Israelite clay bullae like the Shebnayahu seal have helped solve puzzles that excavations could not
A series about unprovenanced Biblical artifacts, which means Bible artifacts found outside of a professional excavation, wouldn’t be complete without Israelite clay bullae, or seal impressions. These are among the most common Biblical artifacts found in Israel and the Near East. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) have banned the publication of articles and the presentation of papers about unprovenanced Biblical artifacts in an attempt to curb archaeological looting and forgery of Bible artifacts found in Israel and Jordan. Other scholars, however, believe that Biblical artifacts found without a stratified context are by no means worthless.
Many are no bigger than a quarter, but clay bullae are Biblical artifacts that have made vast contributions to our knowledge of ancient Israelite history, and especially about the people who lived it. These clay bullae were formed by pressing a seal into a wet lump of clay that secured the string tied around a document. The seal impression served as both a signature and security measure for the authenticity of the contents. In the fiery destructions that were so common in antiquity, the documents and strings were usually burned away, but the clay bullae were baked hard and therefore preserved.
The clay bullae here from the Josef Chaim Kaufman collection, published by Robert Deutsch,* can be dated based on their scripts. The 260-some bullae and many more similar Biblical artifacts found due to archaeological looting have increased the ancient Israelite onomasticon (list of known names) dramatically. They sometimes even bear names known from the Bible, including Hezekiah and Baruch the scribe.
We have already discussed the value of the countless bullae from ancient Israel. But this bulla from the antiquities market, inscribed “Shebnayahu, [servan]t of the king,” didn’t just add to our knowledge of ancient names, and it didn’t simply provide a connection to a character mentioned in the Bible. While it certainly did both of these, this bulla, an example of one of the many Biblical artifacts found outside a professional excavation, actually helped solve a decades-old mystery from an excavation. In this case the ugly stepsister became the belle of the ball, so to speak.
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