Archaeologists Baffled by 8th Century BCE Seal Found in Galilee

How the seal from Assyrian King Sargon II’s rule came to be found where it is remains unclear; ancient ring made of carnelian also found.

Eli Ashkenazi
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Remains of the three temples found at Omrit, one inside the other.Credit: Tel-Hai College

Two archaeological finds at the Omrit site in the northern Galilee have baffled Israeli archaeologists. The first is a seal dating back to the eighth century B.C.E., which was found in the "wrong" place. The second is an orange carnelian ring of uncertain origin, that apparently dates from the Middle Ages.

The two artifacts were found in 2012, but only recently have archaeologists concluded their research into the findings. Questions remain regarding both pieces, however.

Both were found at Omrit, a site near Kfar Szold. Digs there over the last 25 years have uncovered three different temples, built one within the other.

The innermost part contains the most ancient temple, dated to the year 40 BCE. In the middle is a shrine dated to the time of Herod, around 20 BCE. Some believe that it is one of three temples Herod built in honor of Emperor Augustus, along with two others in Caesarea and Tiberias.

The third, later, temple dates back to the first century CE.

The seal, the older of the two artifacts, was found behind the wall of the earliest shrine, within a layer of filler between an internal and external wall.

Archaeologists don't understand how the seal ended up there, as the temple was built roughly 700 years before the seal was created. The layer of filler also contained small glass tools and other objects which were apparently taken out of the temple during construction.

The odd provenance of the seal

Prof. Ziona Grossmark of Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel studied the seal, along with Baruch Brendl from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“The seal depicts a battle between a winged figure and a bull standing on its hind legs,” says Grossmark, adding that comparative research dates it to the time of Sargon II, an Assyrian king who ruled between 722 and 705 BCE and conquered ancient Israel.

"The seal was apparently brought to Israel by one of his subjects," Grossmark says. "What happened to the seal after that remains a mystery, but ancient seals like this one are very rare − only a few of this nature have been found in remains from the Roman period, mostly in graves and temples."

According to Grossmark, a seal was a means of identifying its owner, rather like a modern ID card. "Seals were in use in the Galilee from the third millennium BCE until about the 5th century BCE. They were used mostly during the period during which clay tablets were used for writing, until the introduction of papyrus or leather scrolls."

Some say that in later periods, seals were still significant, but they were not used for their original purposes, Grossmark says.

The seal discovered was perfectly preserved, and is still in the process of research and cataloguing. Grossmark says that for archaeologists and historians, it is one of the most beautiful seals ever found.

Ring from the Muslim conquest?

The other, equally interesting artifact, is an ancient ring made of carnelian stone, a gem with a strong red-orange hue, dated back to the Middle Ages. It was found in the ruins of a Muslim settlement in the area, from the 12th or 13th century CE.

“It’s a rather extraordinary ring in terms of design, quality and value. It’s incredible − almost perfect,” says Grossmark. “It has been preserved extraordinarily well, and attests to the commercial ties that existed in the Middle Ages between Omrit and foreign markets across the sea.”

Similar rings located in museums and private collections throughout the world are dated to the 16th or 17th century CE, and their origins are unclear.

Grossmark has studied similar rings found along trade routes spanning from mines in northwest India, through the port of Ras al-Khaimah in the Persian Gulf, to Middle Eastern ports. Omrit was a small village on the road between Damascus and the ports of Tyre and Sidon.

“Later versions of rings such as these were very common in jewelry worn by Tuareg tribes in western Africa," she says. "Finding a ring like this in a purely archaeological context adds to information we’ve already uncovered about such rings, pushing back their dates of origin to the Middle Ages, and also teaches about connections between Omrit and the outside world during that time.”

Like the seal, the stone also gives rise to many questions. Grossmark says that towards the end of the Crusader period, settlement in the area was “very thin, and finding such a ring from that period is not to be taken for granted.” Both artifacts will be on display at an annual archeological conference at Tel-Hai College later this month.

Over the last 15 years, the Omrit dig has been conducted by archaeology students from two United States colleges, Macalester and Carthage.

The seal found at Omrit, which apparently dates to the time of Sargon II, an Assyrian king who ruled between 722 and 705 BCE.Credit: Tel-Hai College
The carnelian ring found at Omrit.Credit: Tel Hai College
A pillar decoration found at Omrit, where three temples were found, one inside the other.Credit: Tel-Hai College