2,700 years ago, tiny clay piece sealed deal for Bible’s King Jeroboam II
Bought for a pittance at a market in 1980, 8th century BCE paleo-Hebrew inscription is the earliest writing found on a clay seal impression in the Land of Israel, study shows
What is arguably the earliest inscribed clay seal impression from the Land of Israel — used at the court of Israelite King Jeroboam II — has been authenticated after years of strict laboratory testing under the supervision of Ben-Gurion University Prof. Yuval Goren. The inscribed clay, known as a bulla, was purchased without provenance from a Bedouin antiquities merchant in the 1980s and is now thought to be from Jeroboam II’s 8th century BCE reign.
“This bulla is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, inscribed bulla in the Land of Israel,” Goren told The Times of Israel ahead of the publication of a scientific study in Hebrew in a special edition of the Eretz Yisrael journal dedicated to epigrapher Ada Yardeni. It will later appear in English in the Israel Exploration Journal.
The oval bulla is almost identical to a rare — and now lost — much larger jasper stone seal that was found in 1904 by an archaeological excavation at Tel Megiddo led by Gottlieb Schumacher. Both the remarkable lost seal and the newly authenticated seal impression are adorned by a roaring lion that stands with his tail raised, over which is a paleo-Hebrew inscription, “l’Shema eved Yerov’am” (Belonging to Shema the servant/minister of Jeroboam). Jeroboam II is historically understood to have ruled from 788 BCE to 748 BCE.
The bulla has only a partial impression of the inscription, but Goren said it is clearly the same as what was incised on the jasper seal. The fact that the royal seal came in varied sizes is noteworthy and novel to this study, according to a Ben-Gurion University press release.
Goren told The Times of Israel that he became aware of the seal impression over 10 years ago. It had been purchased from a Bedouin market near Beersheba by Yigal Ronen, a former professor of nuclear engineering and a certified antiquities collector, for a mere 10 old Israeli shekels in the 1980s, equivalent to a few cents. Because of the extremely strange circumstances and inexpensive price, Ronen initially disregarded the possibility that the small, 23.4 millimeter (1 inch) by 19.3 mm (.75 inch) bulla could be authentic, and thought it a clever forgery or replica, said Goren.
About five years ago, the secret in-depth testing of the seal impression began, Goren said. It followed a protocol he had forged over the past decade, which includes a series of overlapping tests from varied scientific disciplines.
Using this testing protocol, Goren has provided expert testimony in high-profile cases of alleged forgery, such as the James Ossuary trial. He has analyzed numerous seals for the Israel Police and the Israel Antiquities Authority, he said.
The impetus for the testing of the new bulla came after Ronen’s friend and neighbor, the archaeologist and Ben-Gurion University professor emeritus Eliezar Oren had repeatedly visited Ronen’s collection. Oren, the founder of Ben-Gurion University’s archaeology program, suspected the sealing was indeed from the Iron Age and urged the Ronen family to give permission for high-tech testing.
Goren said he agreed to oversee the procedures completed by his laboratory and those of an interdisciplinary team of scientists — on the condition that the artifact be turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority if authenticated. (Spoiler: The bulla will shortly make its way to the IAA.)
It takes an academic village
Goren does not work in a vacuum and repeatedly emphasized that the long series of analytical tests were formed after working with a team of researchers. “We studied — not the royal we; I had partners — many seal impressions and tried to understand the techniques in making them and tried to understand what kind of documents they sealed, or if they sealed documents,” he said.
“Because the technology was never examined before, there were a lot of assumptions, but no one had checked, for example, the consistency of the clay, how they assembled the strings within the bulla if it was used to seal documents,” Goren said. He and other researchers studied hundreds of securely identified bullae from legal excavations to get a reference point. He can now, he said, more easily spot a fake artifact if, for example, the clay was not of the type standardly used by scribes.
Among the researchers who participated in the new sealing study were Ben-Gurion University epigrapher Prof. Shmuel Ahituv, geologists Dr. Avner Ayalon and Dr. Mira Bar-Matthews from the Geological Survey of Israel, and IAA archaeologist Orit Shamir, who specializes in textiles.
Goren specializes in researching the provenance of ceramic artifacts — including seal impressions and cuneiform tablets — and uncovering the technology used to create them through mineralogy. For the new bulla study, he said he had to remove a tiny fragment of the clay to examine the mineral makeup.
“My hands didn’t shake,” he joked, saying he has done similar testing to other priceless, provenanced seals from the famed Amarna archives in Egypt, and elsewhere. “You always take a small fragment from a hidden or broken place. You don’t disturb the sealing or its impression.”
Another series of tests analyzed the isotopic composition of the bulla’s patina, a thin layer of tarnish, which occurs through exposure to air over time and can be faked by forgers — up to a point. “You can imitate patina in a laboratory, but this test would discover a forgery,” said Goren.
The testing, he said, took several years, not because the tests themselves are so time consuming, but due to the checklist protocol of examinations.
“Each time we try to date the clay, it’s always a conflict between acting non-intrusively, but you want to use several methods to be sure of the result,” he said. “We are never sure,” he corrected himself, adding, “It’s like in a court — beyond any reasonable doubt. So we need several overlapping tests.”
What were these clay sealings used for?
While it is extremely rare to find a sealing from the Kingdom of Israel, such as this new bulla, there are hundreds that have been discovered in the Kingdom of Judah. Some, said Goren, have signs of being sealed upon papyrus, sometimes fabrics, and sometimes wood — maybe boxes, maybe sacks, he said.
However, there are indications that some of these seal impressions didn’t actually seal anything at all, he said, citing the work of archaeologist Nachman Avigad who called these “fiscal bulla.” These tokens, he said, may have been created as a reference of an official agreement or transaction.
Interestingly, said Goren, often those seal impressions that show signs of having been upon papyrus or cloth were later fired. It is his theory that a transaction was witnessed through the creation of the wet seal impression, which was later removed from the paper or cloth it ceremonially bound and fired at a high temperature of circa 750 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which the new bulla was fired.
“We believe they were fired or baked after removal from the document, and therefore preserved,” he said. Goren said that 1950s excavations at Tel Lachish found an Iron Age building in which a small, stoppered juglet filled with such bullae was discovered.
“Why would anybody keep the bullae,” he asked, answering, “because they were still used as references even after the document was opened.”
“Therefore, we believe the sealings were acting as the signatures of today,” said Goren.