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Bones of contention
Mar 09, 2007

The profusion of cable specialty channels has been a boon to some of the lesser-known academic careers such as paleontologist, historian and archaeologist. The fact that some of these channels televise programs that are substituting fanciful speculation for fact may be a concern to professionals, but the same professionals should also be comforted that people are discovering these chosen fields of work can be rather fascinating.

There have been some rather troubling telecasts on the specialty channels. For example, Joann Fletcher identified a long-neglected mummy as being that of Nefertiti, the wife of Egyptian heretic King Ankhenaten (Egypt’s 18th Dynasty; his original name was Amenhotep IV which he changed when he adopted the monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten). Nefertiti has been called the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, the result of the discovery of a stunning painted limestone statue of her by the artist Thuthmose (one of the few examples of an ancient Egyptian artist’s name appearing on a work of art).

Fletcher seems to have played upon people’s fascination with Nefertiti, deciding to reveal to the world on the Discovery Channel 2003 program Nefertiti Resurrected that she had run across an obscure reference to an unidentified mummy 

reputed to be the queen’s. The specialist in ancient wigs jumped to the wild conclusion that she had found the real Nefertiti. 

The program was a ratings success for the speciality channel, attracting 5.5-million viewers which placed the two-hour “special” among the channel’s top-10 for viewership.

The problem is that her claim has been dismissed by Egyptologists and archaeologists as simply balderdash.

One Egyptologist said the program should have been called Nefertiti Re-invented. 

Zahl Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, labeled the program “pure fiction.” Hawass regretted his appearance on the Fletcher production, saying she had not told him she believed the mummy was that of Nefertiti. 

Hawass, who approves archaeological investigations in Egypt, has since banned Fletcher from doing any further work in his country. A rather harsh decision and one that raises its own measure of controversy.

Unphased, Fletcher has since released a book on her claim that will probably become a best-seller despite the inadequacies of her proof.

Last Tuesday evening, the religion-

oriented channel Vision telecast the most controversial program to date. As its name implies, the television documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus — originally a Discovery Channel production — claimed that the ossuaries (bone boxes) of Jesus Christ and some of his family members had been discovered.

The program was given an air of 

“believability” because it was produced by famed Canadian film director James Cameron (Titanic) and popular television speciality channel director and personality Simcha Jacobovici. The inclusion of Cameron undoubtedly contributed to the strong production values and the ability to have attracted experts in fields such as 

archaeology, history, DNA and criminal scene investigation (CSI).

The claim to have found the bones of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene, as well as other relatives, was announced to world-wide media attention. The bones were claimed to have been re-discovered after being hidden away for over 20 years in a storehouse of ancient artifacts in Jerusalem.

Specialists agree the bones and tomb are from the first century AD, but there is significant doubt that they are the remains of Jesus and his family.

Jacobovici, whose enthusiasm is infectious, came across the Jesus bones when he was investigating the ossuary that had the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” He still firmly believes this ossuary (it was part of the recent telecast) contained the bones of the James spoken of as the brother of Jesus in the New Testament, although experts have since ruled it a forgery and its owner is now facing criminal charges in Israel. 

In the same vein as Dan Brown’s mega-best-selling book The Da Vinci Code, Jacobovici also raises the possibility that Mary Magdalene and Jesus may have been married. The occurence of the name Mariamene on one of 10 ossuaries from the tomb is the starting point for speculation. Actually, the DNA derived from the bones indicates they were from a female unrelated to the others in the tomb. It takes a great leap of faith to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

The names Jesus, son of Joseph; Maria; Mariamene; Matthew, son of 

Jesus; and Jose, a derivative of Joseph, are found on the ossuaries.

The official report, following the first discovery of the bones in 1980 by archaeologist Amos Kloner, said the tomb was used by three generations of Israelis and was disturbed and vandalized in antiquity. The report also didn’t speculate on the importance of the names on the ossuaries. The consensus at the time was that it was a typical Jewish burial. As such, the ossuaries and bones were accorded fleeting importance and put into storage.

Scholars say the names found on the ossuaries were common for the era. For example, 25 per cent of the women living in Jerusalem in the first century AD were called Miriam. In fact, all the names on the ossuaries were quite common in antiquity.

According to a recent article in Newsweek magazine on the controversy created by the TV program, there exists a letter from this era written by Jesus, addressed to another person named Jesus and witnessed by someone else named Jesus. 

One needs to view such programs as entertainment, while keeping in mind the need for a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Investigate the claims being made on your own using reputable sources of information. And be extremely suspicious of what you read on the Internet since some information posing as fact is dead wrong.