A rare monastic lead seal dating from the Crusader era has been positively identified, over a year after it was discovered at an archaeological site in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Tuesday.
The double-sided seal is of a kind that was used to ensure the privacy of church correspondence, and is confirmed to have originated at the Monastery of St. Sabas, an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery overlooking the Kidron Valley, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
The seal, called a bulla in Latin, is some 800 years old and is in “excellent condition,” the IAA said. The seal “shows a bearded bust of a saint wearing a himation [a kind of ancient Greek robe] and holding a cross in his right hand and what is likely a Gospel in his left hand. Surrounding it is a Greek inscription naming the saint: ‘Saint Sabas.’ On the back of the bulla appears another longer Greek inscription ‘This is the seal of the Laura of the Holy Sabas.’”
“Laura” or “Lavra,” is a term for a Greek Orthodox monastic complex consisting of a group of caves or cells for monks, along with a church, dining room, and other buildings. The St. Sabas monastery is still in use and is considered the oldest continually inhabited monastery in the world. It was founded in the 5th century CE by its namesake, a leading Christian figure of the Byzantine period, who established several monastic communities.
The seal “consisted of two blank lead disks and had a string that passed through a channel between them. In sealing the letter these were pressed together with a pincer shaped object with dies, creating the double-faced seal,” according to the IAA.
The site where the seal was discovered, in the residential neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, was a small farming community during the Crusader and Mamluk periods, and had previously been settled earlier during the Byzantine era. Most objects discovered at the site reflect the daily life of an agricultural center.
According to the directors of the excavation, Benyamin Storchan and Benjamin Dolinka, “this is an extraordinarily rare find because no such seal has ever been discovered to date…. The excavated farmstead may well refer to a farming settlement sold to the monastery in 1163–1164. The document, part of the archives of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the Crusader period, mentioned a farming settlement by the name of Thora, whose whereabouts are unknown. It is quite possible the document refers to this site.”
Robert Kool of the IAA noted that during the Crusader period the St. Sabas monastery had an important role in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and had “a close relationship with the ruling royal family.The monastery had numerous properties and this farm may have been part of the monastery’s assets during the Crusader period.”