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Is the Ivory Pomegranate a Forgery or Authentic?

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A small group of American, French and Israeli scholars met on May 3, 2007, in Jerusalem in an attempt to resolve differences over whether the Ivory Pomegranate Inscription is authentic or a forgery.

The Jerusalem meeting failed to resolve the differences. But the all-day meeting in the museum’s conference room—where the scholars examined the pomegranate inscription under a stereoscopic microscope—highlighted and defined their differences and vividly revealed the way scholars approach questions like this.

The distinguished French epigrapher André Lemaire, who is a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, was the first scholar to see the inscribed pomegranate—in 1979 in a Jerusalem antiquities shop. Reportedly the asking price was $3,000. Lemaire obtained a black-and-white picture of the pomegranate with its inscription, and in 1981 he published a short note about it in a scholarly French journal.1 When I became aware of Lemaire’s article, I obtained a color picture of the pomegranate (apparently it was still in the antiquities shop) and Lemaire wrote a more extensive article that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) in 1984.2 The pomegranate was then smuggled out of Israel and surfaced in an exhibition in Paris. Shortly thereafter, it was offered to the Israel Museum for $600,000. An anonymous gift in nearly this amount was received by the Israel Museum, which negotiated a reduction of $50,000 in the price. Israel’s then leading epigrapher, Professor Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University, went to Switzerland to examine the inscription for authenticity and effectuate the purchase. Avigad was certain the pomegranate inscription was authentic,3 and the purchase was made for $550,000.

When it was brought to Jerusalem, the pomegranate was displayed in a special room of the Israel Museum with a direct beam on the inch-and-a-half object. The day the exhibit opened, the museum stayed open until midnight to accommodate the crowds, and the announcement of the pomegranate’s arrival and display in the museum was the first item on the nightly TV news in Israel.

Four years ago, after two important inscriptions in Israel (the James Ossuary Inscription and the Yehoash Inscription4) had been judged to be forgeries by a committee of the Israel Antiquities Authority, questions were raised about several other inscriptions in museums and private collections, among them the Ivory Pomegranate Inscription. A committee was appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum to re-assess the authenticity of the pomegranate inscription. Their conclusion: The inscription is a forgery.5

An indictment charging five defendants with a criminal conspiracy to forge and knowingly sell forged inscriptions alleges that the Ivory Pomegranate Inscription is a forgery, although it is not among the list of forgeries attributed to individual defendants. The indictment was filed in December 2004, and the trial continues intermittently. Three defendants have been dismissed. Two remain. So far, the evidence has produced no “smoking gun.”

In January 2007 a conference in Jerusalem was convened by the Biblical Archaeology Society, publisher of BAR, to consider a number of allegedly forged inscriptions, including that on the pomegranate. Among those attending the conference were Lemaire and the two epigraphers on the committee that had declared the Ivory Pomegranate Inscription to be a forgery: Shmuel Ahituv, recently retired from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, and Aaron Demsky of BAR-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. By this time, the committee that found the inscription a forgery had published its report in the Israel Exploration Journal, of which Ahituv is editor (the “Re-Examination”).6 Lemaire then also re-examined the inscription on the pomegranate under a stereoscopic microscope. He, however, was confirmed in his previous view that the inscription was authentic and published a rejoinder to the Re-Examination (the “Rejoinder”).7

The oral exchange between the contending parties at the January conference was cordial and collegial. Ahituv and Demsky agreed to take another look at the inscription “with an open mind” in light of Lemaire’s criticisms of the report and his (and Avigad’s) conviction that the inscription is authentic (all agree that the pomegranate itself is authentic and old; the question arises only as to the inscription on it).8

The one person who was critically absent from the January 2007 conference was Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University. Goren was the key person on the committee that declared the pomegranate inscription a forgery. Goren was the chief author of the committee report, the “Re-Examination,” as indicated by the fact that he is listed first among the authors of the report, while the others are listed in alphabetical order. He is also said to be the key person on the IAA committees that had previously declared other inscriptions (the James Ossuary Inscription and the Yehoash Inscription) to be forgeries. He had been invited to the January conference, but had refused even to acknowledge the invitation.

After the cordial exchange during the January 2007 conference, I undertook to arrange a meeting to re-examine the inscription.9 The critical question was whether Goren would agree to attend. In consultation with Ahituv, Demsky and chief archaeology curator Michal Dayagi-Mendels, a meeting at the Israel Museum was scheduled for May 3, 2007. In my subsequent invitation to Goren, I reiterated the conversation with Ahituv and Demsky at the January conference, adding that they “very much wanted you to [attend the May 3 meeting] … We would very much like to have the benefit of your expertise at this session. If there is anyone else whom you would like to attend, please let me know. They are most welcome… This should be a cordial, collegial meeting where we can all share insights.”

Goren replied to me the next day (March 28, 2007). He said that Ahituv, Demsky and Dayagi-Mendels of the Israel Museum had “already discussed in the past the possibility of re-examining the pomegranate under the microscope in light of Prof. Lemair’s [sic] paper…The only thing that I fail to understand is how you fit into all this… As we … have already …decided to do it anyway in the near future, it is clear that we don’t need any coordinators. One more thing that we don’t need is more archaeological pulp fiction…I don’t think that you should be involved in it, nor your journal.”

