Friday, December 11, 2015

What We Know about the New Hezekiah Sealing

At a press conference last Wednesday (December 2), Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University announced the discovery of a royal sealing of Hezekiah, king of Judah (late 8th-early 7th centuries BCE). The sealing came from her excavations in the Ophel (immediately south of the Temple Mount), in Jerusalem in 2009, though it was only found in sifting in 2010. News of the find has quickly spread, not only through the press conference itself but an accompanying press release and a series of articles in Israeli and international media.

The sealing has naturally attracted a great deal of interest, but perhaps even a greater amount of confusion. After having a few days to digest the initial reports and analyses, I think it’s a good time to summarize what we know and try to clarify some of the basic issues.

The sealing
(I will provide only a brief summary here. For more details on the text and imagery see George Athas’s useful post on the contents of the seal.)

The object is a bulla (or sealing), formed by impressing a seal into a wet piece of clay. Bullae were typically used to seal documents and containers; in the case of this object, there are impressions on the reverse from cords used for tying up the document. The face (obverse) of the impression includes an inscription in two lines, along with two symbols: a winged sun disk (a common ancient Near Eastern motif), and an ankh (an Egyptian symbol of life).

The reading of the inscription, made by Mazar’s epigrapher Reut Ben-Aryeh, is as follows:

lzqyhw ’[h]
(belonging) to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah

The letters in brackets at the end of each line are reconstructed, as the left edge of the sealing was broken off. However, there is no question of the reading: we have identical sealings – that is, impressions from the same seal – that turned up on the antiquities market in the 1990s. The word ben, “son (of)”, was omitted from the seal, but we have many other examples where it is missing from patronymics. Its absence is often attributed to lack of space.[1]

The archaeological context
This may be the area of greatest confusion.[2] First, it is important to note that there is no question about the provenance of the find: it comes from an ancient dump in a controlled excavation – Area A of Mazar’s excavations in the Ophel, from 2009. As it comes from a controlled excavation, there is therefore no question that the object is genuine. However, the heading of the press release is incorrect in stating that the object was found in situ (that is, noticed in the ground). It was found in dirt removed and sifted offsite, at the Emek Tzurim sifting facility operated by Gabi Barkay and Zachi Dvira of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Sifting is a standard archaeological practice, generally used to catch things that might be missed by the eye during the course of excavation. (This bulla is just over a centimeter long.) As has been reported previously, a number of excavations in Jerusalem do not conduct their sifting on-site but send their dirt to Emek Tzurim to be sifted there; Mazar’s Ophel dig was one of these.

The context of the sealing is also clear: it comes from an ancient dump, probably dating to the 7th century BCE. Robert Cargill has suggested that there is an “obvious stratigraphic problem” in excavating an ancient dump. It is a discard context, not a use context, so we certainly lose information about how the object was originally used, or where. We cannot be confident, like Mazar, that the sealing was dumped from an adjacent building that she has designated as “royal”. But discard contexts are perfectly good archaeological contexts. (In fact, most artifacts in excavations found in dumps and fills rather than use contexts.) They are still part of the life-cycle of an object, and we can learn much from them, as archaeologists have come increasingly emphasized over the last few decades. So there is nothing inherently wrong with the context, and no stratigraphic problem here.


Taylor Prism with Sennacherib's Annals, including his campaign against Hezekiah
(Wikimedia Commons, photo by David Castor)

The sealing tells us nothing new about the political history of Judah. We already had confirmation of Hezekiah’s existence and reign at this time from Assyrian records. We also learn little about epigraphy (study of the text) and iconography (the imagery). The sealing is merely a data point; the true value lies in the accumulation of many such points of data. These allow us to do things such as track changes in motifs or names on seals over time. The significance of this individual bulla is therefore limited. Maybe in the future we can do more with developing techniques of analysis, but we are not there now.

