The Bible of Elazığ (5)

Part five

(For the beginning of this story, see the earlier posts at part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

Carbon 14 dating is based on the priniciple that an animal’s tissue contains carbon dioxide from the plants it has eaten. CO2 is radioactive because the carbon arises through an interaction of cosmic rays with atoms in the high Earth atmosphere; it then settles to the surface and is absorbed by plants during the process of photosynthesis. When an animal dies, it stops eating and absorbing CO2, and its radioactivity begins a process of decay. About half of the value is lost approximately every 5,730 years. So measuring the amount of CO2 and its level of radioactivity in a sample permits scientists to date a tissue – providing the animal that absorbed it died within about the past 50,000 years.

Modern dating has to take another factor into account. Until the 1960s, when the practice was banned, a number of nuclear weapon tests were carried out above ground. This nearly doubled the amount of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere, and the tissues of every animal that has died since bear the signature of this event.

* * * * *

I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the Bible during my family’s vacation – maybe the results of the dating would be waiting when we returned. But there was nothing from the Center for Archeometry in the mailbox.

I took a couple of calls from the Turkish family and met once more with the group in Berlin, but had nothing to report. “They said in the best case it would be a few weeks,” I said, and promised to check in as soon as I had the results. The nerves of everyone involved were frazzled, which I could well understand.

Finally, two weeks later, the letter arrived in Berlin. I wanted to tear open the envelope, but peeled open the flap carefully and removed several printed pages. The Center had included a cover letter which didn’t summarize the results. For that I’d have to look at the data, which was included. Instead the letter merely stated that the smaller sample – the one I’d taken from the inner pages – was too small for reliable measurements, so they’d had to use the fragment I’d obtained from the cover.

I opened the report and scanned the data, which consisted of a number of tables; at first I couldn’t make any sense of it. Finally I found a sentence in the text that resolved all of the numbers and figures: “Noted is the clear presence of a radioactive peak that definitively places the date of the material after the 1960s; the best estimate that can be made from the data suggests that it stems from the period between 1996 and 2003.”

In other words, as ancient as it looked to the untrained eye, the Bible was a modern forgery.

* * * * *

I had been thinking about the fragmentary sample during our vacation. What if that bit hadn’t really come from the Bible? The cloth that the old man had spread across the table had been clean, I was fairly sure of that, but from the way they’d handled the book – could something have been transferred to it? Could the fragment that had been lying there when they lifted it, which I carefully packed and took abroad, have come from somewhere besides the cover? Had it gotten stuck to the outside by accident?

Out of concern for preserving an object that was probably a forgery, I’d eliminated any chance of obtaining a definitive answer. This was nothing more than idle speculation, but the possibility would haunt me for years. Another trip to Turkey was plainly out of the question.

Especially after I called the family in Berlin, and after I placed one more call to Abdullah in Turkey, to deliver the dismal news.

“Are you sure?” he asked, at least three times.

There was no question, I told him; the sample that had been tested was modern.

“Okay,” he said, in a tone of voice that very clearly indicated his displeasure.

That was the last I would hear from any of them.

* * * * *

A few years have gone by. From time to time I have opened the files of the photographs of the book, and I have kept my eye on the news for reports of discoveries of any ancient manuscripts in Turkey. A year or so after all of this happened, a friend whom I had told the story sent me a clipping of a report of a Bible that had been found there. It purportedly dated from the year 1000 BCE or so, and was in good condition; its value was estimated in the tens of millions of Euros.

I had a story to tell, but I remained haunted by questions – not only about my carelessness in taking a sample about the book. Some of what had happened didn’t make any sense. If the family had known from the beginning that they were dealing with a forgery, why would they ever have let us come to take samples in the first place? They surely would have known that scientific testing would have exposed the fraud.

