Home » Archaeology, Bible, Epigraphy » A Woman’s Seal and a Man’s Seal from First Temple Jerusalem Excavations

A Woman’s Seal and a Man’s Seal from First Temple Jerusalem Excavations

A Woman’s Seal and a Man’s Seal from First Temple Jerusalem Excavations

By Dr. Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)

The announcement of two Iron Age seals from Jerusalem is most welcome. These were found on scientific excavations that have been conducted in Jerusalem by Drs. Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets, and Salome Doron. The photos of the seals that have been released are those of Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

I. The Broader Context of the Jerusalem Seals

Seals were part and parcel of the economic and legal activities of the people of the ancient Near Eastern world, particularly the elites. Seals would be used in cases, for example, of the purchase or sale of something of substantial value (e.g., land, precious metals), or in the case of a marriage, or divorce, or adoption (etc.). Within Iron Age Israel, Judah, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, Philistia, and Syria, stamps seals were very commonly used. Many seals have been found on scientific excavations in these regions. Most of these seals are quite round and have about the same diameter as a small coin (although they are thicker than coins). Most were made of attractive, and sometimes rare, stones (incised with a sharp incising tool, made of metal). Most seals have holes drilled through them so that a string (“cord”) could be attached to them. Some were attached in antiquity to a ring, and on rare occasions (such as tomb contexts), the seal and ring are found together. Seals with words inscribed on them are called “Epigraphic Seals.” Seals without words inscribed on them are called “Anepigraphic Seals.” Seals with imagery (e.g., animals, people) on them are called “Iconic Seals.” Seals without imagery are called “Aniconic Seals.” Some seals have words and imagery, some just imagery, some just words. Seals are often divided into “lines.” Each line is referred to as a “register.”

There are some particularly nice references to seals and sealing practices in the Hebrew Bible. Among the most detailed descriptions is the one contained in the book of Jeremiah, a prophet of the late First Temple and early Exilic Periods. Within this biblical text (Jeremiah 32), the prophet is said to have purchased a field from a kinsman of his, in the tenth year of Judean King Zedekiah (ca. 587 BCE, just as Jerusalem was about to fall to King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon). Jeremiah is said to have signed a deed of purchase, in the presence of witnesses. There were two copies of this deed (both probably written on papyrus), one the “open copy” and one the “sealed copy.” The open copy would normally be retained for rapid reference and would often have been kept by the purchaser (or a close associate). The sealed copy, however, would normally be archived, often in the house of a scribe, or in an archive of a palace or temple. The sealed copy was the binding legal copy and would only be opened if and when there was some reason to verify in a decisive legal fashion the fact or the nature of the agreement (e.g., purchase, or sale, or marriage, or adoption, or divorce, etc.). In any case, the sealed copy would be rolled up or folded up, and a string would be wrapped around it and then a small clump of wet clay would be attached carefully and precisely to the string, and then the parties to the agreement would press their seals into the clumps of wet clay (the result would be an impression of the seal in the clay, the impressed clumps of clay are referred to as “bullae,” sing: “bulla”). The seals would serve as proof of the event (e.g., purchase, sale, marriage, divorce, adoption). Note that seals are normally incised (i.e., made) in mirror image, so that when they are impressed into the clay, the resulting image is positive (i.e., in the correct orientation). Within the narrative of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah gives both the sealed copy and the open copy to Baruch ben Neriah for safe keeping.

II. The Readings of the Two New Jerusalem Seals

The first seal reads (Register 1): L‘lyhnḥ; (Register 2): bt. g’l. Translation: (Register 1): Belonging to ‘Elyhnḥ; (Register 2): daughter of Go’el. As is customary for seals, this seal (and the other one) begin with the letter lamed, that is, the “Lamed of Ownership.” The first personal name on this seal (i.e., on the first register) consists of two morphemes: ‘ly and hnḥ. Note that it is also arguably possible that the yod (y) is to be associated with the second morpheme (as a marker of the imperfect tense), rather than the first. In any case, the first morpheme is from the root meaning “to be high” and is associated with a number of personal names and divine names (e.g., the personal name ‘Eli in Samuel and the divine name ‘Elyon, for example, in Deut 32:8-9, et passim). The second morpheme is arguably that of the root nwḥ, in the Hiphil stem. From this verbal root come various names, including the personal name Noah of Genesis (Gen 6, et passim) and Samson’s father (Manoah, Judg 13). At this time, I would suggest that an acceptable translation of this personal name on the seal is something such as “God Most High has brought rest.” The second register begins with the standard word for daughter, that is, bt. Although this is not the first seal of a woman to be found, such seals are always of substantial importance because they were, and thus are, quite rare. The second personal name (G’l) is the standard word for “Redeemer” (e.g, a kinsman redeemer). This root is well attested in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Boaz is referred to as a kinsman redeemer (e.g., Ruth 3:13, et passim), because he functioned as a kinsman redeemer for the land and family of Elimelech. In the case of this seal from Jerusalem, that same root word is used as the basis of a personal name. Of course, the putative linguistic symmetry of the two verbal roots for the personal names on this seal is quite nice, with the first personal name referring to “bringing rest” and the second root revolving around the semantic realm of “kinsman redeemer,” (cf. Ruth 1:9, with Naomi’s statement that she hopes her daughters-in-law could find “rest” (nwḥ) in the house of a different husband, after the death of Naomi’s two sons).

