The Archaeology of the Pomegranate

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Our sense of the ancientness of the pomegranate comes not just from words, but also from the earth.

Words do provide clues to the incredible journey of the pomegranate, such as this little ditty inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphics — said to be translated by Ezra Pound and Noel Stock, from an Italian rendition by Boris de Rachewiltz, based on papyrus and pottery preserved from 1567 – 1085 BC.

The Pomegranate speaks:
My leaves are like your teeth
My fruit like your breasts.
I, the most beautiful of fruits,
Am present in all weathers, all seasons
As the lover stays forever with the beloved,
Drunk on shedeh* and wine.
All the trees lose their leaves, all
Trees but the Pomegranate.
I alone in all the garden lose not my beauty,
I remain straight.

When my leaves fall,
New leaves are budding.
First among fruits
I demand that my position be acknowledged,
I will not take second place.
And if I receive such an insult again
You will never hear the end of it….

Papyrus and the pottery point to other sources, as do myths like that of Persephone and Demeter,** passed down in almost universally in one sense or another. In a parallel with Persephone, evidence comes from the earth, and at times, from the sea.

Pomegranate Israel
Pomegranate artifact from Israel

In Iraq, a vase found in Uruk dating back to 4000 BC suggests that pomegranates enjoyed lively popularity, while in Iran small pomegranate tokens dated to 3300 BC surfaced in Susa.

The Torah, specifically Exodus 28:33-34, expounds on the pomegranate, one of the Seven Species — the others being barley, dates, figs, grapes, olives, and wheat. This list represents a good profile of the important plants growing at the time and which eventually formed the basis of much of the cuisine of the Middle East. Today, Jews traditionally eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, for they regard the pomegranate as an important symbol of righteousness. Legend has it that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, one for each of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. Archaeological evidence for the presence of pomegranates in what is now modern-day Israel comes from a 1600 BC Hyksos tomb in Jericho — the find consisted of a box shaped like a pomegranate, with six whole fruits. A recent find in the City of David generated some controversy over the interpretation of the meaning and significance of the object:

Pomegranate with dove
Ivory Pomegranate with Dove

January 9, 2009 Ha’aretz Hebrew online edition has an illustrated report about the discovery in the City of David excavations led by Dr. Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron of a miniature ivory pomegranate

That the pomegranate moved with the trade routes is indisputable, as archaeologists found thousands of seeds in a 13th-century BC shipwreck off the coast of Turkey, at Ulu Burun (Kas).  The ship carried goods originally from all over the Mediterranean.***

The fact that part of the pomegranate’s scientific name — Punica — comes from “Phoenician” hints at the pomegranate’s restless travels.

*Shedeh: a drink from ancient Egypt, suspected to have been made form pomegranates, but recent research suggests that people used grapes instead. See Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané, Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, Olga Jáuregui and Rosa M. Lamuela-Raventós, The origin of the ancient Egyptian drink Shedeh revealed using LC/MS/MS, Journal of Archaeological Science, 33 (1): 98-101, January 2006.

**For an in-depth analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, see The Narcissus and the Pomegranate: An Archaeology of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, by Ann Suter, 2003. See also Nightly She Sings on Yon Pomegranate-Tree.

***Cheryl Ward, Pomegranates in Eastern Mediterranean Contexts during the Late Bronze Age. World Archaeology 34(3):529-541, 2003.

To be continued …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen