Ancient Seal May Add Substance to the Legend of Samson

TAU researchers uncover a 12th century BCE seal depicting a man and lion in battle in Tel Beth Shemesh

"Samson seal" found at Beth Shemesh

The “Samson seal” found at Beth Shemesh.
Photo: Raz Lederman, courtesy of Tel Beth Shemesh Excavations.

Tel Aviv University researchers recently uncovered a seal, measuring 15 millimetres (about a half-inch) in diameter, which depicts a human figure next to a lion at the archaeological site of Beth Shemesh, located between the Biblical cities of Zorah and Eshtaol, where Samson was born, flourished, and finally buried, according to the book of Judges. The scene engraved on the seal, the time period, and the location of the discovery all point to a probable reference to the story of Samson, the legendary heroic figure whose adventures famously included a victory in hand-to-paw combat with a lion. Continue reading

Voodoo Dolls of the Ancient Near East

On Saturday, November 21st, from 6-8 PM, the American Schools of Oriental Research will close out its annual meeting in New Orleans with an outreach session entitled “Voodoo Dolls of the Ancient Near East.” It’s free and open to the public, including our friends in town for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. The session will be somewhere inside the Astor Crown hotel at the corner of Canal and Bourbon. Here’s the lineup:

  • Michael M. Homan (Xavier University of Louisiana), Presiding
  • Sallie Ann Glassman (Island of Salvation Botanica/La Source Ancienne Ounfou), “Vodou Spirits and
    Sacred Vodou Flags” (20 min.)
  • Gary O. Rollefson (Whitman College), “The Glory Belongs to Our Ancestors: The Neolithic ‘Ain
    Ghazal Statues and Plastered Skulls” (20 min.)
  • Christopher A. Faraone (Univeristy of Chicago), “Voodoo Dolls in the Greek and Roman Worlds: An
    Update” (20 min.)
  • Sara A. Rich (Catholic University, Leuven), “Manipulated Miniatures: Haitian and Mesopotamian
    Figurines Defy Human Destiny” (20 min.)
  • William G. Dever (University of Arizona, Emeritus), “The Judean Pillar-base Figurines: Mothers or
    Mother-Goddesses?” (20 min.)
  • Shawna Dolansky (Northeastern University), “Re-Figuring ‘Fertility’ Figurines: Fetishistic Functions of
    the Feminine Form” (20 min.)
  • ASORMeetingVoodooDolls

    For more information, please email Michael Homan.

    It’s the Tooth: Dental Remains & Archaeology

    Contributed by Jaime Ullinger, Ohio State University

    Dental anthropology is a vital part of bioarchaeology, which is the study of human remains in archaeological contexts. Dental enamel (the hard, white outer covering of the tooth) is the hardest material in the human body, and teeth are often preserved even when bones are not. Not only are they durable, but they are also a treasure trove of information. Using teeth, we can reconstruct age-at-death, diet, health, and ancestry. This information greatly increases our knowledge of people and society in ancient times.

    Teeth are particularly useful in identifying the age at which subadults died. Teeth are very stable in evolutionary terms, and therefore erupt in a consistent pattern at predictable ages. Even in adulthood, relative age can be estimated by examining the amount of wear on teeth. Dental wear occurs as we chew our food, slowly removing that hard outer enamel.

    Upper right maxilla from Byzantine St. Stephen's (Jerusalem) showing little dental wear and moderate/heavy calculus (photo courtesy of Sue Sheridan).

    Upper right maxilla from Byzantine St. Stephen's (Jerusalem) showing little dental wear and moderate/heavy calculus (photo courtesy of Sue Sheridan).

    Examining patterns of dental wear can also indicate the types of food people were eating. Foragers tend to have a lot of wear at a young age, while later agriculturalists have less wear. Although farmers do not wear away their enamel, they eat soft, carbohydrate-rich foods that promote bacterial growth. These bacteria destroy enamel, resulting in cavities. Prehistorically, cavities could be quite dangerous. If bacteria erode enamel all the way to the interior of the tooth, an infectious abscess can form at the tip of the tooth root. This infection could ultimately result in the death of the individual.

    Tartar builds up on teeth over time, eventually calcifying if not removed. This photo from Byzantine St. Stephen’s (a monastery in Jerusalem dating from 438-614 AD) illustrates an upper jaw that has a good deal of calculus on the teeth. Interestingly, this group of individuals had fairly low levels of calculus and dental caries (cavities) although they are a very urban group that should be consuming a fairly soft diet.

    Teeth also reflect general health, particularly in childhood. Enamel is very expensive for the body to generate. If a child is stressed, such as during weaning, when food is scarce, or after contracting a serious disease, the body may stop producing enamel for some time. This results in small furrows on the teeth called hypoplastic defects. The exact position of the defect can tell us what age the child was when the stress occurred.

