At the end of the late Nahman Avigad’s magisterial Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Sealsa appear a number of indices and lists that are not only helpful to scholars but also interesting to thumb through at odd moments. Leafing through the book recently, I came upon one that particularly fascinated me. It is a list of seals that are pictured and discussed in the corpus but that are now lost—or at least lost to us. We simply don’t know where they are! We have only pictures.
This corpus represents the lifework of the late Nahman Avigad. When he was not excavating in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, he traveled from collection to collection, indeed from country to country, searching for ancient stamp seals and seal impressions bearing inscriptions in Hebrew and other West Semitic languages. In all, he and Benjamin Sass, who updated and completed the work, catalogued 1,217 seals and impressions. By my count, 257 are listed in the category “Lost or Present Location Not Reported.” That’s more than 20 percent. In other words, more than one in five of the known seals is missing and can only be seen in mostly old pictures.
I can’t help but wonder how much of this is the result of the way some members of the scholarly community treat collectors and dealers—as low-life pariahs who should be shunned and shamed. In a word (or two), this attitude is foolish and counterproductive. Collectors who possess these seals—regardless of where they came from or how they got there—should be invited to share their treasures with scholars and with the public at large. These collectors should be encouraged eventually to leave their precious artifacts to a museum or a university. But instead, 041collectors are being humiliated into hiding.
Not long ago, I proposed to a prominent collector that he donate $50,000 to the Biblical Archaeology Society to fund the establishment of a registry of seals in memory of Professor Avigad, the universally recognized dean of Israeli epigraphists and seal experts. The collector did not respond positively to my suggestion. I wonder if there is someone else out there who would be willing to fund this project? How many seals are in private collections whose existence is unknown even to scholars? We have seen how important seals and bullae have recently begun to surface, owing in part to a few leading scholars who have been willing to buck their colleagues (particularly in the Archaeological Institute of America) and publish these artifacts despite their lack of provenance. The most recent of these is the impression of the seal of King Hezekiah, published by Frank Moore Cross in our March/April 1999 issue (see “King Hezekiah’s Seal Bears Phoenician Imagery,”BAR 25:02). BAR has been more than receptive to publishing these extraordinary finds. We like to think we are part of the reason they have surfaced.
In the registry we propose, collectors could list their seals and bullae anonymously, if they wished, but in such a way that we could contact them later. We would assure them that they would be honored, not disparaged. In time, they might be willing to allow their artifacts to be exhibited. Eventually, they might even leave them to a public institution. Who knows what treasures would surface? We would be pleased to hear from collectors, dealers, museums, philanthropists and just ordinary readers as to how to further this project.
One collection of seals listed in the Avigad corpus especially intrigues me. It belonged to a well-known Paris collector who died several years ago. His name was Paul Altman. Whether by will or by the generosity of Altman’s heirs, the Israel Museum was permitted to choose ten seals from the collection. The remainder—some 68 seals—was retained by the family. No one knows what happened to them. Moreover, no one seems to know where the family is or even who they are. Altman 043was apparently divorced but had several children. I have tried to find the family through connections in Paris but have been unsuccessful. Is there anyone out there who can help us locate the family of Paul Altman? Otherwise, these seals may be lost to the world forever.
I’ll end with another story—about how publication in BAR sometimes brings forth important finds in private collections that no one knows about. In 1996 P. Kyle McCarter, the William F. Albright Professor of Biblical and Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, published an article in BAR discussing some inscribed arrowheads in private collections.b Dating to the 11th century B.C., they are inscribed with the name of the owner (arrow of so-and-so) and often his father’s name and sometimes a title. (One belonged to a king of Amurru, whose people are later referred to in the Bible as Amorites.) Perhaps the arrows were intended not for use in battle but as a warrior’s proud symbol, like a shirt with your initials on it or a badge denoting membership in a military guild. If they were actually shot in battle, they may have been used to identify an archer when the fighting was over and it was time to divide the spoil.
The arrowheads tell us a lot about the political situation at the time and are significant in tracing the development of alphabetic writing. The ones discussed in McCarter’s article brought the total number of known inscribed arrowheads to 32. As a result of McCarter’s article, however, two more have come to light and a third has resurfaced. A reader from New York, having seen BAR’s coverage, asked McCarter to decipher two arrowheads in her collection, and a Massachusetts doctor sent McCarter a third to examine. Two are shown here for the first time (at left). We hope the publication of these arrowheads and seals will encourage more and more collectors to make their collections available to us all—to learn from and enjoy.
At the end of the late Nahman Avigad’s magisterial Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Sealsa appear a number of indices and lists that are not only helpful to scholars but also interesting to thumb through at odd moments. Leafing through the book recently, I came upon one that particularly fascinated me. It is a list of seals that are pictured and discussed in the corpus but that are now lost—or at least lost to us. We simply don’t know where they are! We have only pictures. This corpus represents the lifework of the late Nahman Avigad. When he was […]
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Nahman Avigad, Corpus of West Semitic Seals, revised and completed by Benjamin Sass (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities/Israel Exploration Society/Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, 1997). This clothbound book is available for $92.00 (including shipping) from the Biblical Archaeology Society by calling toll-free 1–800-221–4644.