Thursday, December 10, 2020

An early inscribed Iron Age seal (updated)

ICONOGRAPHY AND EPIGRAPHY: 2,300-year-old Iron Age seal found in Israeli market. Researchers revealed that a seal sold in a market for a couple of shekels to a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is in fact the earliest seal discovered in Israel (Hannah Brown, Jerusalem Post).

First, this is a remarkable object. To be clear, it is a seal impression in clay (a bulla), not a stone seal. It turned up in a Bedouin market in Beer Sheva about half a century ago.

Second, it is therefore unprovenanced, which should make us cautious. But the article assures us that the seal has been carefully authenticated. I accept it as geniune, pending evaluation by iconographers and epigraphers when the speciaist articles come out.

But, third, 2300 years ago was around 300 BCE. This was in the Hellenistic period, not long after the time of Alexander the Great. The Iron Age had been over for centuries. I see a number of articles giving this date, so presumably it was in a press release that I haven't seen.

Obviously, there is a mistake somewhere. If it is really the earliest Iron Age seal or seal impression, it must be pretty old. Some clay bullae from the tenth century BCE were excavated in Israel a few years ago. And a stone seal also dated to the tenth century was found by the Temple Mount Sifting Project in 2015.

But perhaps the article means that it is the earliest inscribed seal (impression). The earliest inscribed Northwest Semitic seals I know of are from the late ninth to eighth centuries BCE. So perhaps the correct date for the seal is 2800 years old? That's my speculation. Don't repeat it as correct without confirmation. And check with an epigrapher like Christopher Rollston about the date of the brief inscription.

There is confusion somewhere. Can any readers shed light on the actual date of this object?

Fourth, the JP article oddly translates the inscription (and the corresponding reading on a seal from Megiddo) as "to hear." No. It means "Belonging to Shema" (לשמע). The word Shema is a name (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:43-44, 5:8, 11:44 etc.). Perhaps a misunderstanding of a Hebrew press release?

I look forward to the forthcoming articles in Eretz Israel and the Israel Exporation Journal, which doubtless will clear these matters up.

I have spent too much time on this post. I have to do other things now.

But I should also mention that I am giving my SBL paper today: "Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman and Ancient Jewish Worlds." It is in the Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity session (S10-105) which begins at 10:00 am U.S. Eastern Standard Time.

If you are registered for the SBL conference, please come join us at the Zoom session.

I will also be posting the paper on PaleoJudaica after I present it. So come back later today if you want to read it.

UPDATE: Amanda Borschel-Dan e-mails to alert me to her Times of Israel article: 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. For some reason it didn't come up in my searches this morning. It gives much more detail and background. The bulla reportedly dates to the first half of the eighth century BCE (the reign of Jeroboam II). So pretty much what I thought. That makes it a very early inscribed bulla, at least among the earliest.

Assuming it's genuine. Let's see what the epigraphers and iconographers say.

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