Photo Credit: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority
Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at the Arnona site from the first temple period at the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem.

What challenge was the Kingdom of Judah preparing for 2,700 years ago in what is today the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem, and could it be related to a dramatic historical event?

A substantial administrative storage center from the days of Kings Hezekiah and Menashe (8th century to the middle of the 7th century BCE) has recently been exposed at the archeological excavations in Arnona. The excavation, conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the newly transported US Embassy, is funded by the Israel Land Authority and administrated by the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation.

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Excavation at the site revealed an unusually large structure built of concentric ashlar walls. Ashlar refers to finely cut stones, as well as the structure built from them.

‘To the King’ – two-winged seal impression.

Also, 120 jar handles were unearthed, bearing seal impressions containing ancient Hebrew script. Many of the handles bare the inscription “LMLK” (למלך “to the king,” meaning belonging to him), with the name of an ancient city, while others feature the names of senior officials or wealthy individuals from the First Temple Period.

‘Private’ impressions bearing the inscription ‘For Meshalem Elnatan.’ / Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

This is one of the largest and most important collections of seal impressions ever uncovered in archaeological excavations in Israel.

Nathan Ben-Ari, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist at the Excavation Site. / Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Neria Sapir and Nathan Ben-Ari, directors of the excavations on behalf of the IAA, “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 in times of shortages, 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,” Sapir and ben-Ari continued. “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.”

Aerial photo of the Arnona dig. / Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority

“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,” the project directors said.

“It is interesting to note that some of the storage jar handles in the site are 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 were senior officials in charge of specific economic areas, or perhaps wealthy individuals who owned large agricultural lands, propelled the economy of their district, and owned private seals,” they said.

Israel Antiquities Authority Excavation on the Slopes of Arnona. / Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

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 at Ramat Rachel, which may be identified with the palace of the Kings of Judah and was an administrative center.

The majority of the seal impressions uncovered contain the ancient Hebrew letters “LMLK (to the king).” These impressions are characterized by a sun disk, flanked with two wings. Above the sun disc appears the word suggesting this is the king’s property, and below is mentioned one of four cities in the kingdom of Judah: Hebron, Ziph, Socho or Mmst. According to Sapir and Ben-Ari, while Hebron, Ziph and Socho can be identified as known ancient cities in Judea in the Hebron Hills region, the identity of Mmst is unclear.

Mysterious Mound of Stones from the First Temple Period at the Arnona Excavation Site. / Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

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 1.7 acres. Even today, this huge pile of stones stands out against 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 common to the end of the First Temple period. They have aroused the curiosity and fascination of Jerusalem researchers since the beginning of archeological studies of the area. Nevertheless, the reason for the huge effort made in stacking them over many acres remains an unresolved archaeological mystery.”

Clay figurines of women and animals found at the site. / Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Another find is a collection of figurines – clay statuettes. According to Sapir and Ben-Ari, “some of the figurines are designed in the form of women, horse riders or 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 the start of the Babylonian exile, the site was resettled and administrative activity resumed. During this time governmental activity at the site was connected to the Judaean province upon the Return to Zion in 538 BCE under the auspices of the Achaemenid Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great, which at the time ruled over the entire ancient Near East and Central Asia.”

According to Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem District Archaeologist of the IAA, “The archaeological discoveries at Arnona identify the site as 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 mission of sustainable development which views archaeological 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,” Baruch said.

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