Is This Inscription Fake? You Decide
The famous Ivory Pomegranate Inscription: Is it a forgery or authentic? You decide. And let us know your decision.
A Hebrew inscription is engraved around the shoulder of the thumb-size pomegranate that reads, “Holy to the priests, (belonging) to the Temple of [Yahwe]h.”
For decades the tiny object occupied a special place in Jerusalem’s prestigious Israel Museum—the only surviving relic from Solomon’s Temple.
The pomegranate was first seen in 1979 in a Jerusalem antiquities shop by one of the world’s leading Semitic epigraphers, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne. Based on a lifetime of experience and a careful examination, he pronounced the inscription authentic. It was also examined by Professor Nahman Avigad of The Hebrew University, then Israel’s most respected epigrapher, who wrote that “I am fully convinced of ... the authenticity of its inscription ... [T]he epigraphic evidence alone, in my opinion, is absolutely convincing.”
With these assurances, in 1989 the Israel Museum acquired the pomegranate for $550,000. All Israel was excited. On the day the pomegranate went on display in a special room of the museum with a narrow light beaming on it from the ceiling, the exhibit was the first item on the evening news in Israel.
In 2004, after two widely publicized inscriptions had been declared forgeries by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the museum decided to revisit the question of the authenticity of the Pomegranate Inscription. A special committee was appointed to reexamine the inscription, using the latest scientific technologies. The committee concluded that the inscription was a forgery!
Lemaire subsequently reexamined the inscription, however, and he was unconvinced. After restudying the inscription under a stereoscopic microscope, he concluded that the pomegranate committee had misinterpreted what it saw and that the inscription was authentic.
In January 2007, at a conference on forgeries convened in Jerusalem by the Biblical Archaeology Society, Lemaire and the two epigraphers on the pomegranate committee, Professors Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University and Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University, discussed their differences and decided to look at the object again.
This meeting took place at the Israel Museum on May 3, 2007, where Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University projected microscopic images of the individual letters onto a screen for all to examine. Alas, the scholars were unable to resolve their differences. They looked through the same microscope, but they saw different things.
The issue is at once complicated and simple. Much of the ball of the pomegranate broke off in antiquity, and two small modern breaks have made the ancient break even larger. As a result, several letters are completely missing and must be reconstructed. But three letters are partially there. It is these three partial letters that are crucial. If these three partial letters artificially stop short of the breaks, as the committee believes, the inscription is a forgery. The forger would apparently have been afraid of breaking off more of the pomegranate if he went into the breaks. If, on the other hand, the partial letters do go into the ancient break, forming a “v” when viewed in section, the inscription is authentic because the inscription must be earlier than the ancient break.
You can now look at the pictures yourself and make up your own mind. Just go to www.biblicalarchaeology.org/pomegranate
to read BAR
editor Hershel Shanks’s report on this May 3 meeting, along with microscopic photographs of the partially surviving letters of the inscription and directions on how to “read” the pictures. You don’t need to know ancient Hebrew, and you don’t need to be an expert in Hebrew epigraphy. You just need to be able to decide by looking at the pictures whether a stroke of a letter does or does not go into a break in the pomegranate.
Enjoy yourself, and let us know what you think.
Ivory Pomegranate/Pomegranate Inscription