While in the light of the most recent events, (the
owner is being questioned by the police -- their
attention was drawn to the case through
accounts of my first report), this Final report seems
redundant; however... a promise is a promise.
Rochelle (wearing her detective hat
Final Report on the James Ossuary
Appended is my Final Report on the James Ossuary Inscription.
The report concentrates solely on the evidence of the writing
system. As the evidence requires extensive discussions of
background material, in order to keep this report within
reasonable limits, people are referred to known experts in
their fields on linguistic determination*, materials**, and
Final Report on the James Ossuary
Writing systems are systems in the precise dictionary meaning
of the word: "A set or assemblage of things connected,
associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex unity;
a whole composed of parts in an orderly arrangement according
to some scheme or plan." The interconnectedness of a writing
system means that when we examine only a script system or a
spelling system or a content system, we are creating boxes,
separating the parts from the whole. Although it is much
easier to examine small pieces, we must remember to put the
pieces back into their appropriate places or we lose three
quarters of the information. <1>
These sub-systems are: a finite symbol-set, prescribed graphic
symbols (script), writing limits, direction of writing, format
. ., size, punctuation, comprehension (white space),
orthographic, shape, and content systems.
The content is important. Content establishes which script,
size, and format system should be used. Content itself is
determined by other factors: the current ruling powers,
whether sacred or secular. In the phonetic-based writing
systems, all the sub-systems had to be correct or the document
was not the voice of authority.
One term on the list of sub-systems may appear odd;
nevertheless, "prescribed" is correct. Scripts are tightly
bound to a culture's identity. Scripts were a people's visual
statement of independence and identification. <2>
This last point cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Language
does not identity a people, script does. When dealing with
inter-ethnic texts, the script identifies a group within the
larger context, not a koine. (Although commonly referred to,
for example, as "bilingual inscriptions," bi-ethnic is a more
Script as Sub-System
Scripts do not simply develop, nor are they merely collections
of various available forms. Only when viewed from a distance
of millennia can scripts be said to develop. Development
implies a continuum; it suggests that one letter form changes
here, another there, until finally a totally new script
Methods develop; scripts do not develop -- they mutate. There
may be an unfinished quality to random shards, but ancient
formal or official inscriptions and tablets display fully
formed graphic symbol sets designed to work within their
respective writing systems. <3>
The mensural base of a writing system is the 'ayin' in Semitic
scripts and the 'o' in Latin and Greek scripts. This is called
the 'o' base. The 'o' base determines the height of the
average graphs in the writing zone and the horizontal spacing
between clusters of graphs, which are referred to as "expressions."
In Semitic writing systems, the spacing between expressions is
one-half ayin; in Latin and Greek systems, the spacing between
expressions is one 'o'.
Within a specific hierarchy, the size, shape, script, and
format are determined by the social status of the author of a
text. The higher the status, the wider the margins, the larger
the size, the more formal the script. The largest documents
are always those issued by the ruling power. <4>
The Cuneiform Wedge:
A modern printed text tells us by its typeface whether its
reading matter is serious or frivolous. Back in antiquity, as
the cuneiform wedge, the starting wedge produced by the
cuneiform wet surface writing technique, was the mark of an
authoritative or official script, it was incorporated into all
Western official or authoritative script designs. The method
for incorporation into the various script designs divides into
two distinct branches.
Designs of Branch 1 incorporate the wedge into the starting
strokes on the individual graphs and imitates very closely the
shape of the wedge-and-thin-line cuneiform graph.
Representatives of this branch include Hebrew Square Letter,
African half-uncial, and the Insular family of fonts.
In designs of Branch 2, the wedge is added as a finishing
stroke. Designs of Branch 2 have two sub-divisions. (1) The
scripts and fonts of sub-division One have thick finishing
strokes. Representatives of this sub-division include the
Aramaic font families and African Rustic Capitals. (2) Scripts
and fonts of sub-division Two have thin finishing strokes with
wedges added. Representatives of this sub-division include
Roman Capitals and Alexandrian-Roman Greek Biblical Uncials.
Today we call the finishing strokes that imitate the cuneiform
wedge in Branch 2 a serif. (The serif is the line across the
bottom, and the little hook on the top right and crossbar of,
for example, `F'). <5>
According to Rhamani (1982) on Jerusalem burial practices, most
ossuaries are from the period between 30/20 BCE-70 CE -- but by
no means all. <6>
Human remains are not disintered or displaced without very
good reasons. Ossuaries appear in quantity when burial space
is at a premium.