The second seal can be read (Register 1): LS‘ryhw. b (or LS‘dyhw b); (Register 2): n.Šbnyhw. Translation: (Register 1): Belonging to Sa‘aryahu (or Sa‘adyahu), so- (Register 2): -n of Shebnayahu (with the word for “son” beginning at the end of the first register and concluding at the beginning of the second register, as is fairly typical at times in seals). The more difficult aspect of this seal is the proper reading of the fourth letter of the first register. The apparent morphology of the head of that letter in the published photo is strongly suggestive of a dalet, rather than a resh (because of what appears to be a slight overlap over of the head). But the length of the stem of that letter is more suggestive of a resh. To be absolutely certain of the reading (i.e., of the morphology of this letter), therefore, I’d prefer to be able to look at this under a microscope myself. Perhaps I can do that soon, permissions permitting. In any case, for the sake of argument, I will discuss both potential morphemes (i.e., of the reading dalet and of the reading resh) for the personal name on the first register. For S‘r, the lexeme is arguably the one that has the basic meaning “to visit, inspect, conduct affairs,” or the lexeme “heavy gale, high wind, to drive away, to blow away.” I slightly prefer the former lexeme, if the reading resh is accepted. Conversely, for the reading S‘d, the lexeme is arguably the one meaning “support, strengthen.” The presence of the yahwistic theophoric is also to be noted, as this is a nice marker of a Judean personal name, something that makes sense in a Jerusalem context, of course. The personal name of the second register (Shebnyahu) is attested in the Hebrew Bible and in the epigraphic record. For example, within Isaiah and Kings (Is 36:3; 2 Kgs 18:18, etc.), there is reference to an official state scribe during the time of Hezekiah (r. ca. 715-687 BCE) as Shebna (a shortened form of the same name on the seal; for additional references to this personal name, see Neh 9:4; 10:5, 12:14, etc.). Epigraphic references include the Old Hebrew Arad Inscriptions (e.g., Arad 27, late 7th/early 6th centuries BCE) and arguably the Royal Steward Inscription of Jerusalem (late 8th century BCE). In terms of meaning, some have suggested that the tri-literal root of this personal name means something such as “to come near, close.” Perhaps.

III. Script, Language, and Date

The script of both of these seals is the standard Old Hebrew script. The script of both seals is nicely done, certainly the work of a trained seal maker (for an important reference in Second Temple Jewish Literature to a seal-maker, see especially Ben Sira 38:27). I have seen some suggestions by some scholars that the script of the ‘Elyhnḥ Seal might be Ammonite. This is definitely not the case. The script of both of these seals is Old Hebrew. Note in particular the stance of the bet (on both seals), reflective of the standard recumbent stance of the Old Hebrew, rather than Ammonite. Regarding the date, I would contend that a date in the late 8th century or early 7th century BCE is the best palaeographic date. Regarding language, it can be said that the language of both of these seals is Old Hebrew, and, of course, the presence of the (Judean) Yahwistic theophoric on the Ben Shebnyahu Seal argues for this as well. Finally, I should also like to emphasize that the reason it was quite rare for women to have seals was not because, as some have apparently suggested, because of the “generally inferior economic status of women.” Rather, I would contend that it was because ancient Near Eastern societies (including that of the Iron Age Levant) were patriarchal. For this reason, men were normally responsible for most of the agreements that would require the sealing of documents. There were certainly some exceptions, as reflected in the lofty narratives about Job’s daughters (Job 42), the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27), and the Noble Wife (Prov 31). But the biblical and epigraphic evidence converge to suggest that men were the normal brokers of agreements requiring sealed documents.

