Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem have made a double biblical discovery. First, they uncovered the ruins of a massive building that seems to have burned down when the Babylonians conquered the city and razed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. Then, amongst the charred debris, they found a tiny seal impression inscribed with the name of a man mentioned in the Bible: Nathan-Melech, a high-ranking official in the court of the king of Judah.
The twin discoveries shed new light on the period in which – most scholars believe – the Bible was first put in writing, as well as on the destruction of the First Temple that followed shortly after.
The tiny clay seal impression bears the Hebrew words LeNathan-Melech Eved HaMelech – which translate to “[belonging] to Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King,” the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Sunday.
The title “Servant of the King” appears often in the Bible to describe a high-ranking official close to the king of Judah, explains Anat Mendel-Geberovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Center for the Study of Ancient Jerusalem, who deciphered the text. This title also appears on other stamps and seal impressions that have been found previously.
This specific servant of the king, Nathan-Melech, is mentioned once in the Bible, in connection to the religious reforms enacted in the late 7th century B.C.E. by King Josiah.
As part of his attempts to stamp out polytheism and centralize religious cult in the Temple, Josiah “took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entering in of the house of the Lord, by the chamber of Nathan-Melech the chamberlain, which was in the suburbs, and burned the chariots of the sun with fire.” (2 Kings 23:11)
We cannot be sure that the Nathan-Melech mentioned in the Bible was the same person who, more than 2600 years ago, owned the clay bulla that was found by archeologists, says Mendel-Geberovich. But, “it is impossible to ignore some of the details that link them together,” she adds.
The timing is definitely right, since the artifact dates to between the mid-7th century B.C.E. to the early 6th century B.C.E., which roughly corresponds to Josiah’s reign. The large public building in which it was found also suggests that whoever signed his name on the bulla was someone of importance. Finally, this official was mentioned by his first name alone indicating that he was known to all, and there was no need to add his family lineage, which often appears on seal impressions from that time, Mendel-Geberovich concludes.
Bullae were small pieces of clay impressed by personal seals, used in ancient times to sign letters. Those parchments have long since turned to dust, leaving behind only the sealings.
In previous digs, archaeologists have found multiple seal impressions thought to prove the existence of biblical figures, including a bulla signed by the 8th century B.C.E King Hezekiah and one that may have been the mark of the Prophet Isaiah. Yet another was found that had belonged to the governor of Jerusalem in the First Temple period.
While excavating the building burned down by the Babylonians, the archaeologists also found a stamp-seal made of bluish agate, engraved with the inscription LeIkar Ben Matanyahu - “(belonging) to Ikar son of Matanyahu.”
The name Matanyahu appears both in the Bible and on additional stamps and bullae previously unearthed, says Mendel-Geberovich.
“However, this is the first reference to the name ‘Ikar,’ which was unknown until today,” she says. The researcher believes that although the literal meaning of the word Ikar is farmer, it is most likely that the text refers to a private individual with that name as opposed to a description of his occupation. It is still unclear who this person was.
Burning down the biblical house
The finds were made by a team from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University that was excavating beneath the former Givati parking lot in Jerusalem, just south of the Temple Mount. It was here that they unearthed the ruins of a large, two-story building that once stood proudly in the heart of the capital of the ancient kingdom of Judah.
But the scene the researchers uncovered was one of utter destruction. “The entire place was consumed by a terrible fire,” says IAA archaeologist Yiftah Shalev.
Broken pillars and pieces of shattered pottery were found amongst burnt wooden beams that had once held up the ceiling. Much of the site was covered by the fractured remains of beautiful polished tiles that once formed the flooring of the second story, which had collapsed along with the ceiling that supported it.
The charred pottery shards were dated to the early 6th century B.C.E. Since we know of only one such catastrophic event in Jerusalem at the time, the archaeologists link the ruins to the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E., Shalev says.
This is not the first time that evidence of the devastation wrought by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II has been found. From the 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered everything from Babylonian arrowheads shot during the siege of Jerusalem to charred pottery and foodstuffs consumed by the fiery inferno that followed the city’s fall.
But the new find still yields interesting information about the destruction of the city, confirming the biblical description, for instance in Kings and Jeremiah. It also provides evidence as to where the administrative and public center of Jerusalem was located during the late Iron Age, says Yuval Gadot, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist who directs the excavation with Shalev.
The faithless kings of Judah
Actually, according to Babylonian records and the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, capital of Judah, not once but twice. The first time was in 597 B.C.E., just over a decade after the death of Josiah in 609 B.C.E.
Irked by the rebellion of vassal kings, Nebuchadnezzar swept down from today’s Syria and among other cities, captured Jerusalem, ending King Jehoiakim’s reign and deposing his son. The Babylonian leader installed a new king in Judah, Zedekiah, who bribed him heavily to leave the rebellious city intact.
But all things come to an end, and Zedekiah’s loyalty to the Babylonians didn’t last. Nebuchadnezzar’s patience ran out and in 587 B.C.E., his forces besieged Jerusalem again.
No remains of the First Temple itself have been found to date, but now the archaeologists have found more evidence of the fateful day of its destruction.
The former Givati parking lot is in the neighborhood of Silwan, adjacent to the site of the so-called City of David, which is believed to be the original nucleus of ancient Jerusalem. As one of the few non-built-up areas in the center of the city, the Givati site has been a bonanza for archaeologists. In recent years they have peeled back layer upon layer of ancient buildings and artifacts ranging from the Ottoman and Arab periods back to Roman and Hellenistic times, and all the way down to the Kingdom of Judah in the Iron Age.
The Givati dig has been controversial because Silwan is a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem and the exploration is supported by Elad, a right-wing group that also backs Jewish settlement in the area.
