Ivory Pomegranate from Solomon's Temple - Authentic or Fraud?

 Solomon's Temple

The Temple of Solomon was completed in 957 B.C. and would stand for an amazing 410 years before it was destroyed in 587 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. The Temple would be replaced by the second temple in 516 B.C. Nearly 500 years later, King Herod would build another grand temple on the same location in 37 B.C.  This temple would stand for just over 100 years before being destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. The original (first) temple was conceived by King David, but God decided David would not be the one to actually construct the Temple.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in" 1 Chronicles 17:4 

The reason for God not allowing King David to build the Temple is explained latter in the book of 1 Chronicles.

 "But the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to My name, because you have shed so much blood on the earth before Me." 1 Chronicles 22:8

After the death of King David, his son Solomon built the temple on what we know of today as the Temple Mount. It had been determined that David would not be the one to build the Temple, but he did prepare materials for Solomon to enable him to build a magnificent Temple. The Bible lists some of the materials and preparations that David made for the Temple. 

"Now behold, with great pains I have prepared for the house of the Lord a hundred thousand talents of gold and a million talents of silver, and bronze and iron beyond measure, for they are in great quantity; I have also prepared timber and stone, and you may add to that. Moreover there are many workmen with you, stonecutters, masons of stone, and carpenters; and all of them are skillful in every kind of work. Of the gold, silver, bronze, and iron there is no limit. Arise and work, and may the Lord be with you.” - 1 Chronicles 22: 14-16

With this list of supplies the Temple would have been magnificent. Once complete it would have been the central point of worship in Israel and would hold the most holy of objects. Eventually, the Ark of the Covenant would be brought to the Temple and placed in the Holy of Hollies. The Bible tells us the construction of the First Temple took a total of seven years to complete.

There is a great deal of debate and controversy surrounding Solomon's Temple which is also known as the First Temple Period. Some scholars do not believe Solomon actually built a temple and some even insist Solomon never really existed. Even if Solomon did exist, they say he was at best the leader of a small tribe of wandering herdsman living near a dusty crossroads. A great deal of this controversy centers on the lack of artifacts from the First Temple. 

Scholars insist that if such a grand structure was built and then destroyed, there should be a huge number of artifacts and archaeological remains. This is a completely true statement. There should be artifacts, and a great many of them. In fact, if it were possible to excavate the Temple Mount these artifacts would almost certainly be found. The problem is, the Temple Mount cannot be excavated and in fact has never been truly excavated.

The current political climate in Israel makes any archaeological excavation on the Temple Mount impossible. It must also be remembered that a second and even a third temple were built on top of the first. For his construction King Herod doubled the size of the Temple Mount area, moving tons of earth and covering over vast amounts of area, and potential artifacts. He even filled in a deep valley which had been known as Bezatha Valley. As an example of the expansion that took place, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was moved out 82 feet. Herod also built the Antonia Fortress on the Northwest corner of the Temple Mount and on the south he built the magnificent Royal Stoa. With this amount of construction over the top of the First Temple and no excavations having ever taken place, it should not be surprising that no, or at least very few, artifacts from the First Temple period have been discovered. While artifacts from the First Temple period are rare, there is one well-known artifact which some believe is from Solomon's Temple.

The Artifact - The Ivory Pomegranate

Reconstruction of Ivory Pomegranate
In 1979 a small artifact came to the attention of experts and was eventually acquired by the Israel Museum. This has become known as the Ivory Pomegranate and measures approximately 1.5 inches in height and 1 inch in diameter. The artifact is not actually ivory but instead is made of Hippopotamus bone and is carved in the shape of a pomegranate. Due to its construction it is believed the artifact once was the tip, or point of a priest's scepter. 

Around the top of the artifact is an inscription  which reads; "Holy (sacred) to the priest of the house of God (YHWH)." This inscription, along with the fact the artifact was believed to have been found at an excavation near the Temple Mount lead experts to believe it may have been used in the Temple. When dated, it was found the artifact could date back to the time of Solomon, or perhaps even earlier. All of these facts, according to many scholars, make it highly likely the tiny artifact was used in the first temple constructed by Solomon.  This made it one of the most significant and sensational archeological discoveries in the region. As mentioned, excavations at the Temple Mount are forbidden so artifacts associated with the First Temple are very rare. 