Solutions to the burial space problem are quite varied. In
Classical Greece, for example, low status people were buried
in space-saving one-person shaft graves (with a tiny round
marker on the spot with the necessary data). The Keramikon in
Athens has many of these. In Italy, from the Renaissance until
the late 19th-century, after 3 years, unless a family could
afford an ossuary or pay another three years rent, the bones
were dumped in a mass grave site -- usually a convenient
quarry or crevice and filled with dirt layer by layer. In
Athens, ossuaries are still used (metal boxes today); again,
that three-year rent period runs. Even in modern Louisiana,
along the Mississippi water seepage makes it impossible to dig
graves of a reasonable depth; the bodies float to the surface.
Burials are in family mausoleums set in "Cities of the Dead"
and bones are pushed down to make way for the latest arrival.
In Jerusalem of the late first century BCE, the solution to
the space problem was to use caves, usually carved out the
soft rock. Wrapped in shrouds, the bodies were either buried
or left to decay until reduced to skeletons. At this point,
the bones were collected and, if the family could afford it,
placed in ossuaries -- boxes made of the local limestone.
Afterwards, the boxes were stored in the caves, where they
were stacked or stored side-by-side. The name on each box
probably faced outwards where it could be read, for survivors
would have come to visit the cave to say the prayers for the
As ossuaries contravene the normal rules for Jewish burial,
the appearance of so many ossuaries in the period before the
destruction of the temple is strong evidence that the
cemeteries around Jerusalem were extremely short on normal
burial space. (The post-70 reduction in ossuaries follows
naturally enough from the removal of enough people from the
area to reduce the need for bone-boxes.)
It is not a question of an increase in "popularity" that
accounts for the large number of ossuaries (and even empty
unused boxes), but a lack of burial space. This increase also
gives us information about the population density of a given
area. The correlation between the space constraints indicated
by the rise in ossuaries and the density of the population of
a given area is natural.
Means of Identification on Ossuaries
While today, grave markers are carved by professionals this
was not the case in these Jewish ossuary inscriptions. The
apparently wide variations in ossuary inscriptions comes from
a simple fact: these ossuary inscriptions are covenants, vows
to affirm continuing respect for the deceased in spite of
having disintered/disturbed his/her remains. As with any other
vow, the text must be in the hand of the one making the vow.
<8> Thus (as is noted in the literature), a surviving member
of the family painted on, or scratched into, the box the
memorial data. <9> In some cases a professional would carve
over the handwriting exactly as written. (Over-carving is the
standard practice for all professionally carved covenants.
In other words, all those ossuary inscriptions are holographs.
Clearly, in such a mass of individual writing, literacy varied
tremendously from semi-literates who wrote only upon occasion
to school-boys to scholars.
There is a relationship between status and ossuary, but this
does not reflect the wealth or social status of the encasketed
individual(s) (up to three sets of same-family bones can be
buried in one ossuary), but the level of literacy and status
of the survivors. Thus, to determine the relationship between
status and inscription we would need information on the
*survivors* in each case to know who, what, when, how, and
>From the writing on the ossuary inscriptions, some are clearly
written by youngsters and semi-literates who did not have
complete control of graph sizes and could not hold a straight
line. Others are clearly the holographs of literate people.
Size and Shape of Ossuaries
As the ossuaries were stacked or stored right next to each
other, for long term storage and visiting, the size of an
ossuary tends towards an average of around 24 inches in length
by 13-3/4 inches in height by 12 inches in width. The boxes
were rectangular for ease of storage.
The James Ossuary
The Size and Shape of the James Ossuary
The size and shape of the James Ossuary are non-standard. The
box is 20 inches in length, the shape is a trapezoid: 10
inches in width at one end and 12 inches at the other. The
shape is not convenient for either stacking or side-by-side
storage. Its dimensions suggest that the box was intended for
one-person storage only. In shape, the box bears a decided
resemblance to a truncated Egyptian mummy case. The
probability that this is indeed what was meant gains support
when we turn to the inscription on the side of the box.
The Inscription on the James Ossuary
The inscription on the "James" ossuary is anomalous. First it
was written by two different people. Second, the scripts are
from two different social strata. Third, the first script is a
formal inscriptional cursive with added wedges; the second
script is partly a commercial cursive and partly archaic
cursive. Fourth, it has been gone over by two different
carvers of two different levels of competence.
Placement of the Inscription
The inscription is placed to the right hand side of the box,
approximately one hand's span in width from the outside edge
and roughly one third of the height of the box in distance
from the top of the box. The placement is clearly carefully
calculated and the first part of the inscription is balanced
in proportion to the overall size of the box. This careful
balance has been disturbed by the second part of the inscription.
The Two parts of the inscription:
The inscription is in two distinct parts. Below is the
transcription by Ada Yardeni:
(The question mark is on the form that has been stated to be a
'dalet' but is an open question. See below. The second vav is
actually a Yod that has been inexpertly over-carved.)
The inscription has been translated as "Jacob son of Joseph
brother of Joshua."
The two parts are not related; the differences between them
Part one (Jacob son of Joseph) is written in a carefully
executed and expertly spaced *inscriptional* cursive --
including careful angles and added cuneiform wedges on the
bet's, the resh, and the yod.
These added wedges give us information about the family of
Ya'acob ben yosef (but not him). These are not full wedges.
The full wedge is reserved for official and authoritative
documents only. The authoritative and/or official script is
forbidden for use by the common people. Yet, here we find
small wedges included in this formal inscriptional cursive
design. Priests would not use the official square script with
full wedge for an inscription on an ossuary, nor would a
government official. The addition of the wedges indicates a
family with pretensions. <11>
In keeping with the careful placement of the inscription and
the shape of the box, this part of the inscription was very
probably written by the eldest son a second generation,
nouveau riche mercantile family. The shape of the box suggests
that they also are quite likely to have had commercial
connections in both Alexandria and Jerusalem. This would also
accord with the nefesh, or pyramids, found among the tombs in
the Kidron Valley. <12> The wedges also indicate that Jacob
ben Josef lived and died during the age of Herod.
Part two, Brother of Yeshua, could not be more different. The
script is a poorly executed mostly *commercial* cursive
without any sign of wedges. Mostly commercial cursive is
correct; the aleph and het are both archaic forms. In Paleo-
Hebraic the het was "eared." In cursive square script, the het
retained its "ears" until the 2nd century BCE and then
disappeared from standard use. <13> The third questionable
graph is the one referred to as an 'angular dalet'. The shape
of this graph is exactly that of an archaic 6th-4th centuries
BCE Greek cursive upsilon. At no point did a dalet, whether in
cursive Paleo-Hebraic or cursive Square, not have a "cup" at
the top. This graph does not have even the smallest "cup" at
the junction of the two parts of the graph. The graph in
question looks like this:
Whether the graph is an upsilon or a very poorly copied
version of a 'dalet' is irrelevant in the overall examination
of the writing system. What is relevant are the clear and
striking differences in the script and the execution between
the two parts of the inscription. While it is customary to
dismiss such differences as unimportant ("scribes are not
typewriters"), here the differences between the two parts are
The Differences between the Two Parts of the Inscription
In part 1, the script is formal. The left-hand "arm" of the
ayin has an acute angle and the arm meets the lower extension
cleanly at a precise distance from the right hand arm. The
bet's, resh, and yod have the reduced cuneiform wedge, and the
yod's are consistent in size and cannot be confused with the
The person who wrote the first part of the inscription was
necessarily a surviving member of the family. He was fully
literate; he clearly was familiar with the formal square
script (those cuneiform wedges), the writing is internally
consistent, and this part of the inscription is his expertly
written holograph. The ease with which he wrote on stone
further implies a mercantile family; commercial contracts and
real property transactions were often painted on stone and over-
carved. The carver of the ossuary inscription was an expert.
In part 2, the script is informal. The right-hand arm of the
ayin curves and the left-hand arm has been over-written and
widened to move the join from the lower extension at the
right-hand arm to a position that more closely approximates
that on the ayin in the first part. The ayin in the second
part is completely different from the ayin in the first part.
