First Person: A Scepter from the Temple?

As published in the May/June 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review

hershel-shanksIn the previous BAR, we discussed at some length whether the inscribed ivory pomegranate was authentic, and we concluded that it was.a We will not repeat that here. This article will be confined to the reasons we are confident that it is authentic.

But first a note on authenticity. To be precise, we should say we are confident it is not a forgery—for no inscription can ever be proven to be authentic. Or to put it slightly differently, an inscription can never be proven to be authentic. There is always some as-yet unknown test that would unmask the forger. Even an object excavated in a professional excavation can be a forgery; some worker, for example, may have salted the forgery in an excavation. Or it is even possible that the archaeologist who heads the excavation is a forger who planted the forged object in an excavation square to gain fame.


The famous inscribed ivory pomegranate, whose authenticity has been questioned, may have been the head of a scepter from Solomon’s Temple. Photo: Collection Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Photo ©Israel Museum, By Nahum Slapak.

But let’s be reasonable. There is always a technical possibility that an excavated inscription is a forgery. But that’s highly, highly, highly unlikely. So we will speak loosely—and when an object is shown beyond a reasonable doubt not to be a forgery—we will say that it is authentic even though there is this remote chance that it is a forgery.

The first reason I believe the inscribed ivory pomegranate is authentic is that experts tells me so. André Lemaire, Ada Yardeni, Robert Deutsch—internationally recognized paleographers—tell me so. Few, if any, of our readers are equipped to make an independent judgment on this. So we must rely on experts. It is relevant that no paleographer (ancient writing expert) has come out and declared the inscription to be a forgery.
Interestingly enough, the two experts in reading scripts (but not in detecting forgeries)—Shmuel Ahituv and Aaron Demsky—have declined to return to the Israel Museum to re-examine the pomegranate inscription after Ada Yardeni, André Lemaire and Robert Deutsch all have agreed that the inscription is authentic.

Although few of us can make an independent judgment, we can attempt to follow the experts’ reasoning.

The inscription sits on the shoulder of the pomegranate ball (or grenade, as scholars call it). The inscription is only partially preserved, however, because about a third of the ball of the pomegranate has been broken off—and, of course, with it, the part of the inscription sitting on the shoulder of this part of the pomegranate ball. Actually, there are three breaks—two modern and one ancient—that have been chipped off the pomegranate ball. As a result of these breaks, several letters of the inscription are not there. And three letters of the inscription are only partially there. The original inscription, as partially reconstructed, reads as follows:

lby[t yhw]h qdsû khnm
“Belonging to the Tem[ple of Yahwe]h, holy to the priests.”

Here is another drawing showing the letters in a circle around a restored shoulder:


The ivory pomegranate’s inscription, as partially reconstructed, reads as follows: lby[t yhw]h qdsû khnm, or “Belonging to the Tem[ple of Yahwe]h, holy to the priests.” The paleo-Hebrew letters yod (blue), taw (yellow) and heh (red) have been reconstructed from the broken portion of the pomegranate by paleographer André Lemaire and others. Photo of ivory pomegranate: Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

As you can see, three letters are entirely missing, and three letters are partially missing (and partially preserved). One of these letters (no. 3—yod) goes into a modern break, so it is irrelevant (this proves only that the letter was engraved before the modern break, not that it was ancient). That leaves two letters that go into the old break—or do they?

In our free eBook Real or Fake? you will learn whether several famous archaeological objects are actually fakes, how can they be tested and whether they should even be studied by scholars. BAR editor Hershel Shanks offers a detailed report on an important conference that convened in Jerusalem to assess whether certain famous antiquities are genuine or forgeries.



Photo: Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

This turns out to be a crucial, determinative question. If they go into the old break, they were there before the old break and therefore the inscription must be old or, rather, ancient—and not a forgery. On the other hand, if they stop before the old break, the forger—yes, the forger—did not want to go into the old break and stopped just before reaching the break.

So the central question became whether these two letters stop before the break or go into the break.
As to the letter on the left (no. 8—a heh) the answer is still unclear. So all attention focused on the other partial letter in question—letter no. 4, a taw.

