The Inscribed Ivory Pomegranate from the “House of the Lord”

Introduction

Apparently unremarkable at first sight, a small ornamental ivory object in the form of a pomegranate (right) and bearing a short inscription in palaeo-Hebrew script, must nonetheless be recognised as one of the most important and controversial acquisitions yet made by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Many scholars believe, on the basis of its inscription, that this minute object probably represents the only archaeological find discovered so far that could likely be associated with the Temple of Yahweh, purportedly built by Solomon, king of Israel, in the 10th century BCE.

As might be expected, the pomegranate has created some controversy with regard to both its authenticity and the veracity of its inscription – a situation only aggravated by the object’s lack of provenance and the somewhat dubious means by which it came to world attention (namely, the trade in antiquities). After thorough examination, however, many scholars concur as to its veracity and, therefore, its extreme importance.

Factsheet

Ivory pomegranate, damaged sectionProvenance: Unknown, presumably the Jerusalem area. Apparently first acquired for the Jerusalem antiquities trade in or before 1979, in which year it was seen by André Lemaire (who later announced its discovery). Bought by the Israel Museum in 1988 for US$550,000.

Dimensions: 43 mm (1.68″) in height, 21 mm (0.83″) in diameter.

Description: Ivory (faunal source unknown), solid body, a single hole 6.5 mm in diameter and 15 mm deep cut into the base, presumably for mounting on a rod or shaft. Artefact shaped as a pomegranate in blossom, the rounded body of the fruit tapering down to a flat bottom and topped by a tall, narrow neck terminating in six long petals, two of which are broken. The shoulder of the artefact bears a shallow incised inscription of 9 complete and 3 incomplete characters in palaeo-Hebrew script. The artefact is damaged: a significant portion of the body is broken away, resulting in the loss of about one-third of the original inscription, whilst the surface reveals considerable wear and the effects of exposure to the elements.
(at right) Damaged section of the pomegranate

Discovery and Acquisition

July 1979:  the French paleographer André Lemaire visits the shop of a Old City antiquities dealer in Jerusalem, who invites Lemaire to return another day to see a small inscribed ivory object. Reportedly over a cup of tea, the dealer shows Lemaire the tiny pomegranate. Lemaire photographs the ivory and publishes it two years later in the Revue Biblique.

1984: the popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) publishes an English version of Lemaire’s article,  the pomegranate thereafter instantly attracting worldwide attention.

ivory pomegranate, damage to inscription1987: A well-known tour guide visits the Israel Museum with a copy of the BAR article under his arm. Claiming he had been approached by intermediaries, the guide asked if the museum would like to purchase the pomegranate for USD$600,000. Meanwhile, the pomegranate had been smuggled out of Israel and had been placed on exhibit in the Grand Palais in Paris. Efforts began immediately in Israel to raise the necessary funds to secure the object for the museum.

1988:  the Israel Museum receives word through an agent that an anonymous donor in Basel is planning to give the museum one million Swiss francs, then about US$675,000. The museum asks the agent whether the money could be used to purchase the pomegranate – the donor agrees. According to sources, the pomegranate was originally purchased from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer for $3,000. The Israel Museum paid $550,000. Now on display in the Israel Museum, the ivory pomegranate has since been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in November 1993 in an exhibition sponsored by the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Inscription

ivory pomegranate, inscription detailThe authenticity of the inscription had first to be established. Lemaire had the letter incisions examined microscopically: it was found that traces of the ancient patina, which covered the surface of the object, were also to be found within the incisions. Such evidence was compelling for the inscription’s antiquity and, therefore, its authenticity. Other distinctive features serve to corroborate this conclusion. Firstly, the edges of several of the incised lines are rounded and worn, not sharp as would be expected in new incisions. Secondly, the palaeography removes any additional doubts regarding the inscription’s veracity: the letters reveal correct forms, well contrived by a skilled engraver, who successfully rose to the challenge of writing at such small scale on the difficult canvas of the pomegranate’s rounded shoulder.

The inscription is incised around the shoulder of the pomegranate in small but carefully engraved and clearly legible letters. Only 9 characters remained complete, whilst 3 were incomplete – if any sense were to be made of the inscription, it seemed likely that several more were missing.

The surviving part of the inscription was transcribed by Lemaire thus:

לבי…ה קדש כהנם

(Only the lower horizontal stroke of the yod and the upper horizontal stroke of the ה he remain).

Lemaire proposed the following restoration of missing letters:

לבית יהוה קדש כהנם

This reconstruction resulted in the following transliteration, now accepted by the vast majority of scholars:

lby[t yhw]h qdš khnm

…which led to the subsequent translation:

“Belonging to the Temp[le of Yahw]eh, holy to the priests”

Having authenticated and produced an acceptable reconstruction of the inscription, Lemaire now dated the inscription on palaeographic grounds to the late 8th century BCE (in comparison with the Siloam Tunnel inscription), simultaneously advancing the proposition that the pomegranate had been employed by the priests in the Jerusalem Temple.
Ivory Pomegranate, Summary Diagram

Comparative Artefacts

The closest parallel to the “House of the Lord” pomegranate – in location and form, if not in time – derives from the British excavations of the 1930’s at Lachish (Tell Duweir).

From the Fosse Temple (13th century BCE) were recovered, amongst a sizable assemblage of cultic vessels and ritual artefacts, two ivory sceptres [Tufnell et alii 1940:62, pl.XX:25-26]. Though differing in form and decorative details, both sceptres consisted of a pomegranate head mounted on a narrow staff some 23 cm long.

One of the Lachish sceptre heads greatly resembles the Jerusalem pomegranate in both size and form; the other is smaller and more rounded (A).

Much further afield are two ivory pins from Tomb 3 at Enkomi, Cyprus [Gjerstad et alii 1935:pl.LXXVIII: 240, 241] – merely two such examples from this island, where pomegranate-headed sceptres / pins are known from a number of tombs dating to the 13th century BCE. The Enkomi examples are the same length as those found at Lachish, with a highly similar realisation of the pomegranate shape (B). Other examples, from Kition [Buchholz & Karageorghis 1973:479, no.1746], are of a more compact, globular form (C).

Bibliography

Information assembled by PJ Cowie (editor). The information in this summary, and several images, are derived from the sources cited below.
Avigad, Nahman

1990 “The Inscribed Pomegranate from the `House of the Lord'”, Biblical Archaeologist 53 (1990), pp.157-166.

[Reprinted in Geva, H. (ed.), Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994, pp.128-137].

Buchholz, H.G. & Karageorghis, V.

1973 Prehistoric Greece and Cyprus, New York, 1973.

Gjerstad, E. et alii

1935 The Swedish Cyprus Expedition II, Plates, Stockholm, 1935.

Lemaire, André

1981 “Une inscription paléo-hébraïque sur grenade en ivoire”, Revue Biblique 88 (1981), pp.236-239.

1984 “Probable Head of Priestly Scepter from Solomon’s Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem”, Biblical Archaeology Review 10.1 (1984), pp.24-29.

Shanks, Hershel

1988 “Pomegranate, Sole Relic from Solomon’s Temple, Smuggled out of Israel, Now Recovered”, Moment 13 (1988), pp.36-43.

Tufnell, Olga, et alii

1940 Lachish II – the Fosse Temple, Oxford, 1940.

Ward, Cheryl

2002 “Pomegranates in Eastern Mediterranean Contexts during the Late Bronze Age”, World Archaeology 34.3 (2002), pp.529-541.

 

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