BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Lasting Impressions from Ancient Maresha 

The Discovery of an Archive Underneath the Hellenistic City  

Archaeologists excavating the Hellenistic city of Maresha made a stunning discovery in 2018, when they stumbled upon what must have been an ancient archive. So far thousands of underground rooms have been found at Maresha, a multiethnic ancient city in the Judean lowlands some 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. These subterranean spaces had been created as the ancient builders of the city quarried the bedrock for building material. Subsequently, the rock-hewn spaces were reused as storage, stalls, alcoves, or mikva’ot (ritual baths). The Maresha expedition, led by Ian Stern of Hebrew Union College, has so far identified about 170 individual complexes.

Plans

THE CITY OF MARESHA sits atop a maze of underground rooms and passages that once served as cellars, stalls, and … archives. Marked here with the yellow circle is Room 67 within the Subterranean Complex 89, where clay bullae indicate that the space was apparently reused to store written documents.
Credit: Courtesy of the Maresha Expedition represents the Greek goddess Athena as a soldier fighting in the first line (Athena Promachos).
Credit: Courtesy of the Maresha Expedition; photo Clara Amit

Writing for the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Stern and a coin specialist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, Donald T. Ariel, share the discovery story in their article “Archive Discovered Under Maresha.” They reveal that the alleged archive has been identified not by ancient documents, as you may be led to think, but rather by sealings (bullae) that once had been attached to such documents. Bullae are essentially chunks of clay into which were impressed seals indicating authority or ownership. More than a thousand of such impressions or fragments thereof has been identified at Maresha, many of them purely decorative.

bulla

HUNDREDS OF SEALINGS have been found at Maresha, a Hellenistic city in the Judean lowlands. Most of their iconography derives from the Hellenistic repertoire. This one represents the Greek goddess Athena as a soldier fighting in the first line (Athena Promachos).

Credit: Courtesy of the Maresha Expedition; photo Clara Amit

Unfortunately, the original documents—most likely written on papyrus or
parchment—have not survived in the humid conditions of the underground chamber. Stern and Ariel write: “Overall, we collected 1,027 sealings. As generally no more than a few sealings were attached to a single document, more than a thousand sealings indicate that a few hundred documents were once stored here, deep in a cave under a wealthy family’s house. This clearly was the personal archive of the owner of the house above, making it the largest private archive ever found in the Levant.”

It is important to acknowledge that archaeologists are much more likely to find sealings than actual seals used to create the impressions. In fact, many unique inscriptions or designs are known only from impressions. On an even more general level, we must understand that the writings of antiquity that have survived to our days are but a shadow of the written material that once existed. So even when the actual documents at Maresha did not survive to be excavated and studied, we are still fortunate to have the direct and tangible evidence of such documents—evidence that can be studied and appreciated in its own right.

To learn more about the fascinating discovery at Maresha, read Donald T. Ariel and Ian Stern’s article “Archive Discovered Under Maresha,” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

underground room

BEHIND AN INCONSPICUOUS OPENING in the labyrinth of underground rooms and passages at Maresha was this claustrophobic space, the size of a closet. Among some broken jars the explorers spotted what no one expected—hundreds of clay sealings indicative of an ancient archive.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maresha Expedition

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Archive Discovered Under Maresha” by Donald T. Ariel and Ian Stern in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Read More about bullae in Bible History Daily:

 

Fit for a Queen: Jezebel’s Royal Seal

Thousands and thousands of seals and seal impressions (bullae) from the ancient Near East have been found, including Hebrew exemplars in Israel. Documents would be tied up with string and a blob of clay placed over the string; a seal would then be…

Jeremiah, Prophet of the Bible, Brought Back to Life

Two small clay bullae (seal impressions) found in the course of Eilat Mazar’s City of David, Jerusalem, excavations are bringing Jeremiah, prophet of the last kings of Judah, back to life.

Persian Period Bullae Found

After King Nebuchadnezzar II attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., the Jews were exiled in Babylon for some 50 years.

Sifting Project Reveals First Temple Bulla

Jerusalem archaeologist Gabriel Barkay announced this week that the Temple Mount Sifting Project has discovered a fragment of a seventh-century B.C.E. clay bulla impressed with the ancient Hebrew inscription [g]b’n lmlk, or “Gibeon, for the king.”

 

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