Is the Ivory Pomegranate a Forgery or Authentic?
Once the disagreements over who was to be present at the meeting were resolved, the scholars turned to examining the pomegranate. Photo 1 shows the pomegranate under the microscope; Yuval Goren, who controlled the microscope during the examination, is seen in the background speaking with me. In Photo 2 Goren is using the microscope while flanked by Ahituv and me. Photo 3 shows Demsky taking a turn at the microscope; across from him are Dayagi-Mendels, McCarter and Lemaire.
The inscription, engraved around the shoulder of the pomegranate, consists of two parts: (1) “(Belonging) to the Temple of Yahweh” (the personal name of the Israelite God) on one side of the pomegranate; and “Holy to the priests” on the other side. The second part of the inscription is clear. It is the first part that raises questions. Unfortunately, about a third of the grenade (or ball) of the pomegranate broke off in antiquity, leaving only traces of the phrase “the Temple of Yahweh,” which the scholars were required to reconstruct.
In the drawing below, the dotted line marks the broken edge of the shoulder of the pomegranate. The solid part of the letters above the dotted line is actually there. The outlined part of the letters (below the dotted line) is not there; these letters have been reconstructed on the basis of what is there. Enough of these letters still exists so that the epigraphers are all confident that these are the letters intended to be read in the first part of the inscription. (The second part of the inscription, on the undamaged side of the pomegranate, which reads “Holy to the Priests,” is all there.)
This same thing is shown in the round in the drawing below by Professor Avigad. Both Avigad and the committee saw the same partial letters. The existing part of the three partial letters is in black; the reconstructed part is in outline.
The letters are in paleo-Hebrew, the form of script that was used by the Israelites to write Hebrew before the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E. It is read, like Hebrew today, from right to left.
The first part of the inscription consists of two Hebrew words: l’byt Yahweh, “(Belonging) to the house of Yahweh.” Letters 1 and 2 are complete. Letters 5, 6 and perhaps 7 are completely missing. Letters 3, 4 and 8 are partially there, but mostly missing.
Can these three partial letters reveal whether the inscription is the work of a modern forger or is ancient and therefore authentic?
There is one other factor to consider. All agree that the major break in the pomegranate is ancient. But two additional breaks on the back of the pomegranate (where the pomegranate was already broken in ancient times) are modern. How or when these modern breaks occurred is a puzzle. The committee report (the “Re-Examination”) suggests this scenario: When the forger engraved a letter too near the edge of the ancient break, he accidentally broke off another piece of the pomegranate, creating one of the modern breaks. Then this happened a second time, creating the second new break. Having learned his lesson, the forger stopped short of the edge of the breaks. This is the major argument of the committee that found the inscription to be a forgery: The forger stopped short of the breaks. According to the “Re-Examination,” the forger’s failure to go to the break in engraving these partial letters was his fatal mistake. If he stopped short of the edge of one of the breaks, when the letter would have gone into the break, this is clear evidence of a forgery. All agree with this rule.
Lemaire, drawing on his 40 years’ experience examining ancient Semitic inscriptions, says the new breaks could have occurred when a modern tool hit the pomegranate as the artifact was being excavated by a non-professional, perhaps by a looter, or when the pomegranate was roughly cleaned or examined. More importantly, Lemaire’s examination of the partial letters clearly showed him they do go into the break.
If a letter does go into the ancient break, this means that the inscription is authentic, because the inscription was there before the ancient break.
We should be able to tell whether the letter goes into a break by looking at it, not only from above, but also from the side, in section. Looking at the partially existing letter in section, we should see a “v-shape” (if it is authentic) formed by the existing part of the letter when the rest of the letter was broken off.
So the question really is whether we can identify this v-shape in the partial letters 3, 4 and 8, or whether a forger artificially stopped short of a break, fearing that if he went into the break he would break off still another piece of the pomegranate.
One more qualification is necessary: Authenticity can be proven only if the break involved is the ancient break, rather than one of the two modern breaks, because we want to know whether the inscription was engraved before the ancient break, not simply before the modern break.
With these principles in mind, we may examine the three diagnostic partial letters:
The first one is letter 3, a yod or Y. The committee had found that it stopped short of the break and so stated in its published report (“The lower line of the yod is then engraved without approaching the NRB [new right break]”1). In Lemaire’s response to the published report, he found that the existing horizontal bar of the yod did go into the break.
At the May 3 meeting in the Israel Museum the parties looked at letter 3 together. The microscope was operated by Yuval Goren, who knows how to operate the microscope but is admittedly not an epigrapher. The tiny ivory pomegranate, a tooth from a hippopotamus, was placed under the microscope and twisted and turned, enlarged and reduced by Goren at the direction of the epigraphers in the room. The microscopic image was projected onto a screen as all watched in darkness.
