A Seal of King Hezekiah

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has announced the discovery of an ancient ‘bulla’ (a clay seal with a personal stamp impressed upon on it) bearing the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah. This is not the first seal bearing Hezekiah’s name to come to light. Nonetheless, it is an exciting find, especially since it was found in situ.


The Discovery

This particular bulla was originally found in 2009 during soil sifting at the excavations on the Ophel ridge to the immediate south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The soil was part of ancient garbage debris that had been dumped between buildings in the northern section of ancient Jerusalem (Iron II). Eilat Mazar, head excavator at the site, interprets a nearby building as a royal storehouse.

Excavators initially misunderstood the writing on the bulla, reading the name as ‘Hezekiah [son of] Malkiah’. It was only recently, after a second check, that the writing on the bulla was deciphered more precisely and the personal name reinterpreted.


The Bulla

Measuring just 13 x 12 mm, the bulla itself is small enough to rest on a fingertip. The writing is, therefore, almost microscopic. An excellent photograph by Ouria Tadmor, however, provides good resolution for analysis.



The front (obverse) is clearly stamped by a personal seal that includes writing and iconography. The rear (reverse) reportedly bears the impressions of two cords that were held in place by the bulla. This suggests the bulla probably sealed a document of some kind. Unfortunately, the document is now lost—presumably a papyrus of some kind, which probably did not survive antiquity.


The Writing

The obverse has two registers, one each on the upper and lower extremities of the seal. The letters are Palaeo-Hebrew, and conform to the epigraphic style we see on a number of seals that can be dated to approximately the early seventh century BC. There is some damage in the upper register, and it is difficult to make out the letters on the far left side of both registers. The words are separated by a small but discernible dot, which is a common practice.

Taking these factors into account, we can offer the following transcription (partially or fully damaged letters are in orange):


Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ah-
az, King of Judah.

The Hebrew word for ‘son of’ (בן) is omitted. Such an omission was common practice in seals, which were too small to host many letters.

The name is clearly reconstructed to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. More than this, he is specifically given the title ‘King of Judah’. The word ‘Judah’ appears to be incomplete. The daleth (ד) is only partially visible and the final latter, he (ה), is missing altogether. However, some of Hezekiah’s other seals clearly give the name of the kingdom of Judah in full as יהדה (yehudah). Therefore, we can be confident that the stamp itself did have the fuller spelling of ‘Judah’ on it, but this particular bulla lacks it because of the way the stamp was impressed into the clay.


Drawing of a scarab beetle bulla of Hezekiah. The top line reads יהדה (‘Judah’), and the bottom line reads לחזקיהואחזמלך (‘belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king’).


King Hezekiah

Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, is known from both biblical and Assyrian sources. The exact dates of his reign are debated, but 715–687 BC are the most commonly espoused dates. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, made the kingdom of Judah a vassal to the Assyrians, against the advice of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7–8). Ahaz did this in order to procure Assyrian help against an alliance of Damascus and Israel that was threatening him. This set the dominoes toppling that would see both Damascus and Israel fall to the Assyrian armies and be absorbed as provinces into the Assyrian imperial structure. Hezekiah may have been co-regent for a time with his father, Ahaz, but he at least reigned in his own right just after the downfall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.

While Ahaz was content to be an Assyrian vassal, it appears Hezekiah was not. Instead, Assyrian sources tell us he took the political risk of meddling in Philistine affairs. The Bible portrays Hezekiah centralising his power (including the cult of Yahweh) in Jerusalem, thereby extending his sovereignty over his kingdom more directly. This provoked the ire of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, who invaded Judah in c. 701 BC. Sennacherib claims to have destroyed 46 cities of Judah and deported their survivors. He even depicted the siege of Judah’s second largest city, Lachish, on the walls of his palace. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib with treasure from the temple in Jerusalem, and even appealed to Egypt for military help. However, all this failed. In his annals, Sennacherib claims to have cooped Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.

