Thursday, March 17, 2016

On the (probably fake) Maadana seal etc.

EPIGRAPHY AND POLITICS: The Trouble With the Maadana. Could an Israeli national symbol be a fake? (Daniel Estrin, The New Republic).
One July day in 1993, a senior curator at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem approached a glass display case accompanied by a security guard. It was off-hours, and the museum was empty. On a little stand inside the vitrine was a tiny object bathed in light: a brownish, scarab-shaped stone about the size of a fingernail. If you bent down in front of it and squinted, you could make out an exquisite drawing of a twelve-stringed lyre, carved into the stone. Underneath the lyre, a two-line inscription in ancient Hebrew read: “Belonging to Maadana, daughter of the king.”

The artifact was identified as the signet of a princess from the biblical Kingdom of Judah, and it was dated to the seventh century B.C.E., when the Jewish First Temple is believed to have stood in Jerusalem. Her identity was a mystery; there is no mention of her in the Bible, and the seal does not name her royal father. Hundreds of ancient Hebrew seals have been unearthed in Israel since the nineteenth century. They are carved oval stones, sometimes as small as pebbles, which their owners would wear as amulets or stamp into small pieces of clay, leaving an imprint that would seal a document. To find an inscribed Hebrew seal or a seal impression, called a bulla, was to come face to face with an autograph of someone who lived in ancient Judah. Some of these seals and bullae even bore the names of people mentioned in the Bible—mostly marginal characters like Shevanyahu and Yaazanyahu, but also more prominent ones, like Berekhyahu, son of Neriyahu, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah.


The seal remained on display for 13 years, until that day in 1993, when the security guard unlocked the glass case and the curator pinched the seal between her gloved fingers and dropped it into a small container the size of a ring box. She also removed the enlarged diagram of the seal propped up in the display case. The guard accompanied the curator down to the museum’s basement storage facility, where she pulled open the glass doors of a tall wooden cabinet and placed the Maadana inside.

It was done quietly. The curator made no note of it on the seal’s registry card, the little index card that logged its display history. No announcement was made. It never went back on exhibit at the museum. It was removed amid allegations that the Seal of Maadana was a fake.

The issue of the Maadana seal, which is widely accepted to be a fake, is really just the opener for a long and rambling, but interesting, article on the Israeli antiquities market, the problem of forged epigraphic antiquities, and the Israel Forgery Trial. In the mid-1980s, the Maadana seal was used as the template for a Israeli half-skekel coin that is still in circulation. Whether that makes the image on the seal "an Israeli national symbol" is, I suppose, a matter of opinion. As Joseph Lauer commented in his e-mail on the article, it's not as if it's the menorah or the Star of David.

Background on the Israel Forgery Trial is here and links. And for more on forgeries of Hebrew seals and inscriptions, see here and links.