The house of a biblical scribe?
The newly-discovered building from the First Temple period has only been partially excavated. So far, the archaeologists have uncovered three large rooms surrounded by thick walls. The building, at least the part that has been excavated, measured around 15 by 10 meters and was built of finely chiseled ashlar stones. Ashlar pillars supported the second floor, which had featured the fine stone tiles that were shattered. These had incorporated tiny calcite crystals: when clean and polished, the floor would have sparkled in red, purple and other colors.
These features alone show that “there was a huge investment in this building,” though it is still unclear what it was used for, says Shalev.
Given the presence of the seal and seal impression in the rubble, he speculates it may have been the home of a priest or other important personality, while also having a public or administrative function.
The researchers are quite certain of when the building burned down, but don’t know yet when it was built, says Gadot. With parts of the building still filled with rubble from the destruction, the archaeologists have not yet reached its original floor. There could be more discoveries, or even earlier phases of the construction, waiting to be unearthed, he says.
Meanwhile, it can be said that the find represents an “unparalleled” example of a high-class residence from the last years of the First Temple period, says Oded Lipschits, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who did not take part in the dig.
This was a time when some of the earliest biblical texts were likely first put in writing, he notes. Lipschits even speculates that whoever lived in that palatial house could have had a role in the redaction of the Book of Deuteronomy, which the Bible tells us (2 Kings 22:8) was conveniently “found” in the Temple during Josiah’s reign, around 622 B.C.E.
“That is why this building is so exciting: it is a living testament of the Jerusalemite elite that shaped the history and character of Judaism as we know it today,” he says. “These are the floors that Josiah’s scribes walked on.”
The discovery also contributes to the debate on where the center of ancient Jerusalem was located along the narrow and steep slopes of the ridge we now call the City of David, Gadot says.
Some scholars believe the city was centered around the Gihon spring, the main source of water in the area, which is to the south-east of the ridge. Others think it was more to the west side of the hill and closer to the Temple Mount.
While Jerusalem in the Bronze Age and early Iron Age was probably focused around the spring, finding such a large public building close to the Temple Mount shows that, at some point in the late Iron Age, the city center shifted to the north-west, Gadot says. This probably happened at the end of the 8th century B.C.E., after King Hezekiah built an underground tunnel to divert water from the spring into the city, thus making proximity to the spring less crucial, the archaeologist concludes.
The burned building also confirms what we know of the Babylonian destruction from the Biblical account and from other similar sites around the city, Gadot says.
“The destruction by the Babylonians was not uniform: we see a selective destruction of the symbols of the city and its administrative centers,” he says. “They didn’t go door to door and raze the city to the ground.”
An important building like the one recently discovered would have been an obvious target, but there are many lesser sites in the city that show no signs of direct damage. “In some cases, in the same building you can find a burned room and another one next to it that was abandoned intact,” Gadot says, adding that, by comparison, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, at the end of the Second Temple era, was much more widespread.
This aligns with how the book of Kings describes the last days of the First Temple, recounting that the sanctuary and the rest of the city were not burned down in the heat of battle, immediately after Jerusalem fell to the conquering army. Nebuchadnezzar seems to have made the decision to put the city to the torch only some time later, sending a man called Nebuzaradan, the commander of his guards, to do the dirty work.
“And [Nebuzaradan] burnt the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire. And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about.” (2 Kings 25: 9-10)
Nebuzaradan also carried off into the infamous Babylonian exile many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. It bears noting that, based on the archaeological record, this exile was not a mass deportation, but likely involved only that same Jerusalemite elite that inhabited residences like the one that was found destroyed, says Lipschitz. Across the rest of Judah, in the rural areas around Jerusalem, the evidence suggests that life continued as usual, under a Babylonian-appointed governor, he notes.
The village of Jerusalem
Half a century later, after the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon and the rest of the Middle East, some of the exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem and sought to reassert their former religious and political control over the Judahites who had stayed in the Holy Land.
While the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah depicts this as a triumphant mass return, there is no evidence that the population of Jerusalem or of Judah increased dramatically at the time – if anything, there is evidence that it declined, Lipschits says.
Little is known about Jerusalem in the Persian period. It was precisely to find remains from that time that Shalev and Gadot initially began their dig in the Givati parking lot.
“The period between the destruction of the First Temple to the early Hellenistic period is a missing era in Jerusalem,” explains Shalev. “There is pottery and other small finds but there is no building positively attributed to the Persian or the subsequent early Hellenistic period.”
Why this is the case is a matter hotly debated by archaeologists. Some scholars argue that Jerusalem of the time was a small, impoverished village that could not even be called a city until the late Hellenistic period and the revolt of the Maccabees in the 2nd century B.C.E. Others believe the renewed settlement may have been sizeable but was located almost entirely on the Temple Mount, which now houses Muslim holy sites and cannot be excavated.
Now the burned structure provides some partial answers to these questions, as its personal history didn’t end with the destruction wreaked in 586 B.C.E., but continued for centuries. The archaeologists have uncovered evidence that parts of the large residence were sporadically reoccupied during the Persian period, after some makeshift works were done to prevent further collapse.
This is consistent with a picture of Jerusalem as little more than a village surrounding a small, rebuilt shrine and inhabited by perhaps 100-200 people, mostly priests dedicated to renewing the cult at the Temple and living among the ruins of the once-glorious city, says Lipschits.
However, in an even later phase of the building, there is evidence that things changed again. In the late 3rd century B.C.E., already well into the Hellenistic period, a massive new building was erected on top of the First Temple period walls, roughly following the plan of the previous structure.
While again the archaeologists are not yet sure of its function, the construction of a new and large public structure does suggest that by then, Jerusalem was already on its way to regaining a semblance of its former glory.