It appeared that Lemaire was right. The letter extended into the break. Demsky and Ahituv admitted that the committee report was “mistaken” in concluding that the letter stopped artificially short of the break—or, in the grudging words of the post-May 3 report published in the Israel Exploration Journal by Ahituv, Demsky and Goren, “We accepted Lemaire’s observation.”2
But, alas, this letter is adjacent to one of the modern breaks, not the ancient break. Had the letter stopped short of the break, as originally argued by Ahituv, Demsky and Goren, this would have been clear evidence of a forgery. But because the applicable break was a modern break, the fact that the letter does go into the break proved only that the letter had been engraved earlier than the modern break, not that it had been engraved in ancient times. The result of this re-examination of the yod was that the committee’s reliance on this letter to establish a forgery was unfounded, but this did not establish that the letter was authentically ancient, only that it was engraved before the modern break.
This error by the official committee appointed to judge the pomegranate inscription was nevertheless instructive. It highlighted the fact that five members of the original eight-person committee appointed to judge the authenticity of the pomegranate inscription had simply “gone along” with the judgment of the three other committee members (who did have some expertise in the matter) that the inscription was a forgery. More significant, it underscored the fact that, although Ahituv and Demsky were expert paleographers who could analyze the shape and form of the letters, they were not accustomed to looking through a microscope. Indeed, they had rarely, if ever, done so. Goren, on the other hand, was an old hand at a microscope; indeed, it was his microscope. But he is no epigrapher; he doesn’t know how ancient letters should be shaped. It is interesting that at the May 3 meeting in the Israel Museum, Goren expressed no opinion as to whether the three diagnostic letters on which discussion focused were forgeries or authentic, or whether they did or did not go into the break. He confined himself to following instructions regarding how the microscope should be directed and focused. It appears that the final judgment regarding whether the letters go into a break or stop short of the break was made by two scholars (Ahituv and Demsky) wholly unaccustomed to examining objects under a microscope.
Although all now agree that the yod does go into the break, we may look at it here to accustom ourselves to looking at these microscopic photographs. We look at four pictures of the partial yod. In Photo 4, we see the inscription from the top. Reading from right to left, we see the complete lamed (in the center of the picture), then the complete beyt, and then the beginning of the yod going into the (modern) break. Photo 5 is similar to Photo 4, but you see a little more of the side of the break. In Photo 6, you see a close-up of the complete beyt (which dominates the picture) and a close-up of the partial yod going into the break.
Photo 7 is taken from the side and shows the yod going into the break, forming a tell-tale “v.” From the white coloration of the side of the pomegranate, it is plain that the yod goes into the new break.
This Photo 7 also takes us to the next partial letter, the tov, which, when complete, looks like an “x.” But only the two upper tips of the letter have survived on the pomegranate, plainly visible in this picture (Photo 7) from the side of the break. The right tip goes into a new break (darkened by shadow). The left top is adjacent to the ancient break. If it goes into the ancient break, it was inscribed before the ancient break and is authentic.
After examining the yod, the group in the Israel Museum moved on to the tov, which is the next letter in the word byt (Temple). Since the right tip is adjacent to a modern break, if it stops short of the new break, the inscription is a forgery; the forger would be fearful of going into a new break. But the opposite is not true: If the right tip does go into the new break, that means only that it was engraved before the new break. The left tip of the tov, however, is adjacent to the ancient break. If the left tip goes into the break—if the “v” is there in section—the inscription is authentic. (To the left of the tips of the tov is the whitish left new break.)
At the May 3 meeting, Goren flashed on the screen a myriad of images from different angles. For Lemaire, “It is clear”: The left tip of the tov goes into the ancient break, forming a “v” in section. Therefore, the inscription is authentic. For Demsky and Ahituv (and perhaps for the silent Goren), it was otherwise; they could not decide (nor did they give reasons for their indecision). As they state in their article published after the May 3 meeting, “It is difficult to determine whether the left stroke arrived at the old break, creating a v-like indentation on the section” [emphasis supplied]. No further explanation is given. In the photographs on which they rely in their post-May 3rd article, however, the left stroke seems clearly to go into the break (their figures 2, 3 and 4).
In their later article in the Israel Exploration Journal, Ahituv, Demsky and Goren rely on the right tip of the tov (which is adjacent to a new break) to prove that the inscription is a forgery: “As for the upper right stroke of the tov,” they write “it was clear to us that it was aborted, unable to penetrate the ‘bulge’ and meet the old break” [emphasis supplied].3 Lemaire replies that the photograph they rely on (their figure 2), creates an optical illusion that makes it look like the right tip stops short of a bulge; the picture was taken from an obtuse angle. Indeed, in two other pictures of their report (figures 3 and 4) it is clear that the right tip does go into the break.
We publish here two close-ups of the upper tips of the tov (our Photos 8 and 9), which also show the alleged bulge that supposedly reveals the inscription to be a forgery. The claimed “bulge” is to the left of the right tip. If you move the camera angle to the left so that you are looking straight at the alleged bulge, you can make it look as if the “bulge” is in front of the right tip and that therefore the right tip stops before the “bulge.” That is the angle from which Photo 10 was taken. In this picture the illusion is created that the “bulge” is preventing the right tip from going into the break. Photos 8 and 9 make clear, however, that this is not the case.
