The James ossuary may not have come to light had it not been for a series of fortunate events. André Lemaire, one of the world’s leading epigraphers (specialists in inscriptions), was in Jerusalem from April until September this year at Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Study. The Institute hosts scholars from abroad and allows them to interact with each other and with their Israeli colleagues on areas of specialized research; Lemaire’s field of study is Hebrew during the Biblical period in the broader context of Northwest Semitic languages.

As on previous stays in Jerusalem, Lemaire learned of important ancient objects either recently found in excavations or new to the antiquities market. Because of his expertise, Lemaire is often asked to examine such “fresh” finds. The Israel Antiquities Authority, for example, asked him if he thought a badly damaged seal from the end of the First Temple period is genuine (he thinks it is).

Sometimes Lemaire is also shown objects owned by antiquities collectors, either recently acquired or long held. During his most recent stay in Jerusalem, Lemaire happened to meet a certain collector by chance; the collector mentioned that he had some objects he wanted Lemaire to see. One of them was the James ossuary.

Lemaire was first shown photos of the ossuary and its inscription. Even on a photograph the inscription was easy to read. “I recognized its significance right away,” Lemaire told BAR in his heavily French-accented English. Lemaire later checked the ossuary firsthand. Based on his knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic and of the shape and stance of Herodian-era letter forms, he concluded that the James inscription was genuine. Not wishing to rely solely on his own epigraphic expertise, however, Lemaire had the ossuary checked by geologists to see whether the inscription showed signs of having been made in modern times. As we report in the sidebar “Epigraphy—and the Lab—Say It’s Genuine,” it didn’t.

The James ossuary passed one other, perhaps even more crucial, test. Beyond the rigors of epigraphic analysis and scientific testing, there was Lemaire’s gut feeling. “When I see an inscription, either I feel at home or I don’t feel at home,” Lemaire told us. “With this inscription, I felt at home.”