The Darius Affair: A Case of Mistaken Authenticity—And Overreaction?


Two weeks ago, a fascinating new discovery was announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority (iaa): an ostracon (potsherd inscription) found at Lachish, bearing the name of the Persian king Darius the Great. Darius the Great was a figure of significance to the biblical accounts of Esther and Ezra—and this was the first such inscription bearing the name of this king ever found in Israel. The Aramaic-language pottery fragment, reading “Year 24 of Darius,” was found by visitors to the site late last year, and was released to the public in the weeks before the holiday of Purim—a holiday connected to the Esther account and, to an extent, to this king (who is widely recognized as Esther’s father-in-law, through her marriage to his son Xerxes/Ahasuerus).

Within 48 hours, the story was dead. A press release was issued by the iaa on Friday, March 3 titled: “Important clarification: The Israel Antiquities Authority would like to inform the public that the inscription bearing the name Darius the great is not authentic.

In the weeks since, there has been an onslaught of follow-up articles on the subject, highlighting potential errors in the authentication process and leveling various criticisms. But at the same time, could there be a sense of overreaction to this unfortunate affair?

“Following the publication [of the Darius sherd], the expert who participated in the [Lachish] excavation expedition last August contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority,” the iaa press-release retraction stated. “She is one of the few researchers specializing in ancient Aramaic inscriptions, and admitted demonstrating to a group of students the manner in which sherds were inscribed in ancient times. She then left the sherd on the site, which led to the erroneous identification. She was questioned and said this was done unintentionally and without malice.”

The press release continued:

“The iaa takes full responsibility for the unfortunate event,” Prof. Gideon Avni, the iaa’s chief scientist explained. “The sherd was examined by Dr. Haggai Misgav, a leading researcher on ancient Aramaic script, and Sa’ar Ganor, an archaeologist studying the site of Tell Lachish and its region. However, as it turns out, the find does not bear an ancient inscription. As an institution that strives for the scientific truth, we are committed to correcting the mistake that was made and making it known to the public. In terms of ethical and scientific practices, we see this as a very severe occurrence. Leaving the newly inscribed sherd on the site was careless, and led to the mistake done by the researchers and distorted the scientific truth. Such cases in archaeological research are very few in number.” …

As a result of this unfortunate occurrence, the Israel Antiquities Authority will refresh proper procedures and policies with all foreign expeditions working in the country.

The press release added that the potsherd had indeed been “examined in various laboratories and found to be ancient”—a natural conclusion, however, given that the item was one found and used at the site. Of course, it was simply the inscription applied to the ancient sherd that was modern. As epigraphy expert Prof. Christopher Rollston commented, “an incised inscription on a potsherd … can be among the more difficult [forgeries] to detect.”

It’s a series of incredibly unfortunate events. The right piece of pottery, from exactly the right site (Lachish was an important Persian-period location), with exactly the right script in exactly the right engraving manner, with the right name of a king and correct length of reign relating to the date on the inscription. Small wonder, then, that it fooled the experts, especially since that it had been accomplished by one—one of only a tiny handful of Aramaic experts around the world, and one, at that, who was no longer in Israel (having been part of a visiting expedition team to Lachish). The misplacing of this sherd thus represents an incredibly unfortunate—and from many angles, incredibly improbable—event.

As it did with the initial release of the “discovery,” news quickly broke of the retraction. Non-affiliated experts highlighted potential wrong turns made in the verification process, as well as the risks in authenticating anything such as this that is not found in a controlled scientific excavation.

Indeed, there are important lessons to learn all around. But I also think something could be said for there being somewhat of an overreaction to this affair.

Take, for example, the following progression of articles from one Israeli news source. From the initial article, “Inscription Naming Persian King Darius, Father of King Ahasuerus, Discovered in Southern Israel”; to the follow-up, “Israel Antiquities Authority: ‘Ancient’ Darius Inscription Deemed Inauthentic in Mix-up”; to the follow-up’s follow-up, “The Darius Artifact: How Did We Get From Discovery of the Decade to Disgrace?

Discovery of the decade? Discovery of the month, maybe. (It might have made our top 50 for the decade—just.) But this wasn’t even the first evidence of this Persian king to be discovered—far from it (instead, it was highlighted as the first reference to him found in Israel). Yet the bigger things are, the harder they fall, and so in a sense, retroactively making this discovery out to be far more than it ever was narrates a far more consequential “failure” on the part of the researchers.

