Biblical Archaeology Review 29:1, January/February 2003

First Person: The Mystery of the Bullae

Who is finding all the seal impressions for sale on the antiquities market?

By Hershel Shanks

Anyone who tells you that archaeologists don’t gossip is a liar.

I had dinner recently with Trude Dothan, the world’s leading authority on the Philistines. She was in Washington for a conference on art; joining us were BAR contributing editor Suzanne Singer and Trude’s colleague, Miriam Rosen-Ayalon. Mimi, as her friends call her, is an authority on Islamic art.

I won’t repeat any of the gossip, but one of the things we talked about over glasses of heartwarming Merlot was the dozens of bullae that have recently surfaced on the antiquities market. Bullae are little pieces of clay impressed with seals that once assured that ancient writings, usually on papyrus, had not been tampered with. Some of these seal impressions are quite extraordinary—we know of several bullae that had been made by seals belonging to King Hezekiah of Judah, who lived in the eighth century B.C.E., to his father Ahaz, to the commander of the army and to high court officials.a

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