An enormous trove of 2,000-year-old clay seal impressions was chanced upon in August during exploration of a newly discovered seven-room cave complex at the ancient city of Maresha, part of the Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park in central Israel.
While attempting to photograph the new subterranean complex, archaeologist Dr. Ian Stern and his photographer son, Asaf Stern, discovered an exciting cache of clay impressions (bullae) littered among millennia-old smashed large jars on a small cave’s floor.
In the dark, dank cave, the stash of over 1,000 sealings was nearly invisible to the naked eye. Only after entering the small cave to set up the photography lighting were they spotted, and Asaf rushed out to inform his father, “We have something amazing here!”
The sealings were photographed in situ, and carefully gathered the following day for preservation, storage and analysis.
According to a press release on the find, “These unfired bullae sealed the knots of twine binding papyrus scrolls — hundreds of them — that did not survive their 2,000 years in the caves’ moist atmosphere. The imprint of the string and the impression of the papyrus is still visible on many of the bullae.”
An initial survey of 300 of the 1,020 clay sealings indicates they were strung on documents from a large private archive. The quantity and quality of the new, almost unprecedented hoard of sealings is rare on an international scale, said Stern, who directs the excavation at the site.
“It really underlines the fact that the city was a major cosmopolitan center; an inland city with indelible ties to the outside wold,” Stern told The Times of Israel. The find, he said, “puts Maresha once again on the map.”
Located in Israel’s Shfela region in the foothills of the Judean Mountains, land-locked Maresha, today a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once a culturally diverse city with a small Jewish population on the crossroads of the Hellenistic empire, said Stern. Mostly dating to the time of the Maccabees, previous “incredibly rich” artifacts discovered at the site come from corners of the empire as far-flung as the Black Sea, he said.
The Israel Antiquities Authority’s head of the Coin Department, Dr. Donald Ariel, conducted a preliminary survey of 300 of the fragile, as yet unwashed clay sealings.
An international expert in the field, Ariel determined that they primarily date from the 2nd century BCE and depicted images of gods, including Athena, Aphrodite, and Apollo, as well as erotic themes, masks, standing figures, and cornucopia. There were a few with Greek letters and numbers indicating dates, but as yet none of the sealings were seen to bear other written inscriptions.
A vibrant part of the Helenistic Empire, the city was conquered by Jews and abandoned in 107 BCE, by the Maccabean King John Hyrcanus I. Roman-era pottery discovered at the site give indications that the cave complex was used by Jews weathering the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 CE.
The complete study will be a multi-year, multi-disciplinary project, said Stern, who is beginning to build a team of experts. Stern hopes that further analysis will indicate the origins of the clay used for the sealings, as well as the significance of their iconography to shore up Maresha’s ancient international prestige and its relationship to the greater empire.
Stern is the director of the Archaeological Seminars Institute, which runs the touristic/educational “Dig for a Day” program. It was a North American youth group participating in the Dig for a Day program that helped archaeologist Stern discover the opening to the new seven-room complex.
Since 2000, Stern has headed the Maresha dig. The founder of the ASI, 86-year-old archaeologist Bernie Alpert, still visits the site annually and even crawled into the new seven-cave complex last month.
Stern works in cooperation with the Hebrew Union College, as well as the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Unlike most excavations in Israel, the cave complex at Maresha is dug year-round, although tourist groups must reserve space in advance.