Under the microscope at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Stored in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem is an ivory pomegranate the size of a thumb with writing on it. Its authenticity has been debated since it first came to the attention of the public over 30 years ago. Is the object’s paleo-Hebrew inscription—which as reconstructed contains the divine name Yahweh used by the ancient Israelites—real, or is it a forgery? If authentic, the ivory pomegranate may have been the head of a scepter from King Solomon’s Temple—and the only surviving relic from the Temple.
As recounted in “Ivory Pomegranate: Under the Microscope at the Israel Museum” by Hershel Shanks in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a meeting between world-class paleographers André Lemaire, Ada Yardeni and Robert Deutsch in the summer of 2015 may have settled the debate.
The famous inscribed ivory pomegranate is about 1.5 inches high and less than an inch in diameter. It has a hole at the bottom where a scepter rod had been presumably inserted. The inscription around its shoulder reads lby[t yhw]h qdsû khnm, or “Belonging to the Tem[ple of Yahwe]h, holy to the priests.” Only a portion of the inscription has been preserved, since a third of the shoulder was broken off.
Eminent Sorbonne paleographer André Lemaire first saw the ivory pomegranate in 1979 at an antiquities shop in Jerusalem. Lemaire published a note on the object in the French scholarly journal Revue Biblique in 1981. It was not until his longer article in the January/February 1984 issue of BAR, however, that the inscribed ivory pomegranate was propelled into the limelight.
For 15 years, the inscribed ivory pomegranate could be seen at the Israel Museum, displayed in a special room with a direct beam of light on it. In 2005, however, a committee comprised of Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel Museum scholars published a report in the Israel Exploration Journal concluding that the inscription was a forgery. The committee argued that some of the letters artificially stopped short of the ancient break on the pomegranate—reflecting the work of a forger.
In the criminal indictment in the trial that would be known as the “Forgery Trial of the Century,” the ivory pomegranate was referenced as a forgery, although it was not on the list of forgeries attributed to individual defendants.
Let’s flash forward to June 2015. The previous year, renowned paleographer Ada Yardeni had studied the ivory pomegranate at the Israel Museum. She concluded that one of the letters, a taw, did not reach the ancient break.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” Yardeni wrote to BAR editor Hershel Shanks. “In view of my examination of the inscription, I cannot confirm its authenticity.”
In the summer of 2015, Yardeni agreed to have another look. On June 15, she and fellow paleographers André Lemaire and Robert Deutsch met at the Israel Museum. Included in this meeting were museum staff, Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Society president Sue Laden, and University of Southern California professor Bruce Zuckerman and his team, who specialize in Reflectance Transformation Imaging. Throughout the day, Zuckerman and his team photographed the pomegranate, and the scholars examined the object under the museum microscope.
After the meeting, Yardeni sent a note to Shanks stating that she had changed her mind about the critical letter taw. What did she see under the microscope with Lemaire and Deutsch? Learn the full story of the ivory pomegranate—the only surviving relic from Solomon’s Temple if authentic—and what took place in June 2015 by reading the article “Ivory Pomegranate: Under the Microscope at the Israel Museum” by Hershel Shanks in the March/April 2016 issue of BAR.
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Ivory Pomegranate: Under the Microscope at the Israel Museum” by Hershel Shanks in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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