Wednesday, October 1, 2008


It is the most remarkable find since excavations in the heart of this 3,000-year-old capital of ancient Israel began 140 years ago: a tiny clay seal impression also known as a bulla or stamp, discovered near the ruins of what has been identified as King David‘s palace and bearing the name of an influential courtier mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

“It is not very often that archaeologists have surprises that bring them so close to the reality of the biblical text,” said Eilat Mazar, whose pinpoint dig in a relatively small site this summer led her to a clay bulla whose ancient Hebrew script identifies its owner as Gedalyahu ben Pashhur.

Speaking to an enthusiastic audience of 1,500 Israelis who converged on the Palestinian-Arab Silwan quarter, known as Kfar Hashiloah, or Siloam in the Bible, Mrs. Mazar said, “One could not have asked anything more than this.”

Ben Pashhur’s name is cited in the Book of Jeremiah 38:1 together with that of Yehuchal ben Shelemayahu, whose bulla was discovered at the same site two years ago.

The two were ministers in the court of King Zedekiah, the last king from the Davidic dynasty to reign in Jerusalem. His reign, from 597 to 586 B.C., ended with the Babylonians’ destruction of the First Temple on nearby Mount Moriah.

Because both bullae were perfectly intact and their inscriptions easily legible by anyone familiar with the ancient Hebrew script, Gabriel Barkay, one of Mrs. Mazar’s veteran colleagues, surmised they were attached to documents that were burned, possibly during the Babylonian siege, but that they survived because they were made of clay.

“They were baked and thereby preserved in mud and silt, which could be dissolved in water,” he said. The two bullae resemble each other except for the names they bear.

Mrs. Mazar said the two courtiers opposed the prophet Jeremiah’s pleas to Zedekiah that Judea surrender to the Babylonians.

“They wanted him executed,” she said, “but the king refused.” Jeremiah was imprisoned twice and confined to a pit. Ultimately, they asked him to pray for the kingdom.

It is the first time in the annals of Israeli archaeology that two 2,600-year-old clay bullae with two biblical names that appear in the same biblical verse have been unearthed in the same location, she said.

The first one was discovered two years ago above the ruins of King David’s palace, which Mrs. Mazar uncovered during an earlier phase of her work at the City of David.

Mrs. Mazar’s latest find occurred in what are thought to be the remains of a tower that was part of the city wall dating back to the 50th century B.C. days of Nehemiah, the governor of Judea appointed by the Persians after they defeated the Babylonians in 538 B.C., when they allowed the Jewish exiles to return from Babylon.

Excavations at the City of David, a hillside site just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Dung Gate, were resumed in 1978 under the direction of Yigal Shiloh, a pioneer archaeologist who found 50 similar seal impressions at the site.

“In Jerusalem, you don’t look for anything you may want,” said Mr. Barkay. “You just find whatever you find.”

He said that the entire city, whose “structures include an abundance of mosques, churches and synagogues actually covers countless items that I would like to find.” Indeed, Israel’s unique antiquity law precludes construction of buildings without the permission of the government’s Antiquities Authority, “but a lot of structures are illicitly built,” he said, implying that as a result, it is impossible to investigate what may lie beneath them.

Mr. Barkay has been sifting through the rubble collected at a dump outside the city where it was discarded by Palestinian contractors authorized by the Muslim religious commission, known in Arabic as the “Waqf,” to build the subterranean Marwan Mosque near the area known as Solomon’s stables.

His project has been under way for four years and has employed 40,000 volunteers. Most are Israelis, but others have come from the U.S. and abroad. It entails sophisticated techniques developed by Mr. Barkay that enabled his team to find ancient coins, potsherds and other historically significant objects. However, he concedes that many priceless items pertaining to the First Temple period probably have been lost forever.

Mrs. Mazar’s dig is sponsored by the Ir David Foundation in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority, Hebrew University and Shalem Center.

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