Think this image of an ancient goddess looks genuine? Think again!
Editor’s Note: This Bible History Daily article discusses an unprovenanced object. Learn more about the problems associated with objects that lack a secure archaeological context.
If you follow forgery stories in Biblical Archaeology Review or elsewhere, you may have observed this pattern: When a museum determines an object in its collection is fake, it is frequently removed from display. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, has removed many such objects: the ivory pomegranate once thought to be relic from Solomon’s Temple—and prominently displayed in the museum for decades—was removed in 2005. Various seals and seal impressions have also been removed from this museum and others over the years.
So I was thrilled when I was alerted to a possible biblical forgery on display, not that far from my own Boston University office.1 The museum in question is the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East (formerly the Harvard Semitic Museum). And the piece in question is a 20-inch high limestone relief sculpture of a goddess, bearing the Greek inscription theeapare panton (“divine producer of all”). The sculpture is displayed on the second floor, within the exhibit entitled “From the Nile to the Euphrates,” which forthrightly traces and illustrates the origins of the museum’s collections, including not only materials gathered in archaeological excavations but also materials gathered by purchase or even plunder.
Here’s what the museum’s display caption has to say about the object:
Relief sculpture of unidentified goddess, possibly Astarte
Unknown origin and date
Merrill Collection 1902.53.40
Little is known about the origin of this relief sculpture. It represents a longhaired, nude female kneeling above an inscription. While her body is human, her feet are a fish flipper and a hoof. Sun and moon symbols appear behind her. The Greek inscription reads theeapare panton (“divine producer of all”). The text and imagery suggest she may be the goddess Astarte, the “Queen of Heaven,” but this representation appears to be unique. It may be a forgery. It was acquired as part of the very large and remarkably diverse Merrill Collection. Additional objects from the collection are displayed in several other cases.
The museum is to be commended for putting this interesting object on display, with a helpful and straightforward description. I just hope they won’t remove it after I suggest that the object is most certainly a forgery! But before I make the case that the object is forged, let’s probe its biblical connections.
The piece in question is part of the Merrill Collection, named for the colorful and controversial archaeologist, explorer, and diplomat Selah Merrill (1837–1909). Having served as a chaplain during the US Civil War, Merrill also spent three years in the employ of the American Palestine Exploration Society (1874–77) and went on to serve three non-consecutive terms as the US consul in Jerusalem between 1882 and 1907.
Merrill’s vast and eclectic collection of biblical paraphernalia—ranging from stuffed birds to ancient coins, with various weapons thrown in for good measure—was first displayed at the Andover Theological Seminary (where Merrill taught). The collection then made its way to Harvard’s Semitic Museum (as it was then called) in 1898, in advance of the museum’s formal opening in its current location in 1903. The inclusion of the object in Merrill’s collection of “biblical antiquities” is one sure sign that the object was considered to be biblical in some sense.
Confirmation of the piece’s early reception as “biblical” comes from the single publication I know of devoted to the object, a three-page essay by Theodore F. Wright (the founding pastor of the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, MA) written in 1901.2 Wright’s essay objects to a prior identification of the piece as ancient Christian, intimating that the piece was so-labeled when originally displayed.3 The Christian understanding of the piece, Wright suggests, comes from its employment of Christian symbols (the fish flipper and lamb-hoof of the woman’s feet) as well as an overall similarity to Revelation 12:1: “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” What is more, the passage continues (12:2): “She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.” The woman depicted in Harvard’s relief may well indeed be pregnant, as suggested by the shape of her abdomen and the placement of her right hand. As Wright noted, however, the similarity is inexact.
Wright preferred a different understanding, one no less biblical (in the broad sense), and his interpretation is the one adopted by the object’s current caption: “the Queen of Heaven,” in the form of the goddess Astarte, worshiped throughout the region. Wright also pointed to the biblical place-name “Ashtarot” (Deuteronomy 1:4; Joshua 9:10), which just happens to be located east of the Jordan, where Merrill explored and collected many of his objects. Wright even suggested identifying the object with a find briefly described by Merrill as follows: “still another head [of Astarte], with rays, was found by us at ’Atîl, in which the rays taper to points.”4
So which is it? Revelation’s crowned, pregnant woman on the moon or a Transjordanian Astarte? Actually, I’m not sure I can—or need to—answer that question. Wright was correct in questioning the exclusively Christian reading, but his own approach would also suggest questioning an exclusively Astartian reading. It’s just not like any other Astarte I’ve seen, and utterly unlike the ones depicted in Merrill’s own book either. And the confluence of particular symbols—lamb, fish, a pregnant woman between a sun and a moon—still seems uncannily Christian to me. The Greek language inscription points in that direction, too.
