When an inscription appears on the antiquities market or in a private collection, as in the case of the extraordinary inscription discussed in the accompanying article, the first question an epigrapher (a specialist in ancient inscriptions) must answer is: Is it genuine or a fake?

To establish authenticity, we start with the object itself and then the inscription on it. Do they together and separately fit what we know from excavations and from other inscriptions?

Also, after more than 30 years of working with Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramaic inscriptions, one develops a “feel,” a first reaction when inspecting a new inscription. Does it fit what we already know from many other inscriptions or is it problematic?

This first feeling is important but of course needs to be checked by a detailed examination of the object and of the inscription, both with a magnifying glass (with a magnifying power of at least 10) and, if possible, with a binocular microscope (with a 50 to 100 magnifying power). Does the engraving have any signs of modern edges? Is the patina, the thin covering on the surface caused by age, firmly attached?

The inscription itself must also be studied in detail. Sometimes, although not with the James ossuary, it is difficult to read, especially if it is a graffito or a cursive inscription with partly worn-off ink. Details in the shape and stance of the letters are exceptionally important. A mixture of letter shapes from different periods or from different scribal traditions is a dead giveaway that an inscription is a fake. The inscription must also be studied from the viewpoint of language and the historical context; the content must cohere with the style of the inscription. A purported eighth-century B.C.E. ostracon (an inscribed potsherd), for example, cannot be written with the Herodian script of the first century C.E. Finally, all similar inscriptions already published must be checked because forgers are often tempted to copy from genuine, published inscriptions.

All this has been done with the James ossuary inscription, and I am pleased to report that in my judgment it is genuinely ancient and not a fake.

However, with such an important inscription, caution requires that it be checked in a laboratory.

The inscription and the ossuary were examined in the laboratory of the Geological Survey of Israel. Both were studied with a binocular microscope to identify the stone and to observe the patina. Six samples of the chalk (soft limestone), six samples of the patina and two samples of the attached soil were studied with a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) equipped with EDS (Electron Dispersive Spectroscopy).

The scientists concluded: “[T]he patina does not contain any modern elements (such as modern pigments) and it adheres firmly to the stone. No signs of the use of a modern tool or instrument was [sic] found. No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.”