership history) and “provenience” (archaeological find-spot) are being confused and diluting meaning. As I see it, the conflation is producing odd words across the field like “unprovenanced”, and it is becoming normalized. Many thousands of DSS fragments are “unprovenienced” but suggest that none are “unprovenanced”. Weak provenance; questionable provenance; incomplete provenance? Yes. But I suggest we discard “unprovenanced”. Thanks again for another great post. -Herschel

    • Thanks for these points, Herschel. You raise several questions. I can’t answer them all here in the comments. I would say that the key thing for those who want to collect ancient artifacts legally is thorough, _verifiable_ documentation of the history of the artifact in question. If the full history of an artifact can’t be documented and verified, a collector is always in danger that the artifact that they have purchased could have been stolen or illegally removed from the country of origin (or it could be fake). Statements from sellers are not sufficient. Take the recent case of Andrew Stimer and Hope Partners International. Mr. Stimer bought some papyri from a seller who said they were “part of a collection of texts that had been in the Pruitt family since the 1950s.” He couldn’t verify that, but bought them anyway, and it turned out that some of the pieces were stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri (full story here: ). With regard to the purchases from William Kando, I have to admit I wasn’t paying very close attention when these items were being bought. I was only vaguely aware of some of the “post-2002 fragments” as they appeared through Jim Davila’s PaleoJudaica blog. Trying to imagine what to look for back then (and trying not to use the benefit of hindsight!), I suppose I would wonder at the relatively large number of fragments becoming available so suddenly after the long period of none being on the market. And I might have been wary of the fact that even from the early days in the 1950s, fake fragments of different kinds were known to be circulating back then (but I think the “post-2002 fragments” have been produced in the more recent past).

  4. Matthew Hamilton says:

    “I would say that the key thing for those who want to collect ancient artifacts legally is thorough, _verifiable_ documentation of the history of the artifact in question. If the full history of an artifact can’t be documented and verified, a collector is always in danger that the artifact that they have purchased could have been stolen or illegally removed from the country of origin (or it could be fake).”.

    Consider two hypotheticals:
    Hypothetical 1: Anybody who can make a half decent DSS forgery can just as easily find writing paper from the 1950s, an old bottle of ink, a nib pen, an old letter by their grandfather (as sample writing to ensure correct handwriting style) and then write an account in the name of their grandfather of the purchase of the frg. while on a tour in Jerusalem.
    Is such a document sufficient “verifiable” documentation that:
    1. There is a chain of ownership of Bedouin seller in 1950s → grandfather → grandchild in 2020
    2. Frg. was in private ownership before 1970
    3. Frg. was out of Israel before 1978
    Unless the potential buyer in 2020 was able to research the “grandfather” to determine they were never in Jerusalem in the 1950s then it would be near impossible to disprove the provenance document which then becomes evidence that the DSS frg. is authentic.

    Hypothetical 2: Grandfather is in Jerusalem in the 1950s and buys from a Bedouin what is claimed to be a genuine DSS frg. – but it is a fake. “Grandfather” writes an account of their purchase of the frg. that their grandchild is now selling.
    That written account is “verifiable” documentation that:
    1. There is a chain of ownership of Bedouin seller in 1950s → grandfather → grandchild in 2020
    2. Frg. was in private ownership before 1970
    3. Frg. was out of Israel before 1978
    That written account becomes evidence that the DSS frg. is authentic

    The hypotheticals I would argue show that “verifiable” documentation is the least reliable means to determine if a DSS frg. is genuine, legally owned, and legally exported.

    • Hi Matthew, Thanks for your comments. You’re of course right that modern documents can be faked just as easily (more easily) than ancient documents, as the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment recently reminded us, which is why I emphasized the word “verifiable.” But I think I must be misunderstanding your hypothetical situations. In the first hypothetical, the documentation is not verifiable (unless I’m missing something, the scenario you present is basically like that of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment: An owner has a some private, unverifiable texts mentioning some names and dates). In the second hypothetical, the question seems to be the “authenticity” rather than legality. When I say “verifiable,” I’m thinking of a chain of ownership that one can check up on, something like the Oxyrhynchus “Distribution” papyri that have gone up for sale in recent years.

      • Matthew Hamilton says:

        Hello Brent, how high is the bar for “verifiable”? Isn’t there a risk that if set too high then authentic items – DSS frgs as well as other items such as the “Willoughby Papyrus” – might be rejected from being acquired by public collections and not published by scholars?

        To demonstrate this, a third hypothetical
        Grandfather is in Jerusalem in the 1950s and buys from a Bedouin a genuine DSS frg. Grandfather writes an account of their purchase of the frg. that their grandchild is now selling.
        That written account is documentation that:
        1. There is a chain of ownership of Bedouin seller in 1950s → grandfather → grandchild in 2020
        2. Frg. was in private ownership before 1970
        3. Frg. was out of Israel before 1978

        In all three hypotheticals there is similar private documentation for chain of ownership – one fake and two genuine – that goes back to the 1950s. The documentation might be no better than the handwritten note associated with the Willoughby Papyrus. To decide not to purchase or publish any of the frgs. due to lack of documentation – that passes whatever the height of the bar set for “verification” – would be to reject purchase and publication of a genuine DSS frg.

        Verifiable documentation should be the icing on the cake, nice to have but not the primary basis to determine if a frg. is authentic or a fake.

      • I think the bar for “verifiable” needs to be set pretty high. And yes, you’re again right that this could mean that some actual ancient manuscripts remain unpurchased and/or unstudied. But this seems to me better than an alternative scenario in which fakes make it into the dataset. The Willoughby papyrus does present an interesting set of issues. I would say that the presence of nitrate negatives of the papyrus at the University of Chicago (that is, not in the possession of the current owner) are especially helpful in establishing its presence in the Willoughby collection earlier in the 20th century (before 1970). As for its subsequent history, we must trust that the editor of the papyrus verified that the anonymous owner is actually a descendant of Willoughby. As far as I can tell, we don’t know the circumstances of how the papyrus left Egypt and so whether the papyrus exited Egypt legally (that is, whether its export violated relevant local Egyptian laws) is a mystery. But for the purposes of publication in JBL, that doesn’t really matter.

  5. I don’t know whether these add anything not covered in other studies:
    William S. Ginell, “Report on Dead Sea Scroll Studies” (Getty Conservation Institute, 1993)
    And possibly similar:
    William S Ginell; Michael R Schilling, “The effects of relative humidity changes on dead sea scrolls parchment samples,” ICOM Committee for Conservation: 10th Triennial Meeting, Washington, DC, 1993, Vol. 1, p. 50-56.

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