The Bullae of Khirbet Summeily

Ever since Mississippi State University issued a press release on December 15, 2014 about several bullae found during excavations at Khirbet Summeily and the possible implication of greater complexity in the Iron Age that would support a kingdom of David and Solomon, the story has been picked up by newspapers around America. Usually the articles are shortened significantly and the link to David and Solomon is emphasized. But that is what people mostly focus on and what also generates the most comments.
I have worked at Khirbet Summeily, am familiar with the site and have discussed some of the issues with Dr. Jimmy Hardin. That’s why I want to provide a few comments on the press release.
First of all, the press release does not say that here’s proof for the existence of David and Solomon. A few bullae cannot provide that. Rather, bullae were often used to seal written documents and written documents indicate some political organization. And not only the bullae alone, but various finds from Khirbet Summeily and nearby sites point to such political and economic complexity in this area. Considering other data, including the accounts of the Bible, the authors then make the inference to the best explanation that a political entity centred on Jerusalem existed in the 10th century BCE.

Overall, that is a fair inference to make. However, it does go against some entrenched positions in scholarship. In this article Israel Finkelstein is quoted suggesting that Khirbet Summeily was part of a political entity centred on the coastal plains. That is a possible scenario that could be investigated. However, coming from Israel Finkelstein the suggestion sounds very defensive. Whenever there is evidence pointing to a kingdom centred on Jerusalem before the late 9th century BCE, Israel Finkelstein is quick to dismiss that evidence to defend his model of the Northern Kingdom of Israel forming into a state first and Jerusalem continuing to be a small highland village well into the 9th century BCE. If that model is what he understands to be written in the history books because it is based on modern critical research, then his sense of self-importance is somewhat overvalued, as it certainly is a debated model.

However, I do have some issues with the confidence with which the press release relates the bullae to the existence of a state in the 10th century BCE.

1. I would not assume that the existence of bullae necessarily indicates the existence of written documents. They could be used for other purposes. Many seals and seal impressions from the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age have apotropaic designs – that is, they meant to ward off evil. While I am not an expert on seals and do not know how many have been found in Iron Age contexts, I do know that many have been found in contexts from Late Bronze Age Canaan. As mostly Akkadian has been found as the written language, it is unlikely that most people in Canaan knew how to read or write this rather complicated cuneiform language. Based on the many scarabs, it may be argued that seals were also used as a sort of talisman.

2. If seals and bullae are seen as indicative of some political organization, then this was not something new in the Iron Age. Many seals and bullae were found in contexts from Late Bronze Age Canaan. Nevertheless, during the Late Bronze Age, Canaan was composed mostly of small city states. Therefore, the bullae could just as well indicate that Khirbet Summeily was part of a small city state, and not necessarily a larger kingdom.

3. I don’t think that the bullae and other finds necessarily indicate that Khirbet Summeily was a government installation. Some of the architecture at Khirbet Summeily is different from what might be expected at a small rural site, but otherwise that conclusion is mainly based on small finds, such as the bullae. That these were found at Khirbet Summeily and not at other sites may be due to the excavation method. For at Khirbet Summeily, all the soil is sieved, from top soil to what is considered sterile soil. Even mud-bricks are broken up to see what might be in them. And indeed some of the bullae were found in mud-bricks. If other sites used similar methods, maybe more bullae and other small finds would be discovered at those sites as well. That is, maybe the Iron Age world was a lot more complex than is often given credit for. And maybe reading and writing was a lot more widespread than some people claim.

These are just some points to question the interpretation suggested by the Jimmy Hardin and Jeff Blakely. I do think that theirs is a feasible interpretation, but inferences need to be strengthened and assumptions made clearer. It has to be realized that the press release and the article referred to were not written in isolation. The excavators of Khirbet Summeily have worked in the area for many years, know it well and have considered the history of this part of the world in detail. Many points that I saw raised with the press release have already been addressed by Hardin and Blakely in other publications. Many issues just cannot be addressed in a press release that needs to be kept short and simple.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, artifacts, Bible, excavations, History, Judah, Khirbet Summeily and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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