In sum, these two seals are Old Hebrew. They are both well done, the work of a well-trained seal maker. The palaeographic date that I would assign to them is that of the chronological horizon that spans from the late 8th century to the early 7th century BCE. The Yahwistic theophorics are predictable, but still important. The fact that one of these seals is that of a woman demonstrates that she was a very prominent woman indeed, someone who must have engaged in business and legal activities that necessitated her owning a seal. This is most impressive and certainly the most important component of these new finds.
Christopher A. Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)

Archaeology, Bible, Epigraphy

10 Comments to “A Woman’s Seal and a Man’s Seal from First Temple Jerusalem Excavations”

  1. Thanks for the notes, Chris. You read the last letter as a het? It looks like a heh to me (same as letter #4 on the line).

    • Thanks for the note, Aaron. Note that the “he” has the standard overlap (for the top horizontal stroke). There is no such overlap for the letter that I’m read as a het…hence, my reading. Thanks again for the note.

      All best wishes and kind regards,


  2. Excellent find, but I have to ask: why are so many biblical finds in Jerusalem released to the media before the excavations publish any scholarly articles, reports, or provide any real data to the rest of the field? It is a problematic habit in our field, and we should do better.

    • This is a good point, Casey. The preferable method is certainly a refereed journal article, preceded by a presentation at the meeting of a learned society (etc.). Those days are probably behind us, though, to some degree. That is, with our fast-paced world, many will find it useful to do a press release first, with the editio princeps appearing later (and even decades ago, this would sometimes occur on occasion as well). In that connection, I should emphasize that this (i.e., the article that appeared in the press in Israel this morning) is just a press release from the IAA (etc.). No one would consider a press release of that sort to be a real substitute for an actual editio princeps. Thus, the editio princeps is no doubt still going to be written, in a nuanced, detailed way. As for my blog post….as you probably surmised, I wrote it simply because the press release that appeared today in Israel contained some problematic statements and assumptions….so I wanted to set the record straight before people started to assume that the press release got most everything correct. Well, thanks again for your note. I appreciate it a great deal. With all best wishes and kind regards, Chris.

      • Thank you very much for the response Dr. Rollston. My comment is a general critique of a trend in our field, and I am very happy to have blogs like yours providing some scholarly clarification of a an important find with a media buzz in lieu of what we should actually have first- a report or data of some kind from the excavation itself. Anyway, thank you for the epigraphic analysis, and hopefully we will have a report on the context soon as well. Public attention for the field is excellent, but I do wish we were a little better at sharing data & getting it out to the rest of the field to examine. All the best, Casey

      • The other end of this spectrum, Casey and Chris (and I’m SURE this has NEVER happened in the history of ever) – is that scholars in the olden days would get exclusive publication rights, and then sit on the object(s)/text(s) for years, even decades. In the meanwhile everyone else only got little tidbits about the amazing [object/text] as deemed appropriate by the scholar in question. I think of those as the Bad Old Days.

  3. Nicely done!!

    Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the discovery of the “Milkom’ur/Milkom’or” seal from Tell el-‘Umeiri (1984). I’m even partially-credited in the Madaba Plains Project Vol 1 (page 369).

  4. Thanks so much for the kind words, Larry. I shall look forward to hearing that story sometime. Let’s try to touch base via phone after the conclusion of the spring semester. I would enjoy that a lot. Thanks again.

    With all best wishes and kind regards,


  5. […] of the seals in an official scholarly publication, Christopher Rollston has provided a valuable provisional analysis clarifying aspects of the reading of the inscriptions and their script, language, and date based […]

  6. It should be mentioned that the seals, together with others that have not yet been announced, were found under the clear ruins of the Babylonian destruction, lying right over the structure in heaps, and then built over by the Hasmoneans hundreds of years later. If they are contemporary to that, it is understandable why they were found in the building. If they are older, from people no longer living, it must be explained why they would be kept. Excavator Yana Tchekhanovets explained at the news conference I attended that it is an administrative building, powerfully built, which will continue to be excavated in the next round of work. If it were a place, one might keep an heirloom; but why in an administration building? The recently announced Hezekiah seal just up the hill, not 200 yards away, was found between four walls of a small yard that excavator Eilat Mazar suggests was the garbage dump of administrative building. Hence it could hold earlier, discarded items. Not here. So against an 8th or 7th century dating suggested here, perhaps the historical context must be weighed against or factor into revising the epigraphic development.Perhaps the style of such a fancy, ornamental seal, with two holes drilled into it, indicating perhaps that it was worn and not set in a ring (say the excavators), is more deliberately retained as archaic style? Food for thought.

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