Surprisingly, Sennacherib did not end up taking Jerusalem. The fact that Hezekiah provoked the unrestrained wrath of Assyria, experienced the full-scale barbaric invasion of his country, which brought Judah to the very brink of destruction, only to emerge still on the throne in an unscathed Jerusalem (there is no layer of destruction or evidence of Assyrian siege in the relevant archaeological strata) with the Assyrian armies returning to Mesopotamia is perhaps one of the greatest stories of political survival against the odds in history. It’s no wonder the Bible attributes this to the divine intervention of Yahweh himself and gives Hezekiah a generally glowing report card.



In the centre of the bulla is a sun disk. It emits six rays and has a set of wings that curve gently downwards in a posture of protection. The imagery of a winged sun disk is ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. It can be found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, and Ptolemaic iconography. The sun usually is a cipher for the chief deity of the culture to which the owner of the seal belonged. In Assyria and Persia, the disk is often augmented with the depiction of a personal figure—the god Asshur in the case of Assyria, and the god Ahura Mazda in Persian depictions. However, no such personal depiction of a deity is seen in the sun disk here.

There are two options for interpreting the sun disk here.

First, it might be depicting the sun god, showing Egyptian influence. To that end, we note that on the right side of the bulla we see the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life. The faint vestiges of a second ankh are just visible on the far left side of the bulla also. Hezekiah is known to have appealed to Egypt for military assistance against Sennacherib, though this was unsuccessful. Thus, in his anti-Assyrian stance, Hezekiah may well have absorbed Egyptian influence. Some of his other seals display a scarab beetle, which is clearly influence by Egyptian iconography. Furthermore, we know that in the early sixth century BC—a century after Hezekiah—the sun god was worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, though the practice is condemned in Ezekiel 8.16–18. This particular understanding of the iconography has explanatory power, though it is at odds with the biblical depictions of Hezekiah as an avowed exclusive Yahwist.

The alternative option is to understand the sun disk as a compatible cipher for Yahweh, the national deity of Israel and Judah, and patron deity of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. While it is clear that Hezekiah did adopt Egyptian iconography, this does not necessitate his own worship of Egyptian deities. The compatibility of such iconography with Yahwistic religion is seen in a couple of places in the Bible. For example, Psalm 84.12 [84.11 Heb] says, ‘For sun and shield is Yahweh God; favour and glory does Yahweh give.’ In Malachi 4.2 (3.20 Heb), Yahweh declares, ‘But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’. This verse probably refers to the winged sun disk as a symbol of Persian authority, as the Persians often depicted their deity Ahura Mazda that way. The Persians were also content to identify Ahura Mazda with certain ‘compatible’ deities of their subject peoples, Yahweh being one such deity. Malachi, then, most likely sees Yahweh’s blessing on his devotees as coming through Persia’s favour. The iconography of Persia is, therefore, baptised into Yahwism in such a way that it provides a compatible cipher for Yahweh’s own favour. The iconography on this bulla may well be doing the same thing: using common Egyptian symbols in the service of Yahwism.


Relief of a sun disk with depiction of Ahura Mazda from the ruins of Persepolis.

The press release from Dov Smith (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) suggested the two ankh signs on the bulla might be connected to Hezekiah’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, depicted in 2 Kings 20.1–8 and Isaiah 38. The logic was that Hezekiah’s earlier seals contained scarab beetles rather than a sun disk, and were devoid of any ankh signs. The sun disk is suggestive of healing (cf. Mal 4.2 [3.20] mentioned above) and the ankh is a clearly a symbol of life.

As tantalising as the suggestion is, we must urge caution. First, to my knowledge there is nothing that allows us to date the scarab bullae specifically earlier than this sun disk bulla. So the dating is speculative. However, we have only three possibilities for ordering the respective bullae: either (1) the scarab bullae are earlier; (2) the sun disk bulla is earlier; or (3) the bullae are contemporary. So the suggestion is not implausible—just uncertain. But, secondly, the dramatic survival of Hezekiah and Jerusalem in the face of Sennacherib’s invasion is just as plausible an explanation of this seal’s iconography. The symbols might even be multivalent, since Hezekiah had more than one close call in his lifetime—especially if we remember the threats to Jerusalem during the reign of his father, Ahaz. Therefore, the suggestion in the press release is not wildly speculative—it’s a plausible suggestion. However, it’s not the only one.


