What If an Israeli National Symbol Is a Fake?

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tags: Israel, National Symbol, Maadana



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….

It has been difficult for Israeli officialdom to embrace the scholarly consensus about the Seal of Maadana [that it’s a fake]. Calling relics like this into question could be seen as unpatriotic, casting doubt on the roots of Jews in the land, undermining the very existence of the Jewish state. “Those who connect archaeological sciences to identity, to the issue of national identity, are setting themselves up for a fall,” Raphael Greenberg, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University who studies the politics of Israeli archaeology, told me recently. “Archaeology can change. I mean, interpretations can change. And things assumed to be one thing turn out to be another.”

In the 30 years since the Bank of Israel turned the Maadana into one of the country’s most ubiquitous icons, it has had ample opportunity to publicly address questions regarding the seal’s authenticity and determine whether it should continue to adorn Israeli currency. Instead, the Bank has passed the buck.




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