Old rules die hard. The old rule that no one—not even other interested scholars—can see ancient inscriptions until they are published (regardless of how long that takes) is alive and well in Paris.

We thought that rule was finally abandoned after the worldwide outcry against the secrecy over the Dead Sea Scrolls recovered nearly 40 years earlier. Now we have learned of another case in which inscriptions excavated nearly a century ago remain unavailable even to the world’s leading expert on similar inscriptions.

This case involves more than 250 ostraca—writings on broken pieces of pottery, the ancient equivalent of notepaper—recovered during French excavations between 1906 and 1908 at Elephantine, an island in the Nile near the First Cataract. The ostraca date to about the early fifth century B.C.E. and are written in ancient Aramaic.

At the same site, large quantities of Aramaic papyri were also recovered by local villagers and, later, by German excavations. Almost all of these papyri have been published and have been intensely studied by generations of scholars.1 Not so the ostraca.

They were originally to have been published by the great French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau. When he failed to publish them, they were reassigned to André Dupont-Sommer, who published ten of them,2 including the well-known “Sabbath” ostraca.a When he died, the remainder were reassigned to Prof. Maurice Sznycer of the College de France. He ultimately enlisted his junior colleague Hélène Lozachmeur to prepare them for publication. She has published two of them3 and says she has nearly completed an edition of the remainder.

But until that appears, the world’s leading authority on the Elephantine inscriptions, Bezalel Porten, can’t see them. He tried and was refused.

When I was in Paris recently, in October 1994, I stopped by to see the distinguished French scholar André Caquot at the College de France. Elegant, handsome, cordial and charming, he congratulated me on my role in freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls. On his desk, as he showed me, he keeps our two volumes of photographs of the unpublished scrolls that finally broke the Dead Sea Scroll case. Everyone agreed with me, he said, although many would not say so.

Finally, the subject of the Elephantine ostraca came up. This, he said, was “out of bounds” for him—it was not a matter with which he was connected. It was something in which he was “not interested”—that is, they were not in his bailiwick. He referred me to Dr. Lozachmeur and gave me her phone number.

The next day I called Dr. Lozachmeur who, like Professor Caquot, was charming and cordial. I told her that Caquot had referred me to her. She asked me what he had said and I told her—that it was a matter with which he was not connected. She laughed and laughed. “That’s new,” she said. “Very interesting.” She could barely speak. She suddenly lost her English. She wanted to revert to German or at least French. When she recovered her composure: “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I must tell you now. I’m sorry but. … ”

According to Dr. Lozachmeur, although she is doing the work, the team includes three levels of scholars higher in the hierarchy: Dr. Sznycer, Prof. Caquot, and Jean Leclant, head of the Academy of Inscriptions. Only M. Leclant could give permission. She was aware that Porten (and his colleague Ada Yardeni) wanted very badly to see the ostraca, but they would have to wait until they were published. She hoped that would be in a year or so.

The established rule in Paris is that inscriptions remain unavailable to other scholars until they are published, no matter how long that takes, she said. “You will have to wait, monsieur.”

The rule in France contravenes the rule adopted by the American organization of Bible scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), in the wake of the Dead Sea Scroll scandal. An official statement of the SBL provides that “Those who own or control ancient written materials should allow all scholars to have access to them.”4 The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) has also adopted a statement providing that access to inscriptions be given after “a reasonable time limit.”5

No newspapers will write editorials about the failure to release the Elephantine ostraca, as they did about the Dead Sea Scrolls. All we can do is appeal to the French authorities to make the ostraca available to Professor Porten. We look forward to hearing from them.