Sunday, March 04, 2007

Discovery Does It Again

I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book. ~Groucho Marx

This month's issue of Archaeology Magazine has an article by Roger Atwood talking about how Israeli antiquities officials are cracking down on archaeologists who do tons of digging and very little publishing. It seems that the Israelis are getting tired of people coming up with finds, announcing them to the press, and then going back for more without doing any scholarly work that might be subject to peer review. As a result, some people are not getting their permits renewed for more digging.

I thought perhaps this was the case with the current brouhaha about James Cameron's claim to have discovered the tomb of Jesus. But, it turns out that Amos Kloner, who worked on the tomb after it was discovered in 1980, did publish his results, albeit sixteen years later. At any rate, the tomb was hardly a secret, and the names of its occupants had been cataloged.

Maybe the Israeli officials are being hard on those who aren't publishing, because it seems that some people are willing to simply ignore what has been done and come up with claims of their own.

James Cameron is a film director (or producer or whatever; his big claim to fame is Titanic). He now fancies himself to be a biblical archaeologist. He claims that, based on a statistical study, the fact that ossuaries bearing the names Jesus, Joseph, Matthew, and two versions of Mary means that the tomb contained the bodies of Jesus, Mary Magdalen, and Jesus' son, along with probably a cousin or two.

Okay, I made up the bit about cousins, but the whole thing is ridiculous.

Strangely, this earth-shaking discovery wasn't announced until a week or two ago, conveniently coinciding with advertising for a special on the Discovery Channel. Since such documentaries can take months to prepare this seemed odd at best. It would be cynical to suggest that the reason for delaying the announcement might have been to avoid giving sufficient time for real experts to comment.

At any rate, it didn't work. Criticism is coming thick and fast (see here and here for instance), and it seems well deserved. There is really nothing to suggest that the Yehoshua and Miriamne buried in the tomb are in fact the biblical Jesus and Mary Magdalen beyond a statistical study which is itself being questioned, In fact, at least one scholar doesn't even agree that the inscription is “Yehoshua”; according to Stephan Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, thinks it says “Hanun or something.”

I don't know what Mr. Cameron's agenda is exactly. Is he trying to say Jesus didn't ascend into heaven? Is he trying to stump up support for the Jesus-married-Mary Holy Grail crowd? Or is he just an attention-seeking celebrity who happens to be an anti-religionist?

What does upset me is that once again we have a program on a network supposedly geared toward delivering decent science information putting forth drivel disguised as scholarship. I won't watch it; I made this mistake of watching their poor coverage of Otto Schaden's discovery of KV-63. But many people will, and they won't read the stories questioning the conclusions drawn.

Some time ago, I watched the one and only episode of Naked Archaeologist on History International,that I've seen. As opposed to Mr. Cameron, this character tries to validate everything in the Bible. During the episode, he was talking to someone about the James ossuary, which purported to have contained the bones of “James, brother of Jesus.” Basically, the discussion was that the box was genuine, despite the fact that it's “discoverer” was arrested for creating fake antiquities and that the box itself had been determined to be a forgery. And this had happened in 2003.

But, I still find people who think the James ossuary is real, just as there are those who think that the tablet mentioning Solomon's Temple was real, despite having been exposed as a fake at about the same time. People remember the sensational announcement, but they don't seem to hear about the prosaic explanation afterwards.

That's why programs like this are simply a bad thing. People will not research further to learn if any of the claims make sense. Many will accept it because, well, if they say it's true on TV, it must be so. By now, we should all realize that, when it comes to television productions, especially those involving claims by those outside their field of expertise, we should be extremely wary.

It's not that Discovery or any other non-fiction channel shouldn't air such programs, but they should not be slanted toward supporting outlandish claims as fact. It's not that they don't produce some good programming; they do. But that makes the out-there stuff, like legitimizing Nostradamus and the like, all the more disturbing.

There is so much drivel in the world; we don't need any more.

No comments: