The Valuable Contributions of “Worthless” Artifacts
A trend has developed recently in the archaeological establishment: Ignore all unprovenanced artifacts. This approach is especially popular among field archaeologists, who believe that objects without a stratified context are worthless. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) have even banned the publication of articles and the presentation of papers about unprovenanced objects from their journals and conferences.
Other scholars reject this view, however. As Swiss Biblical scholar and religious historian Othmar Keel said in an interview with BAR, “I don’t think we can write a history of the ancient Near East without relying on unprovenanced material.”* That prompted us to take a look at several unprovenanced artifacts—all published in BAR—that have contributed significantly to our understanding of the Biblical world.
*See Finds or Fakes, “Defending the Study of Unprovenanced Artifacts: An Interview with Othmar Keel,” BAR, July/August 2005.
The Amarna Tablets
In 1887 a Bedouin woman searching among ancient ruins near the Nile River discovered some inscribed clay tablets. This site, located 200 miles south of Cairo, was later named el-Amarna. Bedouin excavated more than 300 of the cuneiform tablets from the site but could not interest scholars in purchasing them. The tablets were dispersed—some were lost, others broken, but fortunately most ended up in museum collections.
What scholars had initially failed to recognize was that these were in fact letters from the royal archive of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353–1337 B.C.), containing records of his father’s (Amenophis III) official correspondence with his various Canaanite vassal rulers. When Akhenaten moved the royal capital from Thebes to the new site of Akhetaten (el-Amarna), he brought with him hundreds of these tablets inscribed in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day.
The Amarna tablets have proven to be invaluable sources for understanding diplomatic relations in the 14th century between Egypt and Canaan, and have added to the archaeological evidence of the various Canaanite cities’ importance, development and settlement patterns prior to the Israelites’ arrival.*
These small clay house shrines abound on the antiquities market and in private collections. Used from the third millennium B.C. through the Biblical period, they are thought to have originated in the Jordan River valley—mostly in Transjordan. Despite their numerous presence on the antiquities market, only a few have come from professional excavations, including a couple from Israelite sites.*
Although the exact function of these house shrines is still unknown, they are rich with familiar iconography. From the tree-like columns to the lion bases and the doves perched atop the roofs, all of these are well-known symbols of the goddess Asherah and her counterparts in the ancient Near East. Some of the shrines even have female figures, which may represent the goddess herself or her worshipers. The house shrines suggest the strong presence of popular religion, probably practiced in the home by a majority of the population, that went against the official Israelite monotheism and elite Temple-centered worship that the Biblical writers promoted.
*See “The Untouchables: Scholars Fear to Publish Ancient House Shrine," BAR, November/December 2005; William G.Dever,“A Temple Built for Two,” BAR, March/April 2008.
The Moabite Stone
This 3-foot-high black basalt stela was first brought to the attention of scholars in 1868 by Bedouin living east of the Jordan River and just north of the Arnon River. After several failed negotiations to purchase it, the stela was broken into dozens of pieces and scattered among the Bedouin. In the 1870s several of the fragments were recovered by scholars and reconstructed—comprising only two-thirds of the original stela. A paper imprint (called a squeeze) that had been taken of the intact inscription allowed scholars to fill in the missing text.*
Even in its fragmentary condition, the 34 lines of Phoenician script (also called paleo-Hebrew) on the Moabite Stone, or “Mesha Stela,” constituted the longest monumental inscription ever found in Palestine. The inscription, which dates to the ninth century B.C., is a victory stela set up to commemorate the triumph of the rebellious Moabite vassal king Mesha over the Israelite king and his armies. The Bible records a similar episode in 2 Kings 3, but not surprisingly, each account is much more flattering to its own author than the other.
The Moabite Stone also helped scholars clarify the tribal land allotments among the northern tribes of Israel.
Israelite Seal Impressions
Many are no bigger than a quarter, but seal impressions, or bullae, have made vast contributions to our knowledge of ancient Israelite history, and especially about the people who lived it. These bullae were formed by pressing a seal into a wet lump of clay that secured the string tied around a document. The seal impression served as both a signature and security measure for the authenticity of the contents. In the fiery destructions that were so common in antiquity, the documents and strings were usually burned away, but the clay bullae were baked hard and therefore preserved.
The bullae here from the Josef Chaim Kaufman collection, published by Robert Deutsch,* can be dated based on their scripts. The 260-some bullae and many more like them have increased the ancient Israelite onomasticon (list of known names) dramatically. They sometimes even bear names known from the Bible, including Hezekiah and Baruch the scribe.
*See Hershel Shanks,“Review: Why Objects from the Antiquities Market Matter,” BAR, March/April 2004.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are so widely celebrated by the scholarly community and have played such an important part in Biblical scholarship that it is sometimes easy to forget that most of them are in fact looted objects. With the exception of only a few small fragments and the Copper Scroll, the Bedouin cleaned out most of the caves around Qumran before the excavators could find them. Yet their provenance has been established with reasonable certainty, and their authenticity was never doubted.
That’s a good thing, because these thousands of fragments constitute almost 900 documents dating between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. They contain the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible by nearly 1,000 years, and they continue to change our understanding of first-century Judaism, the origins of Christianity, the development of the Biblical canon and Hebrew textual traditions.
Magic Incantation Bowls
Magic has often been considered the enemy of “true” religion, but incantation bowls like this one from the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff show that demons, curses and spells were a regular part of Babylonian Jewish life in the third–seventh centuries A.D.* Thousands of these bowls have been found, and nearly all of them are inscribed with Jewish Aramaic script spiraling toward the center. These writings are usually spells: wishes for love, prayers for healing and even curses on enemies. Many people believed that demons were responsible for evil-doing and illness, so it was common to depict a demon on the bowl in the desired stance—bound and incapacitated.
These bowls demonstrate the extent to which some Jews absorbed the cultural practices and influences of their neighbors and utilized every available method when seeking divine aid.
Shebnayahu’s Seal Impression
We have already discussed the value of the countless bullae from ancient Israel. But this bulla from the antiquities market, inscribed “Shebnayahu, [servan]t of the king,” didn’t just add to our knowledge of ancient names, and it didn’t simply provide a connection to a character mentioned in the Bible. While it certainly did both of these, this unprovenanced object actually helped solve a decades-old mystery from an excavation. In this case the ugly stepsister became the belle of the ball, so to speak.
Dorothy D. Resig
Dorothy D. Resig is the managing editor of BAR.
To read more about the Shebnayahu bulla, see Robert Deutsch’s article “Tracking Down Shebnayahu, Servant of the King” in the May/June 2009 issue of BAR.
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