The Jerusalem Post’s own follow-up to their follow-up of their original article went even further, boldly titled with the following warning: “Israel Antiquities Authority Must Rein in Enthusiasm Before Its Next Find—Editorial.” “The Israel Antiquities Authority must curb its enthusiasm and double and triple check its archaeological findings before publication,” ran the subhead. Agreed, in principle. But I don’t think the iaa was guilty of over-enthusiastically rushing this discovery out the door. Certainly, some different/additional checks and balances could have been applied. But this and other such sentiments in other articles give the impression that this discovery was hurried out to the public as soon as it was found. Actually, it was about three months before this artifact was revealed to the public. (It was found in December and released in March; some in the field may consider that too fast, but it’s hardly Sonic the Hedgehog.)

The article goes on: “The mistaken publication of the find is on the one hand understandable: The potsherd stemmed back to the right era; the writing was in the right style; and the site is one where findings of this nature and period are to be expected,” the article continues. “On the other hand, it is hard to avoid the impression that the iaa was overly eager to publish a discovery that coincided with Purim. It has become a standard joke among journalists covering the archaeological field that every religious holiday brings a ‘new’ discovery that happens to be fitting for the festival. … Such cases cast doubts on all other dramatic findings—particularly those released for specific festivals.”

Again, though, the find was made months prior—hardly the product of overzealousness to publish it in conjunction with a Jewish holiday. If anything, I’m betting just the opposite—that they sat on it for a little while in order to release it closer to Purim. Is that a sin, though? And a wrong impression can also be taken from this—that artifacts are “suddenly” turned up in conjunction with Jewish holidays. Far from it: Discoveries are being made constantly. Some are naturally turned up in proximity to such occasions—but in several cases, they are held onto until a related Jewish holiday, when they are announced to a public who, of course, will appreciate such meaningful connections. Should that cast doubt on the discoveries themselves, though?

The article concludes: “We are pleased that the iaa took the incident seriously and is intent on preventing a repetition of such an embarrassing mistake. It is not only the credibility of the national antiquities authority that is at stake, but also the credibility of the country itself” (emphasis added).

Really? Israel’s entire national credibility is threatened by the mistaken identification of a piece of pottery such as this?

This turn of events has indeed been deeply unfortunate. There are lessons to be learned all around. But I would argue that, if anything, precisely the opposite of this statement is true; that the openness in which this story was immediately and publicly retracted—at risk of immense embarrassment—speaks to national credibility, to a governmental authority in this case prioritizing truth over saving face.

One can’t imagine such a thing happening in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Or what about Gaza’s own Hamas-led Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities? Just last year, to immensely greater fanfare, they announced the discovery of a goddess statue head by a farmer plowing his field just the day prior (see our article on this subject here). This “artifact” was highlighted at the time by some spectators as being highly dubious, not only in provenance, but also in its unusual, awkward style (without parallel in the ancient world). Not to mention the manifold contradictions in reporting—and its incredibly early dating, somehow, to (conveniently) a thousand years before Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land. “Such discoveries prove that Palestine has civilization and history, and no one can deny or falsify this history …. This is the Palestinian people and their ancient Canaanite civilization,” said Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities director of the barely 24-hours-old discovery.

Nevertheless, caution was thrown to the wind, and the “artifact” became one of the most widely celebrated archaeological “discoveries” in media reporting around the world that year—published unquestioningly by numerous mainstream outlets like cnn and nbc. One wonders if, in the event of this artifact being proved inauthentic, there would be any chance of a public retraction? Would there be any sense of credibility loss for Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, or even the population of the Gaza Strip at large?

Has the Darius affair damaged Israel’s credibility? I don’t think so. The Israel Antiquities Authority publicly owned the mistake right away, and in doing so—certainly, against the backdrop of learning lessons from this incidenthas, if anything, only affirmed a national reputation for honesty and integrity in the pursuit of scientific truth.

I’ll conclude with the rather conciliatory words of Haggai Misgav on a Facebook post (in Hebrew; English translation below). Again, Dr. Misgav, an Aramaic expert, was one of the key researchers involved in this discovery. Amidst the unfolding furore, he wrote the following:

The rise and fall of the Darius sherd

This affair, which had a few points where it could have been stopped, is an excellent opportunity to go back and be reminded that the most important thing in research is the truth. Truth involves taking responsibility, which means learning lessons in the area that was under my responsibility. In my opinion, the credibility of the research comes from researchers who know how to admit that they were wrong, much more than those who never make mistakes. A mistake came out from under my hands, and I’m just glad that it came out exactly on the eve of Parshat Zakur, in which we read the story of King Saul, who lost his kingdom because he didn’t know how to take responsibility and instead blamed others. The first thing I did when I found out about this was to send a message to the poor young researcher (who is very familiar with the Aramaic script of the period), who is tormenting herself now, and to thank her for her educational activity, bringing students closer to the country and its heritage (and she is not herself Israeli), and to thank her for letting us know.

“Therefore love ye truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).