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Many archaeologists, historians, and even casual Bible readers become curious about foods mentioned in ancient sources. Often these folks have a desire to taste the foods and compare them with modern cuisine. However, this presents a difficulty as there are few recipes for ancient dishes, and when there are recipes they are often merely a list of ingredients without specifying amounts or methods of preparation. Sometimes the name of an ingredient cannot be translated as the modern equivalent is unknown. And of course the recipes do not contain cooking temperatures or times as ancients did not have the means to measure these.

mersuBut some are not deterred by these problems, and seek to recreate ancient foods by reconstructing recipes using information gained by archaeologists and cultural historians combined with personal knowledge of cooking techniques. One example is the Babylonian stew described in a post below. Another is the attempt by Megan Sauter (Associate Editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society) to make mersu, a type of cake or pastry. Ms. Sauter used a receipt recreated by Adam Maskevich who based his work on a recipe originally translated from the Babylonian by Jean Bottéro. The Babylonian recipe came from the site of Mari in Syria and dates from c. 1775 to 1761 B.C.E.).

Mersu is made of a basic dough using flour and a liquid. The dough is shaped into a ball and hollowed out. The center of the ball is filled with a mixture of fruit and nuts, and then baked. It sounds similar to a modern pie (with crust all around) or a popover (with a harder crust). It also sounds like it would be quite tasty. You can read Ms. Sauter’s article with full details for the recipe here.

When one studies Biblical archaeology, one gets the feeling that all the great stuff has already been discovered: the Dead Sea scrolls, Megiddo, the Nag Hammadi texts, and Hezekiah’s Tunnel. However, archaeologists are always active at digs in the Holy Land and they often find significant artifacts. It takes time to investigate and authenticate remains so public announcements of discoveries can take years and even decades which causes us, the general public, to always be some years behind in our awareness and knowledge of these discoveries. Here’s one find which made the news this year, 9 years after it’s uncovering.

Archaeologists have excavated Ophel in Jerusalem for several decades. In 1986 and 1987, archaeologists discovered a building which probably served as the royal bakery for King Solomon and King Hezekiah. In 2009, further excavation of bakery area uncovered pottery fragments, figurines, and many other small items. Among these were jar handles with impressions and 34 bullae. A bulla is a seal impression stamped on a soft piece of clay. Most of the bullae found at Ophel are in Hebrew and are impressed with a seal bearing the name of the seal’s owner. One of the bullae found was impressed with the personal seal of King Hezekiah.

King Hezekiah was the son of Ahaz and the 13th king of Judah; he reigned from c. 729 to c. 687 BC, sometimes as coregent. According to the book of Kings, Hezekiah was a righteous king and instituted many reforms to purify the religious practices of the Israelites. Hezekiah is mentioned in the non-Biblical Sennacherib Prism or Annals containing the account of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib. The siege is mentioned in several books of the Bible including Isaiah chapters 33 and 36; 2 Kings 18:17; and 2 Chronicles 32:9.

Two other prominent Israelites lived during the time of Hezekiah: Isaiah and Micah. Isaiah is one of the major prophets, so named because of the size of the scroll, but Isaiah is also a major prophet in the sense of the importance of his writings. Isaiah is probably the best known of the prophets (after Moses), or least his writings are the best known prophetic writings among Christians. Isaiah is often quoted in New Testament writings, and passages from the book of Isaiah are used in lectionaries, liturgies, and songs throughout Christendom. Luke records that when Jesus began his public ministry, he did so by announcing it after reading aloud a passage from Isaiah (61:1,2) in the synagogue at Nazareth.

Isaiah_bulla.jpgAlong with the bulla bearing the seal of Hezekiah was one bearing the name “Yesha’yah[u] Nvy[?]”. When translated, the seal seemingly states that it is the seal of Isaiah the prophet. Since the bulla was found with a bulla bearing Hezekiah’s seal, it is no stretch to claim that the bulla bears the seal of the prophet Isaiah. This is certainly an exciting find, but like most archaeological items, the identification is not unanimous or without controversy. It is an exciting find, in fact the whole royal bakery area is exciting, and is sure to ignite more study. You can read about the Isaiah bulla in the Biblical Archaeology Review, the Times of Israel, National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and other places on the web — it’s big news. One of several articles which dispute the identification of the bulla with the Biblical prophet Isaiah is on the Remnant of Giants blog, titled “Why ‘Isaiah’ of the Isaiah Bulla is not the Prophet Isaiah“.

Whether or not the bulla is properly attributed to THE Isaiah, it is an interesting find, as are the other bullae, pottery fragments, inscribed jar handles, and various bits found on the site. Each piece found can guide us in filling in details of the history and everyday life of the Israelites. An item such as the bulla with the seal of King Hezekiah gives us a physical connection to the past and makes the figures of the Bible a bit more real to us. And maybe this is actually the seal of the prophet Isaiah, and those who touch it or see it are making a physical connection, however tenuous, with one of the great prophets of Judah.

So you’re invited to a team cooking event which will feature foods from around the globe and from different time periods. What do you do? Well, if you’re the team from Yale, you grab recipes from 4,000 year old clay tablets, and you make an ancient Babylonian meal.

You can read the article which accompanies the video here. I wish the article included the recipes. I think they would be interesting to read, and perhaps I would make one of the dishes. The lamb dish sounds interesting.

How does one say bon appétit in Akkadian?