The enduring mystery of the object justifiably brings us to the next question: its authenticity. We should note that Merrill’s time in the Middle East overlaps with a key time for biblical forgery in and around Jerusalem. This is the era of the Moabitica affair (1870s) as well as Moses Willhelm Shapira’s Deuteronomy (found perhaps in 1878, displayed and offered for sale in 1883). And these are just the most well-known instances. Various biblical fakes are associated with figures like Shapira, the sculptor Martin Boulos, and Selim Al-Qari, spanning both decades.
The object in question bears no clear resemblance to the Moabitica or other identified and published forgeries. But there are some interesting points of comparison. Although not quite as risqué as the most explicit of the Moabitica, the Harvard Astarte’s distended breasts and clearly depicted nipples are rather odd for Greek-period depictions of women (or goddesses), but find some context in the more explicit Moabitica. Like many of the pieces now attributed to the stone-cutter Martin Boulos, the Harvard Astarte is a self-contained complete piece (not a fragment), with a bottom-running Greek inscription. The facial features include clearly marked eyes (lids and pupils), and an elongated nose. While the more well-known Boulos pieces are busts, at least one published piece is a similarly triangular relief of a full-length but strangely proportioned figure.5
I admit, however, to one key shortcoming of my argument: I cannot (yet!) point to any decisively similar fake. As a counter-point to my own admission, I want to reiterate my opening observation: too few fakes are on display. There is no catalog of known fakes to peruse, just random selections of dozens (from hundreds, if not thousands) of exempla.
But there is one more argument that settles the matter for me decisively: While the relief we see is complete, it looks as if it was cut out from a larger stone background. Yet the effort expended by the sculptor to squeeze the relief into the extant stone is evident in the inscription: The lettering is spaced unevenly, tighter on the right, as Wright observed long ago. Even more suspiciously, the goddess’s left “hand” (if that’s what it can be called) looks painfully contorted. With its compressed, stubby fingers, foreshortened arm, and angled wrist, one has to wonder whether this piece miraculously survived in this fashion or if—as seems likely—it was more recently carved to fit a particular piece of pre-cut limestone. The situation can be compared with a number of the post-2002 fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments from the Schøyen collection and the Museum of the Bible: The fake fragments often display small, tight letters, looking as if they were squeezed to fit onto pre-torn leather fragments.6
To this rather decisive argument, I add one more: the object’s curiously ambiguous uniqueness. We look at it and ask, what is it? Is it Christian or “Astartian”? What purpose could it have served? When we recall that the object has no known provenance and was acquired by a collector at a place and time awash with forgeries, suspicion rightly grows. When we process the fact that the object has no known analogue among authentic finds, our suspicion grows more. While many forgeries are imitative (like the forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the news of late) a good number of forgeries are, in fact, utterly and suspiciously unique (like that inscribed pomegranate). An unparalleled fake is more likely to turn up among a collection of unprovenanced objects than an unparalleled antiquity. To my mind, Harvard’s Astarte is most certainly a fake. And kudos to them for putting it on display. I wish more institutions would put their fakes out to be seen now and then (or at least post them online, perhaps permanently).
If you are wondering why you might pay good money to see a fake, don’t fret. In June 2023, Harvard University generously announced that its museums would be open to everyone, free of charge. Make a day of it, and visit the HMANE—which has much more of interest on display beyond the piece we have discussed—and then check out one or more Harvard’s other fine museums as well. As for parking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, well, that’s still not free.
1. I am grateful to Demian Choi, a religion major at Boston University, who brought this object to my attention, and to Dr. Adam Aja, Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East’s chief curator, for providing helpful information and additional comments about the sculpture and its history.
2. Theodore F. Wright, “A Symbolic Figure of the Queen of Heaven,” The Biblical World 17.6 (1901), pp. 447–449.
3. While no such early labeling of the piece survives, Adam Aja chief curator of the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East confirms that an early accession list of the items acquired from Merrill records the piece as follows: “38. Curious Female Figure with Christian Symbols; rays about the head; one foot represents a fish’s tail, and the other a lamb’s foot. At the bottom is a Greek inscription.”
4. Wright, “Symbolic Figure,” p. 449, quoting Selah Merrill, East of the Jordan: A Record of Travel and Observation in the Countries of Moab, Gilead, and Bashan, During the Years 1975–1877 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881), p. 41. Presumably the town by that name in southern Syria of today is meant. It is doubtful that Merrill is speaking about Harvard’s Astarte, for its full-bodied figure would not be described as “another head.”
5. See Gusta Leher-Jacobson, Fakes and Forgeries: From Collections in Israel (Hebrew, with translation by Jay C. Jacobson; Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum, 1989), p. 22, fig. 17c.
6. See Kipp Davis et al., “Nine Dubious ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Fragments from the Twenty-First Century,” Dead Sea Discoveries 24.2 (2017), pp. 189–228, esp. pp. 200–201.
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