A monumental building has been found just south of the ancient Old City of Jerusalem, in what is today the neighborhood of Arnona.
An extraordinary number of seals also found at the site and handles of pottery storage jars typical of the Kingdom of Judah in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. were also discovered in the vicinity of the building.
It seems that the excavation has come across a major administrative center that operated under the biblical Judean kings Hezekiah and Menashe, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed on Wednesday.
Though the function fulfilled by the building, which was situated about 3.5 kilometers south of Jerusalem (at the time) remains unclear, it may possibly have served as a center where taxes – in the form of olive oil, wine and grains, for instance – were collected from the whole region, and stored in the pottery jars.
The collection of seal impressions found in the Arnona excavation, is impressive: 120 of them, used to mark goods as belonging to the king.
The impressions contain the names of four Judean cities: Hebron, Socho, Ziph and “Mmst”. Neria Sapir and Nathan Ben-Ari, directors of the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, say that Hebron and Socho can be identified with known cities, but the identification of Ziph and “Mmst” remains controversial.
Seventeen of the seals also include eight personal names: Naham Avdi, Naham Hatzlihu, Meshalem Elnatan, Zafan Abmetz, Shaneah Azaria, Shalem Acha and Shivna Shachar. Who they might have been is lost in time but possibly, Sapir suggests, they were the tax collectors.
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Also tellingly regarding the character of the site are dozens of jar handles bearing seal impressions, with lettering in ancient Hebrew. Most bear the inscription “LMLK,” meaning “belonging the king,” etched next to the royal symbol of a sun disk with two wings. Such “LMLK” impressions on pottery jar handles were a trademark of the Kingdom of Judah’s tax collection administration.
Likely therefore the jars, each holding a standard 45 liters, were used to store wine, oil or grain collected as tax, and the seals marking them were part of the royal administrations system.
At the time, the site would have been surrounded not by heated drivers stuck in traffic jams like today, but by fields of grain, olive orchards and wineries. Winepresses and oil presses abounded in the area.
Perhaps however this wasn’t just another place where a king accrued wealth, albeit in food form. Another intriguing set of discoveries was pagan clay figurines for instance in the form of women, riders and animals. It is clear from biblical texts abhorring the practice, and discoveries like these that the local people retained their affection for pagan worship in the Iron Age.
It bears adding that the site dates to roughly the time in which the Assyrians conquered the land under the command of King Sennacherib, in 701 B.C.E., in the days of King Hezekiah. Possibly the king was building up stores to prepare for the battle; in any case, the archaeologists say, the Arnona site was repopulated shortly after the fall of the Kingdom of Judea in 586 B.C.E., and administrative activity resumed there: “The array of stamped seals indicated that the system of taxation remained uninterrupted during this period,” the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is in charge of this excavation, says.
“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,” stated Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem District Archaeologist of the IAA. “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,” he added.
Finally, the site indicates one other thing, that the kingdom’s administrative activity was also taking place outside the walls, south of Jerusalem proper. Yet at some stage the building was concealed under a gigantic mound of flint stones, rising 20 meters high (almost 66 feet) with a base extending over seven dunams. Similar artificial mounds have also been found west of Jerusalem, and have consistently baffled Jerusalem archaeologists. It is and remains unclear why the people would labor to erect such a large and seemingly useless, structure, or what they might have been trying to hide.