There is one sense in which the sealing has a great deal of importance, however: in its emotional value, for those invested in seeing the Bible come to life. Mazar has often exaggerated the significance – specifically the biblical significance – of her discoveries: she has in the past announced finding David’s palace, the tunnel David used to conquer Jerusalem, and Nehemiah’s wall around the city. In this case the exaggeration is not so extreme, as this clearly is the seal impression of Hezekiah king of Judah. But she has gone beyond this. Ilan Ben Zion of the Times of Israel quotes her as saying that the discovery “strengthens what we know already from the Bible about [Hezekiah]” and that it is “the closest as ever that we can get to something that was most likely held by King Hezekiah himself.” Thus Mazar dramatizes the find and exaggerates what we can reasonably say – that it must have been used by Hezekiah himself, when she cannot provide a convincing argument for this. Mazar further speculates that the ankh (a symbol of life) indicates that the seal was made after Hezekiah’s recovery from his life-threatening skin disease in 2 Kings 20 and Isaiah 38. This is a problematic case of starting with the assumption that the biblical texts are fundamentally historical (a problematic way of reading the Bible). It is also a remarkable case of the positivist fallacy in archaeology, the idea that what is observable (in the archaeological record) is historically significant or matches our textual sources. Even if we assumed for the moment that the accounts of Hezekiah’s reign in 2 Kings, Isaiah, and 2 Chronicles are straightforward historical narratives, they still provide us with relatively little information on his entire reign and life. It is extremely unlikely that any particular artifact we find (like the sealing and its design) would relate directly to an event in the biblical account.

Ethical issues
Many questions about ethics have been raised in connection with the find. Cargill among others has questioned the timing of the announcement, but there is nothing unusual here. The answer is in fact contained within the press release: first, while the artifact was found in 2010, the current reading – identifying it as the seal of Hezekiah king of Judah – was made more recently (“Only this year”, according to the Times of Israel). Second, the announcement was made on the same day that the first volume of the final report on Mazar’s Ophel excavations (with the full scholarly publication of the sealing) was published. In this respect, I believe Mazar is to be commended for saving the announcement until the full publication of the seal. Archaeologists often make sensational announcements quickly, before complete publication of the data; this means that scholars cannot fully evaluate the claims made. That is not the case here.

I have tried to indicate above how Mazar has exaggerated the importance of her finds and their connection to biblical texts. This problem is magnified by her excavation’s connection with Herbert W. Armstrong College, an unaccredited institution of the Philadelphia Church of God in Edmond, Oklahoma. For the college, the Bible is the Word of God and the foundation of their educational system. Their video about the bulla, linked by the online press release, dramatizes the discovery as proof of this belief, of the convergence of “science” and the Bible.

These connections are further underlined by the Israeli government’s use of the sealing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement (available on his Facebook page) shortly after the announcement: in it he refers to the seal as evidence of Jerusalem as “our eternal and undivided capital” – turning the ancient bulla into a modern political statement projecting Israeli claims over East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Herbert W. Armstrong College video appears embedded in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement, and a still is used by the State of Israel’s official Twitter account in its announcement of the find.

Given the political claims, it is not surprising that the dig’s location in East Jerusalem has also been the subject of discussion. While this issue was not raised in the Israeli news articles, others – such as those from the Daily Beast and CNN – commendably tried to address the ethics of excavation in this contested area. They correctly point out that archaeology has been used to privilege Jewish claims to East Jerusalem over Arab ones, especially at the City of David site (which is contained within the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan). Especially noteworthy is the role of the Ir David Foundation (also known as Elad), which has as its explicit goal the Judaization of East Jerusalem (including replacing Arab residents with Jewish by buying, or claiming to buy, Arab homes and renting them to Jews. Elad funds digs in the City of David and operates archaeological parks, in which the Jewish history is emphasized while Arab history is minimized or ignored.

Mazar’s dig, however, is not within the City of David but in the Ophel, north of Silwan and away from Palestinian residential areas. Nor is it funded by Elad (although Elad does fund the Emek Tzurim sifting facility where the sealing was found). Mazar has also conducted excavations in the City of David, however, and in the past these were funded by Elad; Mazar had a public break with Elad in 2011 over a disputed excavation.

At the same time, the excavation and the bulla cannot be divorced from their larger context. As we have seen, the Israeli Prime Minister himself has made use of the seal for nationalist aims. And the Ophel is part of a chain of parks in development stretching from the Temple Mount to Silwan. As a group this chain does impinge on Palestinian residents, and the Ophel like the other parks focuses on the Jewish history of the region.

Beyond all of this, digging in East Jerusalem involves an additional problem. While Israel has annexed East Jerusalem, this action is not officially recognized by other countries; internationally, East Jerusalem is seen as part of the West Bank, which is considered occupied territory. As a result, for the international community Article 5 (“Occupation”) of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict would be in force. Under Article 5, an occupying power is required to respect “cultural property” (which includes archaeological remains). An occupying power is allowed to take certain steps to protect cultural property, steps which reasonably include salvage archaeology, but the conditions under which it is allowed under are restricted: these include military threat and collaboration or consultation with authorities of the occupied country. Because it is questionable whether these conditions are met by Mazar’s dig, the status of her excavation under the Hague Convention appears to be problematic. Again, Israel maintains it is not an occupying power in East Jerusalem, so in the Israeli understanding these conditions would not apply; but the international understanding is different, at least officially.

The sealing is a nice addition to our Iron Age corpus from Israel and Judah. There is no question of its genuineness. Based on what we currently now, the bulla is of limited historical value, however. It does have a great deal of value to those who are emotionally invested in the Bible – for religious or nationalist reasons – and in seeing it as a fundamentally historical document.

Now that the dust has settled after the announcement, we can move beyond confused claims and idle questions and start to have a more productive critical discussion about archaeological finds from Jerusalem and their many meanings.

*Thanks to Thomas Bolin, Morag Kersel, Matthew Suriano, and Laura Wright for discussion and suggestions. Of course, the opinions expressed here are not theirs but mine alone.

[1] For example, see Yigal Shiloh, A Group of Hebrew Bullae from the City of David, Israel Exploration Journal 36 (1986), p. 31. (Note that 6 out of 30 bullae listed by Shiloh here are missing bn before the patronymic.) This point was also made by Athas.

[2] The issue has been so misunderstood that even the scholars appear to be confused. An article (dated December 3) in the Daily Beast by New Testament scholar Candida Moss of Notre Dame originally claimed that “[t]he material is being sifted from piles of dirt removed as part of Palestinian construction in the area.” This is a reference to the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which is sifting piles of dirt removed from the Temple Mount and dumped in the Kidron Valley to the east. On this basis, Robert Cargill, an expert in Second Temple Judaism at the University of Iowa, is quoted saying that the stratigraphy of the find is “compromised.” But as I discussed above this is not the case. The claim appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the statement on the discovery in the press release. But the statement is quite clear, and corroborated by a post from the Temple Mount Sifting Project. The Daily Beast’s error is a serious one, directly contradicting Mazar’s statements about the origin of the sealing; it essentially implies – by all appearances unintentionally – that Mazar was lying about the sealing’s provenance.

Within a day the Daily Beast article was changed, with the mistaken claim removed; it now reads The material is being sifted in the same sifting facility as another archaeological project that sifts through piles of dirt removed as part of Palestinian construction in the area.”  However, there is no apology for the error or any acknowledgment of the change. And the other language (about compromise, as well as questioning of legitimacy) remains, now making little sense.


David Lipovitch said...

Thank you, Michael, for an excellent critical summary of what has become a nearly unmanageable number of popular press pieces on this subject. It was nice for a change to not have to almost entirely dismiss a "discovery" made by Eilat Mazar as sensationalizing (although, as you point out she is still guilty of it in this case only to a much lesser degree than normal).

Christopher Jones said...

If Israel were to follow the letter of the 1954 Hague Convention and cooperate with civil authorities from the occupied territory, who would that be? The Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities?

My other comment is that it the ankh is actually a pretty common sign on Judahite seals. No need to invoke any miraculous recoveries here.

Michael said...

David, thanks for your comments. I'm glad you found the post useful. It's helpful when there's a name written on your find, then you don't have to pick a name to attach to it.
Christopher, that is an excellent question. I'm still trying to understand the basics of the legal issues involved, but I would imagine a case could be made either for Jordanian or Palestinian authorities. As for the ankh. thanks for pointing that out. There are several reasons not to invoke Hezekiah's miraculous recovery here. I found that the part of the press release open to the most criticism, but it seems to have received surprisingly little attention.