What challenge was the Kingdom of Judah preparing for 2,700 years ago in today’s Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem and can it be related to a dramatic historical event?
A significant administrative storage center from the days of Kings Hezekiah and Manasseh (8th century to the middle of the 7th century BCE) has recently been exposed at archeological excavations in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem.
The excavation conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority is funded by the Israel Land Authority and administrated by the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation for the development of a new neighborhood.
Excavation at the site revealed an unusually large structure built of concentric ashlars walls. Of particular interest, 120 jar handles were found bearing seal impressions containing ancient Hebrew script. Many of the handles bare the inscription “LMLK” – (belonging) to the King- with the name of an ancient city, while others feature the names of senior officials or wealthy individuals from the First Temple Period. This is one of the largest and most important collections of seal impressions ever uncovered in archaeological excavations in Israel.
According to Neria Sapir and Nathan Ben-Ari, directors of the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is one of the most significant discoveries from the period of the Kings in Jerusalem made in recent years. At the site we excavated, there are signs that governmental activity managed and distributed food supplies not only for shortage but administered agricultural surplus amassing commodities and wealth. Evidence shows that at this site, taxes were collected in an orderly manner for agricultural produce such as wine and olive oil.
“The site once dominated large agricultural plots and orchards of olive trees and grape vines which included agricultural industrial facilities such as winepresses for winemaking. The site is dated to a period documented in the Bible by upheavals such as that of the Assyrian conquest campaign – under the command of King Sennacherib in the days of King Hezekiah.
“It may be that the government economic provisions indicated by the stamp seals are related to these events however, the excavation revealed that the site continued to be active after the Assyrian conquest. Moreover, the array of stamped seals indicated that the system of taxation remained uninterrupted during this period.
“It is interesting to note that some of the storage jar handles area inscribed with the names of senior officials and wealthy individuals from the Kingdom of Judah – Naham Abdi, Naham Hatzlihu, Meshalem Elnatan, Zafan Abmetz, Shaneah Azaria, Shalem Acha and Shivna Shachar. These names appear on storage jar handles at various sites across the Kingdom of Judah and attest to the elite position of those whose names are impressed on the jars.
“It is estimated that these are senior officials who were in charge of specific economic areas, or perhaps wealthy individuals at that time – those who owned large agricultural lands, propelled the economy of their district, and owned private seals.”
The excavators also posit that the large number of seal impressions at the site clearly indicate that during the latter part of the Kingdom of Judah, governmental activity took place in the area south of the City of David. It is also possible that this governmental activity was related to the nearby site of Ramat Rachel, which may be identified with the palace of the Kings of Judah and/or as an administrative center.
The majority of the seal impressions uncovered contain the ancient Hebrew letters “LMLK.” These impressions are characterized by a sun disk, flanked with two wings. Above the sun disc appears the word ‘to the King’ and below one of four cities in the kingdom of Judah: Hebron, Ziph, Socho or Mmst. According to Sapir and Ben-Ari, while the identification of Hebron, Ziph and Socho can be identified with known ancient cities in Judea in the Hebron Hills area, the identification of Mmst is still controversial.”
During the ancient period, for reasons not understood, the large building at the site was covered over with a massive pile of flint stones forming an artificial hill measuring 20 meters high and extending over seven dunams (!). Even today, this huge pile of stones stands out from the surrounding hills and is visible from a great distance. According to the researchers, “These artificial stone hills have been identified at several sites in Jerusalem and are a phenomenon to the end of the First Temple period and have aroused the curiosity and fascination of Jerusalem researchers since the beginning of archeological research in the area. Nevertheless, the reason for the huge effort made in stacking them over many acres remains an unresolved archaeological mystery.”
Another find that sheds light on the character of the period is a collection of figurines – clay statuettes. According to archaeologists Sapir and Ben-Ari, “Some of the figurines are designed in the form of women, horse riders or as animals. These figurines are usually interpreted as objects used in pagan worship and idolatry – a phenomenon, which according to the Bible, was prevalent in the Kingdom of Judah.”
The researchers added that, “It seems that shortly after the site was abandoned, with the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE and Babylonian exile, the site was resettled, and administrative activity resumed. During this time governmental activity at the site was connected to the Judean province upon the Return to Zion in 538 BCE under the auspices of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which then ruled over the entire ancient Near East and Central Asia.”
According to Dr. Yuval Baruch, the IAA Jerusalem District Archaeologist, “The archeological discoveries at Arnona identify the site as a key site – the most important in the history of the final days of the Kingdom of Judah and of the return to Zion decades after the destruction of the Kingdom. This site joins a number of other key sites uncovered in the area of Jerusalem which were connected to the centralized administrative system of the Kingdom of Judah from its peak until its destruction. The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Lands Authority recognize the importance of the site and its uniqueness and are working together to preserve and integrate these sites into the new neighborhood plan. This is part of the IAA’s trend of sustainable development which views archeological excavations as a resource that must be preserved and presented to the public as part of local heritage, and not just as an academic field of study.”