Perhaps they didn’t know – maybe someone else had made the Bible and the other documents they’d seen. Maybe they’d acted in good faith, having found the manuscripts in more or less the way they had described. But if so, what forger would have spent the months that were surely necessary to create an object that was a work of art in its own right – complete with a fastidious but completely fabricated, ancient script, possibly telling some sort of story in some ancient language – unless he’d been sure of selling the thing for a profit? Why such a long, laborious effort? Surely 50 pages of material and script would have sufficed?

From what I have learned in the meantime, such objects normally appear on the black market and are initially sold for a meager price to a gullible buyer who is willing to take the risk that they are forgeries. Then they work their way up the food chain of the underground antiquities market, until they reach a price where someone insists on authentication. At that point the game is up – but at least the transactions have introduced layers between the artist and the buyer.

But coming to any satisfying answer requires an assumption that those involved were acting on good faith, and the slipperiness of some of the stories we were told indicates otherwise.

Once in a while, when I’ve told this story to friends, they’ve suggested it would make great material for a novel. But recently there have been too many fictional tales of ancient Biblical manuscripts; I remember being terribly impressed by Irving Wallace’s The Word, when I was in high school, and of course there is the entire loopy (while highly crafted) Dan Brown genre that has passed through today’s culture like an infection.

No, the interesting thing about this story was that it was true. And that there was more to it: somewhere, most likely in Turkey, is or was an artist who is making these objects. But that was a story that would clearly be dangerous to pursue – at this stage in my life, no thanks, not me. Maybe there will come an ambitious young journalist ready to take it on someday.

Not the last of my thoughts have centered on my own involvement in this: did I act responsibly and ethically? I’m not sure. Given that the object turned out to be a forgery, no harm was done; I can’t say how things would have developed if the dating had turned out differently, and assigned a date to the Bible that more closely reflected the family’s claim.

I still believe that if such an artifact ever does appear, and it proves to be authentic, its contents belong to the world. That requires the sort of protection that can only be assured if academics get involved, but it also requires that governments and institutions handle ancient documents in good faith.

If I had to do it over again, I would have insisted on an expert in ancient manuscripts making the trip to Turkey with us. Those I had previously contacted were too skeptical to get involved, which probably should have told me something. I certainly would have planned a few more days time for the photographs, and would have obtained a larger sample that would have provided an unambiguous date for the manuscript.

If, if, if.

* * * * *

I don’t know why now seemed the right time to publish this story. But a few days after the third installment appeared, I received the following message from a biologist in Turkey, which I am reprinting with his permission:

Dear Dr. Hodge,

I am a Turkish biologist from Inonu Univ, Malatya, the neighboring city of Elazig. Same pictures were shown to myself about 4-5 months ago. The guy told me that it is 105 pages old book written on gazelle leather. The pictures were looking as old as the ones you have posted here. There was a non symmetrical cross with dots around more like a four legged sea star. I sent pictures to Sotheby’s where I sold a piece of rug when I was doing my PhD in IIT(Chicago). Their experts found that it is a product of forgery and has no value whatsoever. Later I learned that these pictures are everywhere in the smartphones of spooky people (so I deleted them. wish I did not and have some here for you). The book is mass produced and put under harsh conditions (such as acid bath and exposing to intense radiation) so that its has a wear out look.

Now sipping my çay (turkish hot tea)!, I hope you have not been swindled. Best wishes,

Hikmet Geçkil, PhD

Thank you, Hikmet, for bringing this story to an end after all.

Published by

russhodge

I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

2 thoughts on “The Bible of Elazığ (5)”

  1. Hi Russ,
    David here. Gosh, the end is harsh but the dream still was great and all the investigation. Similarly to science, some studies succeed, some fail! Pitfalls are never far.
    One lesson from this story could be from the point of view of the expert: what possible clues have we missed that could have possibly helped us finding out that this book was a forgery? The way the pages are usually torn (from the pictures i see on the web that show very old manuscripts), the perfect regularity of writing? The fact that the alphabet seems to not exist? The number of different characters observed ? etc, etc.
    OK, i stop with brain-twisting patterns that lead nowhere.

    See you my friend and thanks for all the great material on this website.
    David (Fournier)

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