No Provenance

It is no secret that VAT4956 has no provenance, this can be seen from the following quote:

The fragment was acquired from antiquities dealers and excavated unscientifically, most likely in Babylon, near the end of the nineteenth century
- Mathieu Ossendrijver (2016), Translating Babylonian Astronomical Diaries and Procedure Texts

VAT 4956 appeared several decades after cuneiform was deciphered in 1857, during the climate described below:

Fake objects and fake translations reappeared with the rediscovery of the ancient script, even before its decipherment. Once the first official excavations began in Iraq in the mid-nineteenth century CE and the cuneiform writing that was found was deciphered, collectors started to take an increasing interest in Mesopotamian antiquities, resulting in a large number of fakes in order to meet the demand for such items. The techniques employed in order to produce fakes improved, and more and more fakes began to be bought – by private collectors and public museums alike. . .
During the nineteenth century, the production of fakes exploded as collecting relics of the past became a general interest. This collecting mania encouraged the forgers to meet the demand for cuneiform artefacts by producing even more forgeries. Large quantities of cuneiform tablets were shipped to Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, genuine and forged ones being mixed together. This increasing interest in antiquities was concomitant (meaning: naturally accompanying or associated) to the decipherment of cuneiform.
- Cécile Michel (2020) - Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History from Antiquity to the Present Day PDF

It is not known where the tablet was excavated or how it was acquired by the antiquities dealer. This alone is enough to dismiss the tablet entirely. There is no way to prove that the tablet is not a fake. Yet, it is accepted by scholars as a genuine artefact. It may well have been buried for centuries, somewhere near Babylon. However, it seems that fake and forgeries were a problem in ancient times too. Consider the following:

There are many attestations of suspected forgeries in the cuneiform sources, which means that these are likely to have existed
- Cécile Michel (2020) - Cuneiform Fakes: A Long History from Antiquity to the Present Day PDF

There is no way to determine if the historical information on the tablet actually happened when the astronomical data was recorded. Notice what is acknowledged on the NASA eclipse website:

The inclusion of an historical event . . . does not imply validation of the historical event nor its connection with an eclipse. Some events may be either apocryphal or fictional, or an eclipse may be incorrectly associated with a particular event
- Fred Espenak - NASA Eclipse web site

Here it is accepted that just because an artefact can be linked to an astronomical event, doesn't mean that any historical event that is linked with it is automatically proven.

The problem of fakes and forgeries still hasn't gone away, read about fakes as recent as 2019

Having no provenance and the existence of an abundance of fakes and forgeries, for all we know it could have been produced in modern times to validate Ptolemy's Canon of Kings. A quick internet search will find a number of fakes and forgeries around the nineteenth century in other scholarly fields (Kensington runestone, Piltdown man, Crystal Skulls). This however, is not how scholars consider cuneiform texts that have no provenance:

The large number of astronomical tablets recovered from Babylon reflect a much greater diversity of date and content than the Assyrian texts. Unfortunately there is no archaeological record for the discovery of these texts; most were in fact bought by the British Museum from Baghdad antique dealers, and even those that were recovered from excavations made on behalf of the Museum by H. Rassam at around the turn of the ... century [1900] were not systematically recorded. Nevertheless, it is clear from other evidence - the fact that other tablets contained in the same museum collections have their provenance expressly mentioned, the character of the personal names which appear in the colophons, and the particular deities mentioned in the introductory invocations (Sach 1948) - that they all originate from either Babylon or the neighbouring city of Borsippa. Furthermore, there is no difference in style between the fifty or so astronomical texts excavated by Rassam at Babylon, and those of uncertain provenance.
- Steele, John Michael (1998), Observations and predictions of eclipse times by astronomers in the pre-telescopic period.

Whilst the above quote is not dealing specifically with VAT 4956, can the argument be made that because it is similar in style to texts that have provenance it must be genuine? A close inspection of the tablet will reveal many unique features. Although it is thought to be a copy made several centuries later when the names of stars and constellations had been "standardised" it still retains its uniqueness. Whether this is due to the copyist not understanding the original text in order to "standardise" it, or simply copying it verbatim, it is impossible to know.

For a fake or forgery to go undetected is has to be plausibly similar to what it is faking, otherwise it would be easily identified.

Focusing on the lack of provenance of the tablet is not an attempt to discredit and dismiss it. It is important to understand the facts. The simple truth is that in a court of Law, an anonymous text, from an unknown source would not be considered evidence. Some courts, however, do accept the testimony of experts and in the case of VAT 4956 experts or scholars accept it as genuine.

The purpose of this site is to consider the available sources of information, both those that support and conflict with the generally accepted dating of VAT 4956. This is important because depending on your bias, you may readily accept VAT 4956 as genuine knowing that it has no provenance, but at the same time reject conflicting sources for the very same reason.

More articles