Archaeologists Find Unique 7,000-year-old Stamped Sealing in Northern Israel

Predating writing by millennia, the clay impression – with two different stamps – is the oldest found in Israel and may have been used to protect the Neolithic village’s riches

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Enormous food storage silos in Tel Tsaf (the round structures), next to homes
Enormous food storage silos in Tel Tsaf (the round structures)Credit: Boaz Garfinkel
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A stamped seal impression around 7,000 years old, predating the invention of writing, has been found at Tel Tsaf, a prehistoric village in northern Israel that its excavators believe was an extraordinarily wealthy place, as Neolithic sites went.

The oldest discovery of its kind in Israel, the sealing attests to a primitive form of administration as early as the Middle Chalcolithic period, a team of archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reports in the journal Levant. It is also the earliest sign of administration to be identified in Israel.

To be clear, older seals have been found in Mesopotamia that date back to 8,500 years ago, but seal impressions from that time have not been found.

The stamped one and other sealings were found during excavations between 2004 and 2007. Commonly in archaeology, many finds are made during digging; they get packed away and can then be studied leisurely and thoroughly over years.

But this sealing stood out from the pack even though not much remains of it – it’s less than an inch in width. Dark gray in color and evidently fired, perhaps inadvertently, this remnant of a once-larger sealing bore the impressions of not one but two stamps, say the authors Michael Friekman and David Ben-Shlomo (then, students led by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel; now, at the University of Ariel). It may have been related to some form of commercial activity involving two different people, they hypothesize. What it was used to seal, we do not know.

Actually, about 150 sealings from about the same time were found at Tel Tsaf, Garfinkel tells Haaretz – but this was the only one marked with stamping, and by two different stamps at that.

The stamped sealing: Marking property before writing existedCredit: Tal Rogovski
Sketch of the stamped sealingCredit: O. Dubovsky

There are other finds from the even earlier pre-pottery period in Israel that may have been seals. But there is no evidence that these were associated with early administration, Garfinkel explains. They might have been a form of adornment.

In any case, it seems the Neolithic peoples of Israel didn’t invent the bulla (seal) – the idea spread from Mesopotamia, he adds.

We all know sealing wax for letters. One melts the wax and drips it onto a folded letter. As it cools and hardens, it binds with the paper and one can tell if the letter has been opened. When still uncongealed, the wax can be marked with a stamp, a personal or official mark. But what were the Tel Tsaf artifacts, which predate even proto-writing by a couple of thousands of years, intended to seal?

Stuffed to the gills

Tel Tsaf is the site of a prehistoric village located south of the Sea of Galilee in the Beit She’an Valley. It’s quite the site that keeps on giving. Tel Tsaf is where archaeologists found a mud-brick village dating to 7,200 years ago, silos capable of storing tons of commodities, and even a model silo – which was taken as evidence of the earliest known food-storage ritual in the region. (Why else would the ancient occupants of Tel Tsaf have created an intricate, non-utile pottery miniature of their grain storage facility, archaeologists pointed out.)

Excavations at Tel Tsaf reveal “clear and rich evidence” of a distinctive and well-defined culture, the Hebrew University team writes.

And possibly a rich one, which may explain why the occupants of Neolithic Tel Tsaf may have had need for administration, Garfinkel says.

Closeup of a 7,200-year-old mud brick wall in Tel TsafCredit: Danny Rosenberg
Neolithic homes and silos, Tel TsafCredit: Yossi Garfinkel

During their excavations, archaeologists found large-scale silos at Tel Tsaf, one with capacity for 15 to 20 tons of grain. “One ton would have sufficed for a family for a year,” Garfinkel says – and they have to sow the wheat, grow it, and harvest it using stone-toothed sickles. (Metallurgy was in its infancy.) “How much could they possibly grow and store? Two, three tons a year? That indicates the society had lords,” he postulates.

Why? Theoretically, the silos could have been a collective cache for several families. But Garfinkel suspects it indicates a hierarchical society with lords and, necessarily, laborers, who would get a share of the harvest.

“What do you do when you have so much resources? They had so much wheat. But you can’t eat all day. What do you do with the surplus? What do rich people do?” he asks, and answers: “They trade.”

What did they trade? Their grain, for exotic goods. And animals. They found a ton of bones: the Tel Tsaf people were feasting on meat, he adds.

