In a study that will appear in the upcoming edition of the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, Zachi Dvira and Dr. Gabriel Barkay of the Temple Mount Sifting Project analyzed dozens of clay seals, known as bullae, dating back 2,600 years and uncovered in the area of the Temple Mount.
The bullae, pieces of unfired clay inscribed with symbols, were used to secure storerooms, doors, and openings of storage vessels. A lump of clay was first pressed over the knot of a cord securing a doorknob or the covering of a vessel. The administrator of the treasury would then impress the seal upon the clay. This method of sealing prevented unauthorized persons from opening a storage area without leaving signs of tampering, since they would have had to either sever the cord or break the sealing.
This was hinted at in the Bible when Pharaoh gave his own signet ring to Joseph.
And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Yosef‘s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. Genesis 41:42
“Scholars usually don’t consider the back of the seals, but by doing it, a lot can be learned, especially about the type of objects they were attached to,” said Dvira. The researchers discovered that about 21% of the reverse sides of the seals carried impressions of woven fabrics, indicating that they were used to seal small bags. The bags likely contained pieces of silver, while sealings with flat reverses and fabric impressions probably sealed containers whose openings were covered with woven cloth and in which agricultural produce was stored.
“Evidence has been found that the remains of the broken sealings were saved in order to document the number of times that the storage area was opened,” the researchers wrote. “Thus, this method of securing commodities also served as a system of “bookkeeping”. In addition, by examining the names of the officials appearing on this type of sealings, it is possible to ascertain the names of the chief administrator of the treasury as well as to establish the fact that those who assisted him were generally members of his family.”
Among the sealing recovered from the Temple Mount soil, one was discovered bearing an inscription reading הִצִלְיָהוּ בן אִמֵר (Hiṣilyahu son of Immer) written in the Paleo-Hebrew script used during the latter First Temple period. Immer is the name of a priestly family which served in the Temple in the 7th or early 6th Century BCE, in the period of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 20:1-6) who describes a prominent priestly figure by the name of Pashḥur son of Immer.
“Pashhur son of Immer, the priest who was chief officer of the House of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesy these things. Pashhur thereupon had Jeremiah flogged…For thus said the Lord: I am going to deliver you and all your friends over to terror. And I will deliver all the wealth, all the riches, and all the prized possessions of this city, and I will also deliver all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hands of their enemies: they shall seize them as plunder and carry them off to Babylon. Jeremiah 20:1-5
“Hisilyahu could have been his brother,” said Dvira, noting that at that time “paqid” and “nagid,” the titles used in Jeremiah to describe Pashhur, referred to Priests and Levites who were appointed over the treasuries. It was common for several family members to share the task.
Many of the bullae were recovered at the Ophel excavations, some 50 meters between the City of David and the Temple Mount’s southern wall, revealing evidence of the existence of the Royal Treasury at the site adjacent to the public structure in which a large number of storage jars were discovered. The Ophel was built by King Solomon in the 10th century, and it was the biblical equivalent of an acropolis in Jerusalem where royalty ruled from. The inscriptions on many of these sealings mention the name of a common patriarch named Bes who apparently managed the treasury. Upon another seal the name of ‘Hezekiah King of Judah’ appeared.`
The Egyptian origin of the name ‘Bes’, and the Egyptian origin of the name ‘Pashḥur’, the manager of the Temple Treasury, raised questions for the researchers.
“It appears that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the Kingdom of Judah adopted accounting, measuring and administrative systems originating in Egypt,” the researchers concluded. “It is therefore plausible that officials educated in Egypt were employed in the treasuries and they were influenced by its culture – or perhaps Egyptian-born officials took part in the administration of the Kingdom of Judah.
“The assemblage of sealings revealed in the Temple Mount soil and in the Ophel Garden constitute concrete evidence for the existence of two central Treasuries in Jerusalem, which managed the economy of the Kingdom of Judah,” the researchers concluded. “Since, at present, it is not possible to conduct orderly archaeological excavations on the Temple Mount, this inscription remains the only epigraphic evidence originating from the Temple Mount enclosure which casts light on the economic-administrative activity that took place in this governmental, religious and administrative center of Judah during the First Temple period.”
The Sifting Project began in 1999 when the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement conducted illegal renovations on the Temple Mount and disposed of over 9,000 tons of dirt mixed with invaluable archaeological artifacts. Though Israeli antiquities law requires a salvage excavation before construction at archaeological sites, this illegal bulldozing destroyed innumerable artifacts: veritable treasures that would have provided a rare glimpse of the region’s rich history. The earth and the artifacts within were dumped as garbage in the nearby Kidron Valley. In a bold move, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira retrieved the matter from the dump, and in 2004, they started sifting it. Their initiative became the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP) with the goal of rescuing ancient artifacts and conducting research to enhance our understanding of the archeology and history of the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount Sifting Project’s finds constitute the archaeological data originating from below the Temple Mount’s surface.