    Teeth also hold clues to ancestry. By examining certain features on the tooth’s surface, we can estimate how closely two (or more) groups are related. These features may include having extra cusps on the teeth, fewer cusps, or extra roots. For example, I have an additional cusp on my first upper molars – it sits on the tongue side of my tooth and is called a “Carabelli’s cusp”. Mine is quite large, and can be seen on the first molars of everyone in my family!

    Some of the most interesting dental finds are teeth that have been intentionally modified by their owner during his or her life. Yes, people in prehistory chipped away at their teeth, filed them into points, incised cross-hatched lines on their surfaces, and inserted precious stones into drilled holes on their front teeth. Lest we think this practice barbaric, it would be wise to remember that we subject our own adolescents to painful practices, such as breaking their palates, filing their teeth, and slowly changing their bony tooth sockets by placing pressure on their jaws with braces – all in the name of “beauty”.

    This is a quick introduction to what teeth can tell us. They are one of the most informative parts of the human body, and are incredibly well preserved archaeologically. They provide insight into numerous issues archaeologists and historians are concerned with, including diet changes, general stress, how closely groups were related, and markers of social identity. So in the end, the question is – can you handle the tooth?

    Secrets of The Bible’s Buried Secrets

    Contributed by Tristan Barako, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Providence Pictures

    When The Bible’s Buried Secrets premiered on PBS this past November, it was NOVA’s most watched show in the past five years, attesting to the enduring interest that biblical archaeology holds for the general public. The two-hour special was produced by Providence Pictures, where I now work as senior researcher and writer. The president/producer/director of Providence Pictures, Gary Glassman, took the unusual step of hiring me—someone with absolutely no prior experience in film production—on the strength of my background in archaeology and biblical studies. He and NOVA wanted to make sure that the film was as accurate as possible. To that end we enlisted the support of more than 30 ASOR members, who generously gave of their knowledge and granted us complete film access to their excavations and artifacts. Through their participation and the collective effort of all our staff and crew, we’ve shown that a documentary about biblical archaeology can be both a popular and scholarly success.

    To give the readers of this blog some sense of the filmmaking process, here are a few behind-the-scenes peeks of the challenges we faced while making The Bible’s Buried Secrets. Most of what follows relates to my uncredited cameo appearances. In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that Michael Homan, the moderator of the ASOR blog, also appears in the film. It was originally a more substantial role—his big line went something like “Ron, you better come down here; we just found something that’s going to make your day!” —but that part of the scene, unfortunately, ended up on the cutting room floor.

    A reenactment of the discovery of the Tel Zayit abecedary.

    Idol smasher: The climax of the destruction of Hazor was a close-up, slow motion shot of a statue of a seated male being decapitated. We had originally planned to shoot this scene in Israel, so we had our Art Director there, Gal Oren, make three replicas of the statue, but we ran out of time so we had to do it in the U.S. instead. The location we ended up using was Gary’s garage in Providence, where we clamped the statue (made of plaster, not the original basalt) to a low table and positioned a Duraflame stick in front of the camera. Then we smoked up the garage and I put on a robe, dirtied up my arm and hand, and grabbed the mallet. I was a bit nervous because I wanted to make sure that the head came off cleanly, similar to how the original was found at Hazor. To stay in the frame I had to approach the statue at an odd angle, but this did not get in the way of a near perfect strike: the head flew off and crashed against the back wall. Good thing, because I shattered the next two replicas.

    Smashing idols in Gary’s garage.

    German scholar: This was my most challenging role given the amount of time on camera and the task at hand—channeling Julius Wellhausen. To prepare for it we bought a nineteenth-century German Bible and rented a three-piece suit from a costume company in California (surprisingly we couldn’t find anything on the east coast). I also let my beard grow out a little. Finally, I found a section in my Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia that contained clear J and E passages. Despite all these preparations we overlooked something, as pointed out to me by a friend who is a German historian: the wedding band was on my left hand, whereas Germans typically wear it on the right. There goes the Emmy for best research.

    Playing Julius Wellhausen

    Gila’s assistant: In this scene, a recreation of the discovery of the Tel Dan Stela, I played only a supporting role: the guy holding the stadia rod for Gila Cook who found this famous inscription in 1993. We followed her recollection of events throughout, which included loading her up like a pack mule, while I ambled off the tell empty-handed. I felt especially insensitive because she was battling laryngitis that day and we made her go up and down the hill with all that equipment a few times on multiple takes, but she was a real trooper and the scene turned out beautifully.

    Loading up Gila

    Dead Israelite: We used Nazareth Village for many recreations including the scene where one of the Jerusalem priests rescues scrolls from a building set aflame by the Babylonians. Again I donned a robe and got smudged up, but this time all I had to do was lay sprawled out in the background. I’m really not visible because of all the smoke. Our Director of Photography, Nick Gardner, inhaled so much of it that he woke up that night with a splitting headache.