The same day I replied in as conciliatory manner as I could, explaining that the May 3 meeting grew out of the January conference that I had organized and that “I took the lead in trying to arrange the [May 3] session.” I assured Goren that my only role would be as a facilitator. I concluded by saying that “I would be delighted to work with you in assuring that the proper procedures were followed and in providing a congenial and collegial atmosphere for the discussion.”

Ahituv undertook to negotiate with Goren to assure his attendance. “The participation of Yuval [Goren] is essential from the scientific as was as the public side,” Ahituv wrote me on April 1, 2007.

On April 22, 2007 I wrote a lengthy email to prospective participants describing the arrangements for the meeting and what I understood to be the issues, adding that “This discussion should be primarily, if not exclusively, among André Lemaire, Yuval Goren, Shmuel Ahituv and Aaron Demsky. I will serve as moderator only as needed. No one else will speak unless invited to do so by one of the four.”

Goren responded by email the next day: “We do not need coordinators and we can manage the discussion very well without anyone setting for us the agenda in advance.”

Ahituv lent his support to Goren: “No need to arrange for us the schedule,” he wrote me. “We can manage for ourselves.” He also objected to the attendance of Lemaire’s photographic consultant, Dr. David Darom, recently retired head of scientific photography at Hebrew University. “We do not need the assistance of Dr. Darom. Dr. Darom is not part of the team, nor are you, so your consultant has nothing to do with us. Yuval [Goren] is the expert of the equipment we are going to use.”

Ahituv thus took charge of the meeting. I was in effect ousted. Earlier, when I thought I was organizing the meeting, I had invited Kyle McCarter, an eminent American paleographer from the Johns Hopkins University, to attend the meeting. When Ahituv took charge, he made no objection to McCarter, but he denied my request to invite a couple of leading Israeli paleographers. Ahituv said he did not want too many people in the room. (Apparently paleographers have a reputation for not taking regular baths or showers).

In their recently published report on the May 3 meeting, Ahituv, Demsky and Goren state that “In light of Lemaire’s arguments, [they] decided to investigate the authenticity of the inscription on the pomegranate. Later, André Lemaire and Kyle McCarter (Johns Hopkins University) joined them” [emphasis supplied].10 No mention of how they happened to “join them.” In a footnote, they note that I attended the meeting.

The meeting on May 3 began contentiously. At the opening, Ahituv and Dayagi-Mendels objected to the attendance of Lemaire’s photographic consultant, David Darom. In addition, the museum wanted to insure that the results of the meeting would first be published in a scientific journal, despite the fact that specific agreements in this regard had already been exchanged between the parties. The museum also wanted a signed statement that the results of the meeting would not be “leaked” by any of the attendees (which was agreed to). At one point, I threatened to walk out with the American/French contingent. Finally, a document I drafted incorporating previous email agreements was accepted, which each of us signed. We then proceeded to a microscopic examination of the pomegranate and its inscription.

The remainder of the day was spent in a detailed examination of the inscription on the pomegranate. In contrast to what had transpired earlier, the discussion was friendly and collegial throughout the day. There were differences, indeed, but they were not personal. We all ate lunch together in the museum cafeteria.

Yet the differences persisted. In the end, there was little, if any, need for all the agreements that were reached so contentiously prior to the substantive discussion: There was no resolution to be leaked, and no need to argue about who would make the first announcement. No one would be interested in a meeting that failed to resolve the disputes that gave rise to the meeting. And in the end, who cared whether Darom attended the meeting or not? (He was allowed to stay.) In all, those present at the meeting were Ahituv, Dayagi-Mendels, Darom, Demsky, Goren, Lemaire, McCarter, contributing BAR editor Suzanne Singer and me.

But the discussion was nevertheless valuable and enlightening. Why was it that scholars looking at the same images of the pomegranate in the microscope saw different things?

While a number of issues are involved in the question of the authenticity of the inscription, the day was devoted to three different letters that either proved the inscription to be a forgery or proved it to be authentic—at least that was the assumption of the meeting.

 


 

Notes

1. André Lemaire, “Une inscription paleo-hebraique sur grenade en ivoire,” Revue Biblique, Vol. 88, pp. 236-239.

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

3. Nahman Avigad, “The Inscribed Pomegranate from the ‘House of the Lord,’ ” in Hillel Geva, ed., Ancient Jerusalem Revealed (Jerusalem and Washington: Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), p.128 at p.137.

4. “Summary Report of the Examining Committees of the James Ossuary and the Yehoash Inscription,” BAR, September/October 2003.

5. Ibid.

6. Yuval Goren et al., “A Re-Examination of the Inscribed Ivory Pomegranate from the Israel Museum,” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 55, p.3 (2005).

7. André Lemaire, “A Re-examination of the Inscribed Pomegranate: A Rejoinder,” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 56, p.167 (2006).

8. See “Forgery Conference Report,” www.biblicalarchaeology.org/forgeryverdict.

9. Hershel Shanks, “First Person: Jerusalem Forgery Conference,” BAR, May/June 2007.

10. Introduction by Ahituv, Demksy and Goren in Shmuel Ahituv, Aaron Demsky, Yuval Goren and André Lemaire, “The Inscribed Ivory Pomegranate from the Israel Museum Examined Again,” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol.57, pp.87-95 (2007). Lemaire was not shown this introduction until it appeared in print.

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