Moreover, all of these pictures of the partial tov show the left tip going straight into the ancient break. The “v” formed when the left tip of the tov goes into the ancient break is also clear in Photo 4, which we have discussed in connection with the yod, but which also shows the tips of the tov.
We turn now to the last diagnostic partial letter, the he at the end of the name of the Israelite God, YHWH, letter 8. It, too, involves the ancient break, so it is particularly diagnostic. For Lemaire, it was clear. The upper tip of the vertical line of the he goes into the break, forming a “v” in section. Demsky and Ahituv hunkered down, however, and disagreed without offering an explanation that I could understand. Inexplicably, they do not mention this letter in their report on the May 3 meeting, although it was extensively considered. The photographs we publish below perhaps explain why.
Photo 11, taken from the side, shows the long, surviving horizontal line of the he and just the snippet of the vertical line going into the ancient break and forming the tell-tale “v.” This picture amply explains why the published report of Demsky, Ahituv and Goren of the May 3 meeting does not mention this partial he: the vertical line clearly goes into the ancient break.
We see the same vestige of the partial he from slightly different angles going into the ancient break in Photos 12 and 13. In Photo 13, you can clearly see the difference between the new break and the ancient break. The he goes into the ancient break.
We now ask whether there is another partial letter that still exists and almost no one has seen until now. We have just looked at the last letter of YHWH. Is it possible that a snippet of the letter before that, the vov (or wow in scholarly parlance) is still there? At the May 3 meeting, Lemaire raised that possibility, but only as a possibility. We did not have the pictures then. We do now. Look at Photo 14. The “v” made by the vertical line of the he is easily identified by the long line of some vertical imperfection in the ivory below the “v.” This same imperfection is seen in other pictures of the he going into the ancient break. Now look to the right of this “v.” There, as plain as day in Photo 14 appears to be letter 7, another “v” where the smallest snippet of the vov goes into the left new break.
Professor P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University was the only outside epigrapher that Ahituv, Demsky and Goren would allow into the May 3 session at the Israel Museum. He is filing his own separate report on the May 3 meeting and his view of the inscription. He believes, in addition to the letter we have discussed, he sees a faint image of part of the first Y in YHWH.
My view that the inscription is authentic is hardly a secret. I find it beyond belief to suppose that a forger would attempt to create these partial letters on the edge of a broken pomegranate.
Secondly, I place great confidence in the expertise of André Lemaire and, before him, Nahman Avigad. The nay-sayers call my attention to the fact that Avigad was once fooled by a forger. True, but this does not make unreliable all his judgments thereafter regarding possible forgeries. This experience could only make him more careful and cautious.
This is not to denigrate the expertise of Ahituv and Demsky. But there is a world of difference between an epigrapher’s skill in reading an inscription (which Demsky and Ahituv do very, very well) and his ability to detect a forgery by looking at partial letters through a microscope. Demsky and Ahituv rarely, if ever, examine an artifact under a microscope for forgery; they are not experts in what they see under the microscope. After the meeting, Demsky candidly admitted to me that he has had almost no experience looking at an object through a microscope and interpreting what he sees. He told me a story to justify his judgment nevertheless: When the reader (chanter) of the Torah in the synagogue comes across an uncertain letter in the Torah scroll, he must stop chanting from the scroll. It is possible the scribe who copied the scroll made a mistake. How should the letter be interpreted? Is it a dalet or a resh? A het or a he? If it is one, it is correct; but if it is the other, it is incorrect—the whole scroll would be posul (forbidden). Who is called up to the reader’s platform to decide the matter—the most eminent rabbi in the community? No. A child is called up and asked what he sees—a daletor a resh, a hetor a he. The child decides the matter. “I am that child,” Demsky told me. He is no expert in looking through a microscope, but he knows what he sees in the microscope.
It is only fair to add that Demsky’s position that the inscription is a forgery is based not only on his belief that the forger stopped short of the break in the pomegranate, but on the cumulative effect of several other “suspicious circumstances.” But that is no excuse for clinging to the indefensible argument that the partial letters do not go into the breaks. The May 3 meeting was called for the sole purpose of determining whether the three partial letters do or do not go into the breaks. As to one letter (yod) Ahituv, Demsky and Goren now admit they were wrong. As to another (he), they have no comment; they fail even to discuss it. As to the third (the critical left tip of the tov), they say only that “it is difficult to determine.” Yet in their report of the May 3 meeting they still maintain, despite these admissions, that the “main reason” for their conclusion that the inscription is a modern forgery is “the apparent caution of the engraver not to access the old break” of the pomegranate.4
Although Demsky admits he is now only 80 percent sure the inscription is a forgery, in their post-May 3 report, they reflect no hesitancy, no “probably” or even “very probably.” The judgment is very clear: “The inscribed pomegranate is a modern forgery.”5
1. Goren et al., p.8 See also p.9.
2. “The Inscribed Pomegranate from the Israel Museum Examined Again,” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 57, p. 87 (2007).
3. Id. at p. 91.
4. Id. at 92.
5. Id. at p. 92.
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