Trial begins for archaeologist accused of forging earliest portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion

Trial begins for archaeologist accused of forging earliest portrayal of Jesus' crucifixion

Trial begins for archaeologist accused of forging earliest portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion

Trial begins for archaeologist accused of forging earliest portrayal of Jesus' crucifixion
The crucifixion (not the one accused of being a forgery)

A prominent archaeologist is on trial for supposedly forging what may be the crucifixion’s earliest image. The Basque archaeologist Eliseo Gil is on the court for allegedly defrauding his profession and a museum by faking artefacts that he claimed came from a Roman settlement that he had discovered in the Basque Country in Vitoria in 2006.

The 450 artifacts were written with graffiti, and the first known examples in the Basque, as well as Latin and Roman phrases, were Gil’s words.

Perhaps controversially, they also included a 3rd-century depiction of Christ’s crucifixion — a revelation that wowed the world and earned Gil much praise, as it was assumed this could be the earliest known representation of the crucifixion. But now Gil and two friends in Spain are being trialled to defraud the world and lying about antiquities.

The archaeological community was shocked when the men first reported their findings, and Gil became instantly famous in his field. Gradually, however, some of his colleagues started to look curious about the artifacts mainly because the languages engraved on the shards of brick, bone and glass did not interfere with what the experts understood about the period’s linguistics. Gil said they were from the 3rd century, A.D.

One artifact was said to show the earliest depiction of the Christian crucifixion, but experts said its iconography suggests it was created much later than its supposed date in the third century A.D.

Joaquin Gorrochategui, a professor of Indo-European language at Basque Country University, was one of the experts who did not immediately suspect anything was wrong, he told the Telegraph in an early February interview.

He explained, “At first, I was very surprised. The Basque inscriptions were 600 years older than any others, so that was startling, but I didn’t think they were false.”

Contender for the earliest known depiction of the crucifixion, although this was made as a sort of joke. Second century AD pagan graffiti depicting a someone worshiping a crucified man with a donkey head. The Greek inscription reads “Alexamenos respects God”. It is presumed to be making fun of a Christian soldier.

Doubts began to creep in shortly thereafter, however, Gorrochategui continued. “The Latin was vulgar; I could not believe my eyes,” he stated, pointing out that names were spelled incorrectly, as were other words and phrases. Furthermore, he said, they found modern punctuation — like commas and upper and lower case letters — that did not even exist in writing and language at the time.

Display inside the Vitoria Archaeology Museum

He told associates at the Vitoria Archaeology Museum of his doubts, and ultimately the government launched a commission to investigate the matter. Experts were called in from a wide range of archaeological disciplines, who eventually agreed, in 2008,  that the entire discovery was a complicated, detailed scam.

It isn’t just Gil who faces charges; so does Oscar Escribano, a geologist with whom Gil is said to have perpetrated the hoax, and Reuben Cerdan, a materials analyst who confirmed, all those years ago, that the artifacts were genuine.

As well as ancient languages from the wrong time periods, some artifacts are inscribed with modern punctuation marks and a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters not used until more than 1,000 years later.

If convicted, Gil and Escribano face up to five years in prison, the term argued is fair by the prosecution. Cerdan faces two and a half years.  They also face substantial fines, for what officials declared was extreme damage to the artifacts of the Iruna-Veleia archaeological site.

All three have not wavered in their insistence that they did nothing wrong. In 2015 at a press conference, when asked about the professional unraveling that has occurred since the commission released its report, Gil said, it was “like going through torture.”

But few remain unconvinced about the scam. Recently live science asked archaeologist Ignacio Rodriguez-Temino his opinion on the scandal. He said, “I have no doubt about their falsity,” referring to the artifacts and inscriptions.

The artifacts were inscribed with phrases in Latin from the wrong period, Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and a modern form of the Basque language.

His attitude seems to sum up what most in the field believe, though whether the prosecution will get the stiff prison sentences it seeks is, as of yet, unknown.

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