The answer is now clear. After much back and forth—as described in the previous issue of BAR—all agree that this letter does go into the old break, and therefore it provides no evidence for forgery. On the contrary, it demonstrates the opposite. The inscription is authentic.

If this is so, then there is a good chance the tiny pomegranate is the head of a scepter (there is a hole in the bottom of the pomegranate to insert the scepter rod) that was used in the Temple. The inscription (as restored) contains a mention of “Yahweh,” the Israelite God.

That this pomegranate was intended as the head of a scepter for use in a temple is suggested by the numerous similar-sized ivory pomegranates recovered elsewhere from excavations of this time period. Rods for the pomegranate scepter head have also been recovered archaeologically. An additional number of rods have been found without their pomegranates.


This display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem features a variety of pomegranates from the Iron Age, the same period from which the inscribed ivory pomegranate purports to be. Photo: Hershel Shanks.

My own speculation is that this pomegranate was recovered in an archaeological excavation adjacent to the Temple Mount and then quickly pocketed by a workman. Or perhaps it was recovered by someone on the Temple Mount itself.


Sidebar: Under the Microscope: Ivory Pomegranate Inscription

By Robert Deutsch

Scholars have debated at length whether the letters as reconstructed from the ivory pomegranate inscription are authentic. Do they actually go into the old break, or do they stop just short of the break—the latter of which suggests that the inscription is a modern forgery? In a meeting at the Israel Museum in June 2015, paleographers André Lemaire, Ada Yardeni and I studied the inscription together, focusing particularly on the letter taw. We each agreed that this crucial letter did in fact go into the old break and is thus ancient. Here, I analyze digital photos of the letter taw, which were taken by Reflectance Transformation Imaging specialist Bruce Zuckerman of the University of Southern California.

Looking at the image below, the left bar of the letter taw was clearly broken in antiquity (notice the yellowish edge), while the right bar was damaged in modern times (see the white area). Most important, the left bar has a clear V-shape in the section, which demonstrates that the bar was not engraved in modern times and that the engraver did not stop before the breakage, as erroneously claimed by Yuval Goren.


Photo: Bruce Zuckerman/West Semitic Research Project.

The surface of the ivory pomegranate has a yellowish-brownish color caused by oxidation, often called a patina, which developed during the 3,000 years since its manufacture. This extremely fine layer of oxidation seals the surface, and under it the ivory remained white, as seen in the modern breakage. Any modern attempt to engrave on the ivory’s surface will expose the white material and thus indicate the modern engraving.

The cleaning and conservation of the pomegranate were done by Rafi Brown, the former chief restorer of the Israel Museum, upon the request of the collector. The modern breakages (the white spots) were made before Brown received it for conservation.1

The same phenomenon is also clearly visible in the image below: The left bar of the taw was undoubtedly broken in antiquity (the yellowish edge) and doesn’t end before the breakage, while the right bar was damaged in modern times (the white area).


Photo: Bruce Zuckerman/West Semitic Research Project.

An additional detail, unnoticed by Goren, is an ancient crack between the two bars of the taw. This explains the modern breakage, which is in fact the reason for the missing rim fragment. The modern breakage is in line with the ancient crack.

“First Person: A Scepter from the Temple?” by Hershel Shanks originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2016.



a. Hershel Shanks, “Ivory Pomegranate: Under the Microscope at the Israel Museum,” BAR, March/April 2016.

1. Personal comm.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Ivory Pomegranate Revisited: A Relic from Solomon’s Temple?

First Person: A New Target

Is the Ivory Pomegranate a Forgery or Authentic?

Is the “Brother of Jesus” Inscription on the James Ossuary a Forgery?

James Ossuary Forgery Trial Resources Guide


4 Responses

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    “…the pomegranate ball (or grenade, as scholars call it).” Why “grenade?”

    Here’s a dictionary entry: mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘pomegranate’): from French, alteration of Old French (pome) grenate (see pomegranate), on the pattern of Spanish granada. The bomb was so named because of its shape, supposedly resembling a pomegranate.

  4. Lars H Alhaug says:

    If it says Yahwe it is certainly false. This name started being used by Chritians. Gods name is Yehovah. That is confirmed both in the Leningrad and the Aleppo codex
    But probably it is written YHVH and then it is the author of this article that confuses..

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