Photo Credit: Assaf Stern, courtesy of the Nature and Parks Authority
A bulla excavated at Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park

Who possessed an archive of more than a thousand letters some 2,200 years ago, and why did they abruptly abandon it?

A rare and fascinating discovery at Tel Marsha, located at the biblical city of Maresha, in the foothills of the Judaean mountains, has evoked the imagination of many archaeologists. It offers evidence of the existence of the archive, the second of its kind discovered in Israel, dating to the Hellenistic period (323 BCE to 31 BCE).

The cave where the bullae were discovered / Photo credit: Assaf Stern, courtesy of the Nature and Parks Authority
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The archive was discovered as part of the archaeological excavations being carried out in the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park under the direction of Dr. Ian Stern of the Archaeological Seminars and Hebrew Union College, with permission from the Nature and Parks Authority and a license from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

During excavations conducted in a side room in an underground cave at the site, a total of 1,020 bullae (seals) made of clay dated to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE were exposed.

The bullae were used in ancient times for the sealing of letters and scrolls written on papyrus. If a letter arrived with a broken bulla, it meant it had been opened. Unfortunately, those letters and scrolls did not survive through the 2,200 years that have passed, only the seals remained, to tell the story of the archive.

A bulla excavated at Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park / Photo credit: Assaf Stern, courtesy of the Nature and Parks Authority

Dr. Donald Zvi Ariel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, one of the world’s leading experts on bullae, examined a group of 300 bullae and identified on the seal impressions figures of Greek gods such as Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite, as well as cornucopia, erotic scenes, and animals.

According to Dr. Ariel’s estimates, “this archeological finding of more than 1,000 seals indicates a large archive of ancient private documents that existed at the site and possibly belonged to a well-to-do estate owner. It seems that the archive was abandoned abruptly and this fact is particularly interesting against the background of the events of the period known from scripture, when the Hasmonean king Yochanan Hyrcanus conquered the Edomites who lived in this area and forced them to convert to Judaism.”

A bulla excavated at Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park / Photo credit: Assaf Stern, courtesy of the Nature and Parks Authority

Old Maresha, which is now part of the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park, is the richest source for scholars to study the multicultural world of the Hellenistic period in the Land of Israel.

According to excavation director Dr. Stern, “This find joins other fascinating finds discovered in Maresha from a time when the city was a central commercial crossroads. The study of the seals, and the various images that appear on them, can provide significant information about the life and the culture during this period in Israel.”

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