Iron Age Bullae from Officialdom’s Periphery: Khirbet Summeily in Broader Context

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By: James W. Hardin, Christopher A. Rollston, and Jeffrey A. Blakely

Khirbet Summeily is located about 22 kilometers east of Gaza and about 4 kilometers west of Tell el-Hesi, on the ancient road connecting Gaza with Hebron. To the east is the heartland of Judah and to the west is the heartland of Philistia. Summeily lies in the borderland, a small site only slightly larger than one acre.

The major reason for excavating Summeily was to understand the nature and function of a small, rural Iron Age site in a border region. Neighboring Tell el-Hesi had been extensively excavated, first by Sir Flinders Petrie and Frederick Jones Bliss between 1890 and 1892, and then by the Joint Archaeological Expedition to Tell el-Hesi between 1970 and 1983. Much was known about its substantial architectural remains of the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age I and Iron Age II but little about its smaller neighbors. The Hesi Regional Project began excavation at Summeily inwith a consortium consisting of Mississippi State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Purchase College SUNY.

Khirbet Summeily at the end of excavations in July. Violet dots mark the findspots of bullae found in Phase 5 or in sub-floor foundation deposits of Phase 4. Green dots mark the findspots of bullae in later phases. North is generally toward the top of the page. Photograph by W. Isenberger and D. Farrow for the Hesi Regional Project.

Khirbet Summeily at the end of excavations in July. Violet dots mark the findspots of bullae found in Phase 5 or in sub-floor foundation deposits of Phase 4. Green dots mark the findspots of bullae in later phases. North is generally toward the top of the page. Photograph by W. Isenberger and D. Farrow for the Hesi Regional Project.

Tell el-Hesi was the source of important epigraphic finds. For example, in 1891 Bliss found an important 18th Dynasty cuneiform tablet (El Amarna 333) at Hesi. The letter sheds light on Late Bronze Age Egyptian hegemonic activities, intelligence gathering, and espionage. Written in Akkadian, the letter is from an official named Paapu who reports (to an Egyptian official) that two Canaanite vassals named Shipti-Ba‘lu and Zimredda “are acting disloyally” and arming themselves against those loyal to the king of Egypt. Paapu, however, is also aware that Shipti-Ba‘lu has leveled a countercharge, namely, that the real traitor to Egypt is Paapu.

It is a priceless document, attesting to the importance of Tell el-Hesi during the Amarna Age (the fourteenth century BCE). The epigraphic finds from Hesi, though, do not date not just from the Late Bronze Age. For example, a bulla (an inscribed or impressed clay lump) from Hesi was found with the following inscription: “Belonging to Mattanyahu (son of) Ishmael.” No doubt this Iron Age bulla once sealed a papyrus document, one that, sadly, perished long ago. But the script of the bulla itself is definitely Old Hebrew and can be dated securely to the late eighth century or the early seventh century. In addition, from an even earlier horizon in the eighth century is an incised sherd, with letters that are definitely Old Hebrew script.

Map of the Hesi region showing the archaeological sites in the immediate vicinity of Tell el-Hesi in yellow and the modern villages in green. The location of Khirbet Summeily is marked with the magenta star. Drawn under the direction of the authors by W. Isenberger for the Hesi Regional Project.

It was assumed that these sorts of markers of officialdom would be absent from Summeily. Prior to excavation, it seemed reasonable to propose that Summeily was located in a pasturage or agricultural hinterland, connected with an administrative center in some fashion, but very much in the periphery. We had expected the typical four-roomed houses along with domestic and agricultural implements at Summeily. But three seasons of excavation have revealed something quite different. There is a large architectural complex that certainly is not residential. Associated with this are artifacts of a cultural nature, an altar, a chalice, and a large zoomorphic head. Multiple scarabs with the standard Egyptian motifs (e.g., falcon, ankh, mace) have been recovered from the site as well.

Of particular importance, six clay bullae have been excavated. Two have complete seal impressions, two have fragmentary seal impressions, and the impressions of two are entirely abraded. All were found as deposits were being sifted but only two were initially recognized as bullae. Of the remaining four, one was so blackened with fire that during the sifting it was thought to be pottery. Three other were thought to be burned bone, but Ed Maher, our faunal specialist, immediately recognized that they were fragmentary, burnt bullae.

An anepigraphic bulla excavated at Khirbet Summeily in(13-x17mm at its widest). Photo credit: Nathaniel E. Greene

The bullae, zoomorphic figure, the scarabs, and the associated architectural contexts are from Summeily Phases 5-3. It is believed that all six bullae originated in a single context in Phase 5, probably some sort of office facility, and that the construction of Phase 4 dispersed them across our excavated area. Based on preliminary analysis of pottery and archaeomagnetism samples, Phase 5 dates from the late eleventh through mid-tenth centuries BCE, the same general period as Tell el-Hesi’s three large tripartite buildings from Bliss’ City V.

The bullae are anepigraphic, that is, no letters are present. Epigraphic stamp seals and bullae are preserved in the Levant in substantial numbers during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE as well as in later periods. Anepigraphic bullae are attested even earlier than this.

An anepigraphic bulla from Phase 5. Photo credit: Nathaniel E. Greene

Bullae were used to “seal” things, a box (of commodities), a bag (of commodities), or a document (such as papyrus). Among the finest ancient discussions of the process of sealing a papyrus document is that of the book of Jeremiah (32:9-15). According to this text, two copies of a legal document (in this case, a deed of purchase) were drawn up; one was referred to as the “open copy” and was not sealed, while the second was considered the official copy and it was sealed. The sealing process would require a string and small lumps of soft clay.

A seal of the parties to agreement would be impressed into the soft clay leaving an impression. A document “sealed” in this fashion would not be opened (that is the seal would not be broken) unless there was some legal reason to do so, for example, in some sort of a court case where the contents of the document were at issue. Preserved bullae sometimes still have preserved the impressions of the papyrus scroll they were intended to seal, and rarely the “string hole” (in the middle of the clay bulla) will be preserved as well. The small string hole is preserved nicely on one of the bullae found at Summeily. The precise material that the Summeily bulla “sealed” is still in the process of analysis. It is possible that papyrus documents were involved. But the practice of sealing is an elite or official activity.

String holes were preserved on a bulla with no visible seal impressions (28x18mm at the widest point). Photo credit: B. J. Hartzell

We believe that the remains discovered at Summeily demonstrate a level of politico-economic activity that has not been suspected for the late Iron Age I and early Iron Age IIA. This is especially the case if one integrates data from nearby Hesi. Taken together, we contend these reflect greater political complexity and integration across the transitional Iron I/IIA landscape than has been appreciated. Many scholars have tended to dismiss trends toward political complexity (that is, state formation) occurring prior to the arrival of the Assyrians in the region in the later eighth century BCE. However, based on our work in the Hesi region, we believe these processes began much earlier.

The precise definition of a “state” and its indicators is the subject of much debate. But a number of the characteristics typical of “full-blown states” – including administrative activity like sealing – are demonstrable in the Hesi region by the early Iron Age II. The epigraphic record for the Levant during Iron Age IIA includes monumental inscriptions such as the Byblian Shipitba‘al Inscription (Phoenician), the Tel Dan Stele (Aramaic), the Mesha Stela (Moabite), and the Tell Fakhariyeh Bilingual Statue (Aramaic and Akkadian). Monumental inscriptions such as the Ahiram Sarcophagus Inscription date to even earlier periods (the tenth century). In addition, Old Hebrew inscriptions from the ninth century have been found at sites such as Arad (in the south) and Tel Rehov (in the north). Now, the finds from Summeily must be integrated into this picture as well.

James W. Hardin is Associate Professor of Religion at Mississippi State University. Christopher A. Rollston is Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University and co-editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Jeffrey A. Blakely, of the University of Wisconsin, is co-director of the Hesi Regional Project.



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