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(10/2020) A Clay Impression Purchased In the Bedouin Market Proves to Be 2,800 Years Old

About forty years ago, Professor Yigal Ronen strolled through the Bedouin market in Beer-Sheva in search of ancient coins. Ronen is Professor Emeritus of Nuclear Engineering at Ben-Gurion University, but he is also a history buff, and coin collector. Ronen was intrigued when he noticed a small oval shaped object in one of the stands. It was not a coin, but a clay seal impression (bulla). Measuring 1 inch by 0.75 inch, the impression depicted a roaring lion with his tail raised. Above the lion was one word, in Paleo-Hebrew, reading “Of Shema”

חותם שמע עבד ירבעם

Imprint of the Jasper Seal of “Shema Slave of Jeroboam” found in 1904 in Megiddo. The seal was taken by the Ottomans to Istanbul and today its whereabout is unknown.

Ronen was familiar with another seal that resembled this Bulla. In 1904 the German archaeologist Gottlieb Schumacher discovered at Megiddo a bigger seal, made of Jasper.  It also depicted a roaring lion, in greater detail, with a raised tail. The inscription on the seal from Megiddo read “Of Shema, slave of Jeroboam”. The term slave is a bit misleading, as the seal is really attributed to a senior official, perhaps a minister, in the kingdom of Jeroboam II (784-750 BC).  To this day, the Megiddo seal is the grandest seal ever found from biblical times.

The Bedouin did not know where the seal came from and was willing to sell it for just 10 shekels (about 3 USD in today’s value). Being so, Ronen assumed it’s a forgery, yet he bought it and kept it.

Recently, with the development of geo-mineralogical research, Ronen decided to let the seal be examined in a detailed scientific manner. The inter-disciplinary research was conducted by a team of archaeologists, geologists, and a fabric expert: Prof. Yuval Goren, Prof. Eliezer Oren, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv, and Prof. Eliezer Oren, all from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Dr. Avner Elon and Dr. Mira Bar-Matthews from the Geological Survey of Jerusalem; and Dr. Orit Shamir of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

חותם שמע צילום דני מכליס, אוניברסיטת בן גוריון בנגב

The “Shema” Seal Impression of Prof. Yigal Ronan. (Dani Machlis/Ben Gurion University)

The results were striking. The soil used in the seal impression contained limestone and basalt with olivine. This combination is not typical to Beersheba Valley, but is found in the Jezreel Valley and the Lower Galilee, the area of ​​Megiddo. Furthermore, the seal impression was used to seal a linen fabric (a bag?), and both were in a fire of 750 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the seal did not contain any organic remnants that allowed carbon 14 test for dating it, but the team agrees that the bulla is genuine, and dates to the time of Jeroboam II. Perhaps it was used by a secondary seal of Shema, Jeroboam’s senior official, to approve the contents of bags, while the bigger Jasper seal was reserved for documents.

These conclusions have a great impact also the general field of biblical history. This seal impression is further confirmation to an elaborate administrative system in the time of Jeroboam II and so to his prosperous kingdom. It strengthens the school of Tel Aviv University, headed by Professor Finkelstein, which considers Jeroboam II reign as the most prosperous period in the history of the Israelite Kingdom.  They argue that most of the grand architecture found in biblical-era sites in the north (i.e. the fortification in Hazor, the stables in Megiddo or the palace in Samaria) all date to his time. However, the bible, for political and religious reasons, diminished his power, leading many other scholars to attribute these finds to King Solomon. This academic debate is far from being over, but the new discovery demonstrates how more research is still needed.

Following this study, the Ronen family agreed to hand the seal impression to the Israel Antiquities Authority, and it will be put on display at the Israel Museum.