Lasting Impressions from Ancient Maresha

The Discovery of an Archive Underneath the Hellenistic City

Room 67 Subterranean mapArchaeologists excavating the Hellenistic city of Maresha made a stunning discovery in 2018, when they stumbled upon what must have been an ancient archive. So far thousands of underground rooms have been found at Maresha, a multiethnic ancient city in the Judean lowlands some 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. These subterranean spaces had been created as the ancient builders of the city quarried the bedrock for building material. Subsequently, the rock-hewn spaces were reused as storage, stalls, alcoves, or mikva’ot (ritual baths). The Maresha expedition, led by Ian Stern of Hebrew Union College, has so far identified about 170 individual complexes.

ancient Carving

Writing for the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Stern and a coin specialist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, Donald T. Ariel, share the discovery story in their article “Archive Discovered Under Maresha.” They reveal that the alleged archive has been identified not by ancient documents, as you may be led to think, but rather by sealings (bullae) that once had been attached to such documents. Bullae are essentially chunks of clay into which were impressed seals indicating authority or ownership. More than a thousand of such impressions or fragments thereof has been identified at Maresha, many of them purely decorative.

Unfortunately, the original documents—most likely written on papyrus or parchment—have not survived in the humid conditions of the underground chamber. Stern and Ariel write: “Overall, we collected 1,027 sealings. As generally no more than a few sealings were attached to a single document, more than a thousand sealings indicate that a few hundred documents were once stored here, deep in a cave under a wealthy family’s house. This clearly was the personal archive of the owner of the house above, making it the largest private archive ever found in the Levant.”

Ancient Debri It is important to acknowledge that archaeologists are much more likely to find sealings than actual seals used to create the impressions. In fact, many unique inscriptions or designs are known only from impressions. On an even more general level, we must understand that the writings of antiquity that have survived to our days are but a shadow of the written material that once existed. So even when the actual documents at Maresha did not survive to be excavated and studied, we are still fortunate to have the direct and tangible evidence of such documents—evidence that can be studied and appreciated in its own right.

To learn more about the fascinating discovery at Maresha, read Donald T. Ariel and Ian Stern’s article “Archive Discovered Under Maresha,” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.