When we compare the two yod graphs in the first part with the
yod's in the second part, we immediately can see that this is
a different person writing. One yod is distorted by a slip on
the part of the carver and has no sign of a wedge. The other
yod is at an angle running from left-to-right in contrast with
yod's in the first part, which are perpendicular. The yod in
the second part does not have a wedge and does not resemble
the yod in Joseph [ YWSP ] as written in part 1 which does
have a wedge. The shin in the second part is wedgeless, does
not belong to this script design, and certainly does not
belong not to the formal design of the first part. In the
script design of the first part, the shin would have a small
wedge on each arm, and both the left-hand and central strokes
of the shin would be curved. The carving was executed by a
competent, but not expert carver.
The person who wrote the second part may have been literate,
but it is doubtful that he was literate in Aramaic or Hebrew
scripts. The script of the second part is a conglomeration of
unrelated graphs from across the centuries and not a coherent
script design. This peculiar diversity suggests that the
writer chose graphs from examples on other ossuaries and
documents stored in a cave or dug out tomb. (Ossuaries in
Greek-Hebrew and Greek-Aramaic have been found. Perhaps the
questionable upsilon/"dalet" is the result of imitating the
inscription on one of these dual language ossuaries.)
Once again, the writing in this part is internally consistent
in its inconsistencies. Part 2 has the characteristics of a
later addition by someone attempting to imitate an unfamiliar
script and write in an unfamiliar language.
Text Security Measures
There is yet another point that we must address. Much as in
writing on lined paper, stone scribes used frames to align and
keep their writing straight. <14> In this case, the frame
would have been held against the right-hand edge of the box.
The carver sometimes marked the frame on the surface and
sometimes left the surrounding surface blank. The frame is
always visibly marked in official or authoritative
inscriptions and frequently appears on other stelae, small
inscriptions, and funerary markers. <15> The frame will always
be used when someone wants to protect the inscribed words from
In accord with the script, shape and carefully balanced
placement of the first part of this inscription, there would
definitely have been a frame. Where is the frame?
The original frame would have been the barest minimum
distance, one-quarter ayin from the text and have appeared
something like this:
The person who wrote the second part could not hold a straight
line; it is also clear that he did not use a frame when a
frame clearly was used on the first part. Nor was he
accustomed to writing on stone. The text would have been
written in ink. Limestone absorbs ink; mistakes cannot be
erased. Although the second carver was not as professional as
the carver of the first part, we cannot blame the carver for
the incongruous mix of graphs from different centuries, nor
their inexpert execution. It becomes increasingly clear what
happened to the frame: it was removed to add the second part
of this inscription.
There are other odd points, such as some question as to to
whether the inscription is incised or excised. While Ada Yardeni's
transcription on the Cover of BAR shows both the rounding and the
highlights of excision; Professeur Lemaire states that it is
incised. This difference of opinion is not really relevant as it
does not change the concrete evidence given by careful examination
of the complete writing system.
If the entire inscription on the ossuary is genuine, then
somebody has to explain why there are two hands; two different
scripts; two different social strata, two different levels of
execution, two different levels of literacy, and two different
carvers. They could also explain where the frame has gone.
The ossuary itself is undoubtedly genuine; the well executed
and formal first part of the inscription is a holographic
original by a literate (and wealthy) survivor of Jacob Ben
Josef sometime during the Herodian period. The second part of
the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later
addition, probably around the 3rd or 4th centuries, and is
questionable to say the least.
I wish to thank Paul Flesher for his private comments on the
dialect of the inscription. Many thanks also to John Lupia,
Steve Mason, and Isidoros Kioleoglou for reading this report
in advance. Any errors that remain are mine.
Rochelle I. S. Altman
1 Altman, R.I.S (in review). Absent Voices: The Story of
Writing Systems in the West. 1
2 Altman, Absent, 11; Goody, Jack. 1987 (1982). The
interface between the written and the oral. Cambridge,
3 - - - . Absent, 23
4 - - - 2003. "The Size of the Law: Document Dimensions
and their significance in the Imperial Administration,"
in Linda Jones Hall, ed., Confrontation in Late
Antiquity: Imperial Presentation and Regional Adaptation.
5 - - -. Absent, 6
6 Rhamani, L. V. 1982, Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary
Customs and Tombs. Biblical Archaeologist. 45, 109
7 Many ossuaries have the name written on the top, which indicates
that these boxes were stored side-by-side, rather than stacked.
8 Berlinerblau, Jacques. 1996 The vow and the "popular
religious groups" of ancient Israel: a philological and
sociological inquiry. Sheffield. Cartledge, Tony W.
1992. Vows in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.
Sheffield. Altman, R. I. 2001. "Report on the Zoilos
Votive Inscription from Tel-Dan." ORION: Abstracts and
9 Rhamani, L. V. 1961. Jewish Rock cut Tombs in Jerusalem.
Atiqot: 3. 117-118
10 The thank you note to the goddess Molqedet written by
Bar Haddad Bar Rechem-Tov Bar Hezion is an over-carved
holograph. For the techniques used in "assembly-line"
votive inscriptions, see Altman, 2001, Zoilos.
11 An amusing example of this type of "status" use of an
official script can be seen in the early 14th-century
Auchinleck Manuscript. The MS is a one-book library; not
a cheap production, but not an expensive one either.
These books were normally placed on book stands and left
open at the center. The book is executed in contemporary
scripts, except for 4 leaves exactly at the center. On
these four leaves is a list of Norman Barons executed in
the official script of 100 years earlier. One wonders whom
the gentleman claimed as ancestor.
12 Hachlili, R. 1981 The Nefesh: The Jericho Column Pyramid,
Palestine Explortion Quarterly. 113, 33-38.
13 A well known fact of paleography is that one older scribe
can throw dating off by years. The Habbakuk Pesher has
examples of the eared het. The Pesher is holographic.
This means that (a) the Pesher is earlier than normally
dated or (b) that the person who wrote the Pesher learned
to write in the 2nd BCE and was an old man at the time he
wrote the Pesher if dated to the 1st BCE.
14 For further information on frames see
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/ioudaios/ under Wed, 30 Oct 2002,
Subject: Ossuary. Author: John Lupia
15 Framing as an anti-Fraud technique is wide-spread. A good
example of a triple frame may be seen on the Uzziah
sepulchural plaque. A simple raised frame can be seen on
the Cippus on the Roman forum. Almost without exception,
Official Imperial inscriptions are framed. The funerary
inscription of Consul Lucius Mummus, the conqueror of
Corinth, dated in 146 BCE does not have an extra frame;
the inscription fills the entire block from side to side and
from top to bottom, hence does not need a frame. Greek funerary
inscriptions generally have a frame. The frame of the Salambo
inscription (Neo-Punic) is formed by the entire writing area
being excised and the inscription itself incised into the
* On the Hebraicized dialect of the inscription, see Paul Flesher's
column in Religion Today, at http://www.uwyo.edu/relstds."
** Courtesy of John Lupia, art historian and expert on the materials
who sums up the physical evidence for fraud..
When I first saw digital photographs of the so-called
James Ossuary I immediately knew the inscription was
fake without giving a paleographic analysis for two
reasons: biovermiculation and patina.
Biovermiculation is limestone erosion and dissolution
caused by bacteria over time in the form of pitting
and etching. The ossuary had plenty except in and
around the area of the inscription. This is not
normal. The patina consisted of the appropriate
minerals but it was reported to have been cleaned off
the inscription. This is impossible since patina
cannot be cleaned off limestone with any solvent or
cleanser since it is essentially baked on glass. It
is possible to forge patina but when it is it cracks
off. This appears to be what happened with ossuary.
With these observations I immediately knew the
inscription could not be authentic regardless of what
any paleographer might say in favor of it since the
physical aspects are prima facia evidence of forgery.
***For textual evidence see Robert Eisenman's article in the
Los Angeles Times of October 30, 2002: "Too Pat."
I wish to thank Paul Flesher for his private comments on the
dialect of the inscription. Many thanks also to John Lupia
and Isidoros Kioleoglou for reading this report in advance.
Dr. R.I.S. Altman, co-coordinator, IOUDAIOS-L email@example.com
и сразу же на Орионе:
A Nov. 5 report in
"Cracks in Saga of Ossuary"
adds a little information.
I hope the IAA or someone gets whatever reliable information about
provenance still gettable. I wonder whether a museum would have packed
it for shipping more safely. How this artifact has been handled is
The article mentions the claim of fraud for part of the inscription by
Rochelle Altman. But her description of the ossuary words--as excised,
raised, not incised letters--is plainly, in my view, mistaken. The
border she asserted disappears. The letter (dalet to Lemaire, Yardeni,
Fitzmyer, et al.) which RA read as an ayin, she later read as an
archaic upsilon [sic!]. Questions remain about the ossuary, but at
least one dead end should be obvious by now.