A small stone seal found recently in the excavations of Tel Beit Shemesh could be the first archaeological evidence of the story of the biblical Samson.
The seal, measuring 1.5 centimeters, depicts a large animal next to a human figure. The seal was found in a level of excavation that dates to the 11th century B.C.E. That was prior to the establishment of the Judean kingdom and is considered to be the period of the biblical judges - including Samson. Scholars say the scene shown on the artifact recalls the story in Judges of Samson fighting a lion.
But excavation directors Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University say they do not suggest that the human figure on the seal is the biblical Samson. Rather, the geographical proximity to the area where Samson lived, and the time period of the seal, show that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion, and that the story eventually found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal.
Not far from Beit Shemesh is Tel Batash, which is the biblical Timna, where Samson's wife lived. As the Bible tells it, Samson was on his way to his engagement party when "a young lion roared against him" (Judges 14:5 ).
According to the Bible, after Samson kills the lion, it becomes the source of one of the most famous riddles in history, with which Samson regales the guests at his bachelor party: "Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness" (Judges 14:14 ).
Two structures were unearthed from the same period, which were apparently used for ritual purposes. Installations that Bunimovitz concedes are "enigmatic" were also found at the site, one of which is a kind of table next to which numerous animal bones were unearthed. Scholars think they might have been used for sacrifices.
Fundamental to the stories of the Beit Shemesh and Samson stories is the existence in the area of the boundary between the Philistines and the local people, first the Canaanites and later the people of Judah.
Scholars can determine the border between the two cultures by means of the animal bones they find at or near the site.
In excavations a few kilometers west of Beit Shemesh, a large number of pig bones were found, showing the type of food people in that area consumed, while at Tel Beit Shemesh, very few such bones were unearthed, and these disappeared altogether in the 11th century.
According to Bunimovitz, when the pork-eating Philistines arrived in the country from the Aegean, the local people stopped eating pork to differentiate themselves from the newcomers.
The biblical stories reflecting Beit Shemesh's role vis-a-vis the boundary "add a legendary air to the social process in which the two hostile groups honed their separate identities, the way it happens along many borders today," Bunimovitz says.