First Person: A New Target

As published in the November/December 2014 Biblical Archaeology Review

hershel-shanks

Regular readers of this column will hardly be surprised to learn that this edition of “First Person” deals with an archaeological controversy. It is also true that I can be critical of any scholar whom I feel is clearly on the wrong side.

But I do not make scholarly judgments. I am not a paleographer. I can make judgments, however, about the reasoning of scholars. When I feel a scholar is making a wrong call based on the scholarly record, I can be harsh—or at least some would say so.

In these circumstances, it would seem that I should be even harsher on a non-scholar who makes a wrong call on the evidence. That is the case here. It is time for a new target for my wrath. This column focuses on an errant call by a non-scholar—namely by the author himself! At this point, it is not quite so clear as I had thought (and argued) that the inscription on the famous ivory pomegranate is authentic.

© Israel Museum, by Nahum Slapak
The Ivory Pomegranate

For years, I have been defending the authenticity of the inscribed ivory pomegranate.a If authentic, it has a claim to being the rarest relic from Solomon’s Temple. It was authenticated by the highly esteemed Israeli scholar, the late Nahman Avigad, and more recently by the prominent Sorbonne paleographer André Lemaire.b The Israel Museum paid $550,000 for it.

True, a committee of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had declared it a forgery. But its reasoning and judgment were badly flawed. (In response to the IAA committee’s conclusion, the museum had removed the pomegranate from public display. It had once had an entire room of its own.)

Believing that the IAA committee’s conclusion was badly flawed, BAR convened a meeting of scholars at the Israel Museum to re-examine the pomegranate under a powerful microscope. The result was a disagreement. But those who regarded the inscription as a forgery failed to address the most powerful argument for its authenticity—the Hebrew letter heh—the engraving of which went into an ancient break; this meant that the letter was there before the ancient break occurred. Lemaire, who had not been asked to be on the IAA committee, but was invited to the Israel Museum meeting, relied especially on this heh. Each side made its case in reports in the Israel Exploration Journal.1 Not only did the “forgery” side completely ignore the heh, but there was something else.

Israeli text-specialist Shmuel Ahituv, who was on the IAA committee that had found the inscription to be a forgery, had intervened in my running of the Israel Museum meeting and decided who would attend the BAR conference. Ahituv refused my request to include Ada Yardeni in the meeting. She was recognized by all as a very highly qualified paleographer. Since the recent death of the revered Joseph Naveh, Yardeni is now recognized as Israel’s most eminent paleographer. Her exclusion from the Israel Museum meeting conference bothered me, but there was nothing I could do about it. It did reinforce my feeling, however, that the pomegranate inscription was authentic.

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I was in Jerusalem recently and had a meeting at the Israel Museum with James Snyder, director of the museum; Haim Gitler, the museum’s chief archaeology curator; and Eran Arie, a senior archaeology curator. This led to a museum decision to allow Ada Yardeni to examine the inscribed ivory pomegranate, now in a museum storeroom.

I am pleased to report that the museum could not have been more cooperative with me or Yardeni. Not only was she given access to the museum computer, but she was also supplied with greatly enlarged photographs of the critical areas of the inscription.

She focused on another Hebrew letter in the inscription, however, a taw (pronounced tav). Its upper stroke stopped short of the old break. As she put it in an email reporting to me:

I could not ignore the fact that the right upper stroke of the letter taw does not reach the old break, called the ‘bulge’ by [the original IAA committee that had declared the inscription a forgery]. I could not think of any convincing explanation [of] this fact rather than that the engraver, for some reason, did not continue the execution of the stroke at this point. I asked myself if it is possible to forge such an inscription, and I have to admit that it seems possible … I’m sorry to disappoint you in that, in view of my examination of the inscription, I cannot confirm its authenticity. I would have been more than happy to do so.

Warmest regards,
Ada Yardeni



I immediately replied to her, with a copy to all concerned parties:

Dear Ada:
Yes, I am disappointed, but the truth is more important than anything. I am immediately sharing your judgment with all interested parties. I would welcome any comments.

You did not mention the heh that goes into the old break. Any comment on this?

All best,
Hershel



She replied:

Dear Hershel,
The heh was not clear enough to me when I looked at it through the microscope.

Best,
Ada



Has the inscribed ivory pomegranate been unmasked as a forgery? Not quite. In Yardeni’s judgment “it seems possible” that it is a forgery.

However, André Lemaire continues to defend the authenticity of the inscription. His email response:

Thanks, Hershel. It is good to know the appreciation of Ada, but apparently she did [not] look at the pomegranate from the right angle to see the incision [of the taw] that actually is not hindered by the bulge (as could be thought because of the optical illusion).

Above all, [she] did not check the strokes of the heh where things are clearer …

Best,
André



As of this writing, that is where things stand. But I can no longer argue that the inscription on this important relic is unquestionably authentic: Ada Yardeni has her doubts. And that is powerful authority.

But André Lemaire is also a powerful authority.

Both are great scholars and wonderful human beings. This is only the beginning of a fascinating discussion. Stay tuned.

 


 

Notes

1. Shmuel Ahituv, Aaron Demsky, Yuval Goren and André Lemaire, “The Inscribed Ivory Pomegranate from the Israel Museum Examined Again,” Israel Exploration Journal 57 (2007), pp. 87–95.

a. See “Fudging with Forgeries,” BAR, November/December 2010; Strata, “Accused BAR Editor Replies,” BAR, May/June 2009; “How an Israeli Forgery Committee Operates,” BAR, March/April 2009; “Is This Inscription Fake? You Decide,” BAR, September/October 2007.

b. André Lemaire, “Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon’s Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem,” BAR, January/February 1984.

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8 Responses

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  1. ira says

    seems you must get the two experts together with the object, the photos and the scientific equipment. lt them debate the optical illusions etc.

  2. Randy says

    As a fairly new subscriber to BAR, I greatly appreciate Hershel Shanks article as it is interesting as usual. More importantly though, I respect individuals who have the integrity to admit they were not 100% correct, or even completely wrong.

  3. Kurt says

    Hebrew ancient script
    The earliest Hebrew inscriptions known are recorded in an ancient script considerably different in form from the square-shaped Hebrew letters of later documents, such as those of the early centuries of the Common Era.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200276298

  4. Karim says

    The temple of Solomon itself is a fake… So why the bother finding authenticity of a pomegranate inscription? There was no temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon for Solomon himself did not exist outside the Old Testament text. The first Jewish temple that could have existed was the one supported by the Persian Empire and most probably during the time of Darius II around 420 BC following the edict issued almost 100 years before by Cyrus the Great….

    Karim El Koussa
    Award Winning Lebanese Author of «Jesus the Phoenician»
    http://youtu.be/7zwA8b_A4qI

  5. Barbara says

    Don’t get distracted, stick to your guns Hershel.

  6. Bram says

    I’m rather baffled by all this. 550.000$ you end up sticking in a storeroom because of the issue it may be a forgery. Best to dedicate a room to it and talk about forgeries, the illegal antiquities trading and the fall-out of buying unprovenanced antiquities. Is it worth spending all this time and money on? Yes I think so, but maybe not for the same reason other scholars do. And what can half a million dollars can do for research. Pay for 5 Phd’s for instance. I admire Hershel’s tenacity but I would like to see more energy devoted to the issue of “buying” antiquities. There will be an endless stream of “forgery” debates again and again of objects being bought on the market and whilst I love a good detective story and I am acutely aware we can’t turn back the clock, let’s buckle up and stop buying unprovenanced stuff.

  7. Ethan says

    Karim,

    As a proud Lebanese, surely you realize that it was the Lebanese/Phoenician King Hiram wbo supplied Solomon with the timbers (cedars of Lebanon) with which Solomon built the temple as well as craftsmen and even gold. Or do you believe Hiram never existed either?

  8. A says

    IAA did not buy this pomegranate. This pomegranate was given to the IAA from Ron Wyatt. Ron Wyatt got this artifact from the Ark of Covenant chamber, which will be revealed soon to the world. The tip of the pomegranate that is broke is not an ancient break, Ron Wyatt broke this tip left it in the chamber of the Ark of Covenant which will fit the pomegranate as proof Ron Wyatt was in the chamber.


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