The artifact was placed on display in the Israel Museum where it was a prized and important exhibit. The story of the Ivory Pomegranate took an unexpected turn some fourteen years later when several experts were allowed to re-examine the artifact and ultimately found what they believed at the time to be evidence of forgery.

The Controversy

As mentioned, the artifact is approximately 1.5 inches in height and is about the size of a persons thumb. Unfortunately there is also a small section which has broken off. In fact, there are two breaks, one fairly recently, the other appears to be ancient. This second break is the root of the controversy.

The engraving on the artifact travels across the breaks so a portion of three of the letters are missing. The problem area is where the letters cross the ancient break. Some experts, after examining the artifact in 2004, came to the conclusion that the engravings stopped just before reaching the break. There are only two reasons this would happen. The first, which is highly unlikely, is that the item was broken in ancient times and the engraver put the partial letters on anyway, being careful not to engrave all the way into the break. (There is no logical reason why this would have been done.) The second possibility, which is far more probable, is that the engraving was done by a modern day forger and he was careful not to engrave into the break in fear it would cause more damage or possibly make it obvious the engraving happened well after the break. 

With these observations the artifact was declared a forgery. In fact, if the engraving does not enter the break, there is almost no argument that can be made for the authenticity of the artifact. The only argument that can be made is, were the experts' observations in error? Did these scholars get it wrong and the engraving does in fact travel into the ancient break? A number of experts believed an error had taken place and there was no actual evidence of forgery. Additional observations would take place in 2015 in an effort to resolve this issue once and for all. 

Is the Artifact Authentic

In 2015 Hershel Shanks, the former editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, arranged for some of the top paleographers in the world to examine the artifact at the Israel Museum. These experts included Andre Lemaire, Ada Yardeni and Robert Deutsch. They all examined the artifact together using the museums high powered microscope. The examination was lengthy and involved a great deal of back-and-forth discussion between the experts.

[Paleographer - a person who studies old handwriting in an effort to decipher, localize and date ancient text and engravings.]

There are a total of three of the letters in the engraving which enter, or should enter the break. The first clearly enters the new break. This in no way helps to prove the artifact is authentic. This only proves the engraving was done prior to the new break which took place recently. The remaining two letters should have entered the ancient break. If they do not, the item is almost certainly a forgery. If they do enter the break, there is no evidence of forgery and the item could be considered authentic. 

The Experts 

André Lemaire is a epigrapher, philologist and historian. He is the Director of Studies at the École pratique des hautes études, teaches Hebraic and Aramean philology as well as  epigraphy. Lemaire specializes in West-Semitic old civilization and is a member of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

 Ada Yardeni was a widely published scholar in the field of Hebrew Paleography. She was also one of the experts who examined the artifact in 2014 and believed they had found evidence of forgery. Yardeni was educated at Bezalel and the Hebrew University. During her lifetime Dr. Yardeni authored or co-authored nine books and 59 articles, including perhaps her best known work "The Book of Hebrew Script." Dr. Yardeni passed away in 2018.

Robert Deutsch - is an antiquities dealer in Israel and studied archaeology at Tel Aviv University and at the Hebrew University.  Deutsch has served as the President of the Israel Numismatic Society since 2016. Deutsch was accused of forgery in Israel but the charges in one case were acquitted and dropped in all others. 

After careful examination the group could not determine if the first of the two letters did or did not enter the break. Their conclusions were inconclusive as they could not render an opinion either way. This left only the final letter to resolve the controversy. After a long examination and much discussion the experts determined, unanimously, that the engraving did in fact enter the ancient break. This was excellent news for those hoping for the artifact to be authentic. If the lettering does in fact enter the break, it removes the suspicion of forgery.

While these findings remove the reason the artifact was considered a forgery, it does not prove the item is authentic. Hershel Shanks, a strong proponent of the Ivory Pomegranate artifact points out that it is impossible to prove any ancient inscription is authentic. Even with discoveries made at proper excavation sites the possibility of a forgery still exist. All we can do is look at each piece of evidence and determine if there is any evidence of forgery. In this case, there does not appear to be any evidence, and thus the artifact could in fact be an authentic relic from Solomon's temple.

Did you enjoy this article? Follow this Blog to get new posts sent directly to you.



Through the Ages

  Geologic Time 4.6 Million B.C. -to- 2.6 Million B.C. Stone Age Palaeolithic 2.6 Million B.C. -to- 10,000 B.C. Mesolithic 10,000 B.C. -to- ...