    Tristan as a dead Israelite

    YHWH: In one of the many scribal scenes, we wanted an extreme close-up of someone writing the personal name of the Israelite god, YHWH. Most of our recreation actors were modern-day sopherim, whom we casted for their ability to write Torah scrolls. The problem was, though, they refused to write the divine name. I volunteered to do it, but I write left-handed and all our scribes were righties. So we pressed into service our thoroughly secular, dread-locked soundman, Amir Liani, who did a great job considering that it was his first time writing in paleo-Hebrew.

    YWHW in Paleo-Hebrew

    For more information about Providence Pictures and The Bible’s Buried Secrets, including additional behind-the-scenes features, visit: and

    10th Century BCE Hebrew Inscription Found at Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Contributed by Y. Garfinkel (November 5, 2008)

    Ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa

    This summer an extraordinary Semitic inscription was found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. It was uncovered inside the fortified city, near the gate, lying on a floor level of a building. The city existed for a rather short time, within the 10th century BC, thus, the dating of the inscription is perfectly secured to the beginning of the First Temple period, known as the United monarchy, the time of kings David and Solomon.

    The inscription is a large pottery fragment (ostracon), ca. 15 × 15 cm. written with ink. It contains five rows, divided by black lines. Each row has 10 letters or so in Proto-Canaanite script. According to the preliminary observations of the epigraphist, Dr. Haggai Misgav, the language of the ostracon is Hebrew. This is the longest Proto-Canaanite inscription ever found and the earliest Hebrew text known to date. Other possible Hebrew inscriptions are the Gezer calendar (ca. 900 BC), the stele of king Mesah (ca. 850 BC) or the Samaria ostraca (ca. 800 BC). The new inscription is earlier by 100-200 years from the other earlier Hebrew inscriptions. As the decipherment has just begun, it is still immature to talk about the content, but it clearly bears a massage, a letter sent between two people.

    Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Paleography: The complicated writing techniques developed in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt enabled only professional scribes to read and write. Contrarily, the simple Semitic alphabet writing technique enables larger segments of the population to read and write. Thus, it is one of the most important intellectual inventions of human kind. But the early developments of the Semitic alphabet and its transmitting to the early Greek, and then to Latin and the rest of the world is poorly known. The earliest type of alphabet script, known as Proto-Canaanite, was found in Canaan, Sinai peninsula and Egypt in various sites dated from the second millennium BC (Middle Bronze and Late Bronze periods, ca. 1700-1200 BC). In this stage it was rather pictorial in character, adopting Egyptian hieroglyph signs.

    Aerial photograph of Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Aerial photograph of Khirbet Qeiyafa

    In the Iron I period (1200-1000 BC) the hieroglyphs became more and more schematics, and it was assumed that at ca. 1000 BC the script became standardized in various aspects, like the number of letters (22), the direction of writing (from right to left) and the shape of the letters. As the Greek letters are quite similar to Proto-Canaanite script it was generally believed that they adopted the alphabet script in the late second millennium BC.

    Very few early alphabet inscriptions are known. Most of them are either very short, or just a list of the letters (abecedary). Almost all of them do not have a secure archaeological context, thus lacking clear dating. The new inscription is the first Proto-Canaanite script clearly dated from the 10th century BC. It will now serve as the anchor for the entire developments of the early alphabet scripts: the Semitic (Phoenician, Hebrew and others) as well as the Greek.

    Implication to Biblical History: Currently, there is a bitter debate about the historical accounts of Kings David and Solomon as presented by the Biblical tradition. The main arguments so far were the luck of urban centers that can be clearly dated to the time of the United Monarchy (Early Iron Age IIa period).

    On September 13th 2008 a colloquium of some 40 Israeli archaeologists took place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The pottery from the fortified city was presented and discussed. There was a general agreement that the assemblage is indeed from the very beginning of the Iron IIa period. The new excavations clearly indicate that already in the time of David and Solomon urban cities were constructed in Judah. The fortifications of the site required 200,000 ton of stones. The upper part of the gate was built with ashlar stones, a clear characteristic of royal activities in the Biblical period. There was a need for administration to organize these massive building activities and indeed the new inscription indicates that writing was in use. The new inscription indicates that writing was indeed practiced in the biblical kingdom of Judah from its very beginning. Thus, historical memories could have been survived for generations and the biblical traditions regarding the period of kings David and Solomon cannot be overlooked.

    Gate at Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Gate at Khirbet Qeiyafa

    Acknowledgments. Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations are conducted by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel and Mr. Saar Ganor, on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Funds were kindly provided by J.B. Silver, the Berman Center for Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Foundation Stone and the Curtiss and Mary Brenan Foundation. The expedition website is: