As published in the November/December 2014 Biblical Archaeology Review
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.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.
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.
I immediately replied to her, with a copy to all concerned parties:
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?
The heh was not clear enough to me when I looked at it through the microscope.
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 …
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.
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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