A rare Crusade-era lead seal used to secure a letter was uncovered in an ancient farmstead in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced today (May 27).
The 800-year-old seal was likely once fixed to a document delivered to the farm from a sprawling cliffside monastery in the Judean Desert that was founded by Saint Sabas ("Mar Saba" in Aramaic) and once housed hundreds of monks.
"This is an extraordinarily rare find, because no such seal has ever been discovered to date," Benyamin Storchan and Benyamin Dolinka, excavation directors from the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]
This type of ancient seal was also known as a bulla in Latin. It consisted of two blank lead disks that would have been hammered together with a string between them. Opening the letter would cause obvious damage to the bulla, which was intended to discourage unauthorized people from breaking the seal.
One side of the seal bears the image of the bearded Byzantine-era Saint Sabas, who is wearing a himation (essentially a Greek version of a toga), brandishing a cross in his right hand and perhaps holding a copy of the gospel in his left hand. The other side of the seal is etched with a Greek inscription, translated as: "This is the seal of the Laura of the Holy Sabas." (The monastery was also called the "Great Laura" of Mar Saba. A laura, or lavra, is a type of Orthodox Christian monastery that has a cluster of caves for hermit monks.)