As for exotica, in 2014 Garfinkel and the team reported on the oldest metal object ever found in the Middle East: an awl, discovered seven years earlier in Tel Tsaf. The origins of metallurgy are shrouded in the mist of time, but a smelting furnace found in Be’er Sheva and dated to 6,500 years ago is thought to be the earliest of its kind. The awl of Tel Tsaf had been made not by smelting but by hammering copper ore, a technique that goes back perhaps 10,000 years. The point being, a denizen of ancient Tel Tsaf may have traded produce for that treasure.

Copper awl found in Tel Tsaf, the oldest metal object found in the Middle EastCredit: Yossi Garfinkel

The awl had been found (by Garfinkel) in a woman’s grave dug inside an abandoned silo, with other exotic items including obsidian beads probably from Anatolia, shells from the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea, and a belt made of 1,668 ostrich-egg shell beads.

Tel Tsaf isn’t the only Neolithic site with evidence of foreign trade. For instance, an obsidian blade was found in a 9,000-year-old village by Jerusalem that also likely originated in Anatolia. These foreign finds don’t necessarily mean merchants were plying the Anatolia-Tel Tsaf-Egypt route. Archaeologists think long-distance trading was happening by a “down the line trade system” – somebody in Anatolia traded an obsidian blade with somebody not that far from home, who traded it onward for something else, Garfinkel explains.

And why did all this goodness wind up in Tel Tsaf, in the Beit She’an Valley? Because they were rich, Garfinkel says simply. They were replete: “Anybody with something shiny to sell could get something,” he says.

Given all this, it makes sense that the community needed a “minimal level of social complexity and some knowledge of how to administer these goods.” Meaning: what belonged to whom, how much they could afford to eat, and how much they needed to set aside for the next season’s cultivation.

Obsidian from Turkey

Which begs a question. The reason the fragment of clay sealing, intentionally fired or not, survived all these millennia is the aridity of the Beit She’an Valley. How exactly did they grow surplus anything? Because the valley may be arid, but the village was situated on the delta of a river flowing from Samaria, Garfinkel explains.

Ubaid Mesopotamian pottery found at Tel TsafCredit: David Harris
Ostrich-eggshell belt found in woman's grave, with the awl and other treasures, Tel TsafCredit: יוסי גרפינקל

And didn’t they grow wheat in Neolithic Mesopotamia, Anatolia and so on? They did, he says: But, for instance, an Egyptian gave shells to somebody in Sinai who went north to Tel Tsaf, probably via a lot more people along the way; and thus the down-the-line system created exchange networks of exotic items.

Tel Tsaf has evidence of contact with peoples from Mesopotamia – pottery; obsidian from Turkey; shells from Egypt; and copper pins from Caucasia, Garfinkel sums up: “There is no prehistoric site anywhere in the Middle East that reveals evidence of such long-distance trade in exotic items as what we found at this particular site.”

And thus, possibly sealings with distinguishing marks were used, millennia before writing, to mark shipments, property and/or to seal the village’s barns and silos. If the door to the barn or silo was opened, the seal impression would break, revealing potential theft.

Some stamp seals have been found from the Neolithic period of the southern Levant; some sealings were also found, but not stamped ones.

“None of the sealings previously found at Tel Tsaf, or at other protohistoric sites in this region, bears a seal impression that might have identified the producer or owner; rather they were sealed by a finger or, in rare cases, possibly by an ad hoc vessel of some kind,” the team writes. The stamped sealing provides new evidence, therefore, of an early need for administration.

Regarding the Tel Tsaf sealing’s tempering by heat: clay fired in a kiln is harder than unbaked clay. But who’s to say if this underwent proper firing by an early potter or if it got roasted in some unfortunate conflagration? The archaeologists say analysis shows the clay of the seal came from at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. This is, mark you, thousands of years before the domestication and exploitation of the horse and donkey, and invention of the wheel. More to the point, it may indicate that the sealing had been used on a portable container that was brought to Tel Tsaf, as opposed to sealing the door of a community silo. Also, it was found inside a storage room, not a trash dump.

The stamped sealing adds to evidence of Tel Tsaf having been in a key position in the region, serving both the locals and people passing through, the archaeologists sum up.

Later, about 5,000 years ago (by which time cities were rising), seal marks began to include proto-hieroglyphics and early writing, and then proper writing. By the time we reach First Temple-period Jerusalem, about 2,600 years ago, seals with proper names abounded. Archaeologists have found, for example, sealings with the names Hezekiah, which may have belonged to the king of that name, and Isaiah – the prophet, maybe! Or maybe they had belonged to Hezekiah the wine merchant trader and Isaiah the local scribe. That boils down to a matter of faith.

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