A seal measuring about a half-inch in diameter, which depicts a human figure next to a lion, was discovered at the archaeological site of Beth Shemesh, located between the biblical cities of Zorah and Eshtaol where the Bible's book of Judges says Samson was born, flourished and finally buried, researchers at Tel Aviv University reported Monday.
The scene engraved on the seal, its age and the location of the discovery all suggest a probable reference to the story of Samson, the legendary heroic figure whose adventures famously included a victory in hand-to-paw combat with a lion, they said.
While the seal cannot reveal when the stories about Samson were originally written or clarify whether Samson was a historical or legendary figure, the finding does help to "anchor the story in an archaeological setting," researcher Shlomo Bunimovitz said.
"If we are right and what we see on the seal is a representation of a man meeting a lion, it shows that the Samson legend already existed around the area of Beth Shemesh during that time period," he said.
Archaeologists have dated the seal to the 12th century B.C.
The area of Beth Shemesh was a cultural meeting point where Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites lived in close proximity, maintaining separate identities and cultures, researchers said.
"Samson has a very legendary aura," researcher Zvi Lederman said, characterizing the Samson stories as "border sagas."
Samson, an Israelite, could cross the border and interact with the Philistines, Lederman said, but likely met with danger and various challenges when he did stray out of his home territory
"When you cross the border, you have to fight the enemy and you encounter dangerous animals," he said. "You meet bad things. These are stories of contact and conflict, of a border that is more cultural than political."