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6th Century seals found in City of David shed light on Jerusalem life during Persian period

A seal made out of a piece of clay from the Persian Period. Credit: Shai Halevy, Israel Antiquities Authority.
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Researchers: Discovering these artifacts in an archaeological context which can be dated with a high probability is very rare

By ILANIT CHERNICK

A seal and seal impression on a bulla uncovered at the City of David has shed light on what life may have been like during the restoration of Jerusalem in the 6th Century BCE.

The 2,500-year-old artifacts are believed to date back to the time of biblical figures Ezra and Nechemiah who lived during the Persian period. 

According to the archaeologists, the double stamp impression on a bulla and a seal made of reused pottery were found during archaeological excavations in the Givati Parking Lot Excavation of the City of David, in the Jerusalem Walls National Park being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Tel Aviv University.

The IAA added that they were discovered next to the rubble of a large structure that was destroyed during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Explaining the significance of the find, TAU Prof. Yuval Gadot of the Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures department, and the IAA’s Dr. Yiftah Shalev said that despite numerous excavations conducted in Jerusalem to date, “so far the findings revealed from the Persian period are extremely meager and therefore we lack information regarding the character and appearance of the city during this period.” 

A seal and a seal impression were discovered in the City of David. (Credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David Archives.)

They pointed out that “discovering these artifacts in an archaeological context which can be dated with a high probability is very rare.”

Describing the finds, the researchers said that  the double seal impression was discovered on a large piece of clay. 

“The size of the clay piece, about 4.5 cm, indicates that it was used to seal a large container – perhaps a jar-  and not a document,” they said. “The imprint bears the image of a person sitting on a large chair with one or two columns in front of him.” 

The design of the image, they said, is indicative of Babylonian-style composition. 

“The character is probably a king and the columns are the symbols that represent the gods Nabu and Marduk,” the researchers added.

Seal impressions, known as a bullae, were small pieces of clay used in ancient times to sign documents or containers such as storage jugs for agricultural produce collected as a tax. 

Bulla were intended to keep such items sealed en route to their destination. 

“Oftentimes, the objects on which the seals were stamped were themselves left unopened or did not endure (especially the documents), but the bullae remained preserved, leaving evidence of the administrative authorities, and even of the people representing them,” the researchers explained.

According to Gadot and Shalev, “the finding of the stamp and seal impression in the City of David indicates that despite the city’s dire situation after the destruction, efforts were made to restore the administrative authorities to normal, and its residents continued to partly use the structures that were destroyed”.

Other artifacts were discovered along with the seals, including a broken pottery vessel decorated with a face of the god Bes. 

“Discovering the new findings on the western slope of the City of David adds much information about the city’s structure during the period of the Return to Zion, a period we knew about mainly from Biblical literature (the books of Ezra and Nehemiah),” Gadot and Shalev emphasized. “The paucity of the findings from this period made it difficult to understand the status and extent of the city.

“The findings from the Givati Parking Lot Excavation shed light on the renewal of the local administration, in a location similar to the one that existed before the destruction of the First Temple, about 100 years prior,” they added.

According to Dr. Ido Koch of TAU’s Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures department, only about ten artifacts of this style have been found in Israel, “in places such as Ein Gedi and Jerusalem, which appear to have been in use during the Persian period.” 

A stamp seal featuring a man sitting on a large chair (maybe a king) found at the City of David.
(Credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David Archives)

Another similarly styled bulla, also believed to be from the Persian period, was discovered recently in excavations carried out by Dr. Eilat Mazar on the eastern slope of the City of David.

The seal is made of a large, locally-made pottery shard, with a circular frame engraved on its outer side, and is divided into two sections containing several linear inscriptions. The engravings probably represent two characters, and it may be a pseudo-epigraphic seal, meaning that it bears drawings designed to resemble letters. 

On the other side of the seal is a fragment, which may be indicative of a handle that was attached to it in the past. The size of the seal, about 8 cm. in diameter, indicates that it was used to seal large objects.

The findings are set to be displayed on Wednesday at the 5th “Jerusalem Days” conference of Yad Ben-Zvi and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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