A unique pile of more than a thousand seal impressions featuring Hellenic Gods, symbols and erotica has been found in an underground closet carved into the bedrock of the biblical town of Maresha. The seals date to the city’s final and most fruitful incarnation, the Hellenistic period, predating its final devastation. The inscription on one of the seals is from 145 B.C.E., the archaeologists believe. It’s impossible at this point to say when the earliest seal is from, but the latest has to be around 107 B.C.E. because the city was destroyed at that time, the archaeologists suggest.

Letter writers in ancient times used seals they hoped would guarantee that nobody but the addressee read their precious papyrus. Or at least, if the seal was broken, the addressee would know that privacy had been violated. What the archaeologists found in Maresha was evidently a collection of papyri that somebody had stored in the ancient equivalent of a safe. The papyri themselves had long since decayed. It need not have been a vast library. Ian Stern of Archaeological Seminars Institute and associate of Hebrew Union College explains: 

"A single papyrus could have up to six seals on it."

No other explanation leaps to mind for about 1,020 seal impressions from different sources, laying on the floor of a space too small for people to stand in. Donald T. Ariel, head of the Coin Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority:

"The space can be compared with a small safe behind my clothing closet. This was a safe room where the most valuable documents were deposited."

The floor of this “closet” had been heavily plastered, and many of the seal impressions have plaster stuck to them. Given that all were made of unfired clay and are friable in the extreme, we may never know what they show.  Cleaning tiny unbaked clay items of the crud of centuries is a painstaking task that will take a very long time. Meanwhile we can say that most of the impressions were only about a centimeter (less than half an inch) in diameter. We can also say that they seem to be almost entirely Greek in type, say Ariel and Stern.

 The impressions feature portraits of both humans and deities: Castor and Pollux, Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite, symbols such as cornucopia, animals — and erotica, as can be seen in two of the 300 impressions studied so far. A few also sport names or letters in Greek. Future chemical analysis of the plaster and dust in this Hellenistic-era proto-safe may attest to the origin of the seals, Stern tells Haaretz:

"They could have come from around the corner, or from many places in world."

Cleaning the fragile impressions will take a long time, and meanwhile, the archaeologists have some speculation about who owned them. Ariel suspects that the closet-cave hewn from the soft limestone bedrock had belonged to a wealthy estate owner, who like all the elite at the time, inclined toward Hellenistic culture. Jewish tombs have been found (elsewhere) from the Hellenistic era, with inscriptions in Greek.

"Maresha was limited during the First Temple Period. The city expanded off the tell and into a lower city — which is where the thousands of subterranean complexes were built — only during the Hellenistic period."

The archive was not unique. About 30 such have been discovered around the Hellenistic world, Ariel said — but in Israel, it’s only the second to be found — and the first, discovered about 20 years ago in the north of the country at Tel Kedesh, was more closely connected to Phoenician culture.

One more fun titbit: During their excavation, crawling heroically through the subterranean complex, they discovered seven untouched rooms, and did a quickie survey. They found some Roman-era lamps in there and a casserole dish, and noted that some of the walls had been broken through. It seems that during the Roman period, either people crept into the tunnels and hid there from persecutors for a time. Or they were robbing it and left their casserole dish behind, as robbers do.