The Significance of Authenticity

This bulla is significant because it was found in situ. That is, archaeologists found it in the course of excavation in Jerusalem. This is different to the other bullae of Hezekiah, which were not found in situ, but rather turned up on the antiquities market from unknown sources. When that happens, we have no way of verifying the authenticity of these bullae, and therefore, we can only make provisional evaluations of them at best. Since this new bulla was found in situ during a controlled dig, we can be confident about its authenticity. And this allows us to say with a far greater degree of confidence that the other bullae purportedly from Hezekiah’s personal seals are probably also authentic.

Two such bullae in particular deserve mention. They are, for all intents and purposes, identical to this ‘new’ authenticated bulla, though they first came to late in the 1980s and 1990s. We have, therefore, three practically identical bullae displaying the same configuration of iconography and with the exact same inscription, and one of them is positively genuine. It’s almost certain, then, that all three are genuine. The unprovenanced bullae were discussed in an article by Robert Deutsch titled ‘Lasting Impressions: New Bullae Reveal Egyptian Style Emblems on Judah’s Royal Seals’, published in Biblical Archaeology Review 28.4 (2002), 42–51, 60.

Furthermore, the discovery of this ‘new’ bulla in the excavations at the Ophel ridge in Jerusalem confirms that we are dealing with strata related to the Judean monarchy in Iron II, and the historical significance of Hezekiah. While these were not really in serious doubt, we still see here a positive corroboration between a number of sources. The authenticity of this bulla sees a very neat intersection between ancient literary sources (Assyrian annals, the Bible) and archaeological artefacts.






Further Thoughts on the Ceramic Fragment from Jerusalem

Christopher Rollston has given his analysis of the new ceramic fragment discovered in excavations at Jerusalem. He suggests a date in either the 11th or 10th century BC, reads it left-to-right, and proposes the reading mqlḥ nr š (‘pot of Ner. [?]’). His analysis is carefully reasoned and cogent, which is not surprising given his vast epigraphical expertise. His analysis can be read at Rollston Epigraphy. I include here Chris’ own facsimile drawing of the fragment:

Christopher Rollston’s facsimile drawing of the ceramic fragment with inscription recently found in Jerusalem.

Gershon Galil also shared his own proposed transcription of the fragment with me, and with others on the biblical studies list. He reads it right-to-left as [… – נת]ן [תת]ן חלקם], translating this as ‘give them their share’. While I can see the possibility in the letter forms, I think this suggestion relies too heavily on filling the lacunae. Also, I’m not sure this is the kind of thing that would be incised into wet pots before firing. If this were an ink inscription on an ostracon, I think Gershon’s suggestion would be more pertinent.

Chris Rollston’s reading has the appeal of making good sense of an inscription written into the shoulder of a pithos jar. I commend his analysis and think it’s the most plausible to date, so I’m going with his proposals (even over my own tentative suggestions).

There are still some curiosities, though.

First, the word Chris proposes for ‘pot’ (מקלח, mqlḥ) is used in 1 Samuel 2.14 and Micah 3.3, though in a slightly different form there. He argues that the mem (מ) is most likely a noun maker, which is in itself a reasonable suggestion—it is a common Semitic phenomenon. However, this word for ‘pot’ is a loanword from the Egyptian qrḫt. It would be unusual for a loanword of this kind to come prefixed with a noun-making mem. Chris does admit that the mem may be at the end of a previous word or the prefixed preposition ‘from’ (מן, mn). I would say the first of these is the more likely scenario, since ‘from’ in this context would appear problematic.

This then raises another issue, namely that the inscription would apparently not employ any gaps or word dividers to separate words. It is not unusual for a construct expression like ‘pot of Ner’ to be without word division, and it would be no curiosity to have an entire inscription, especially a short one, without any word division at all. However, there is an apparent gap before the rightmost letter of the inscription, which Chris tentatively identifies as shin (ש). If the mem (מ) is indeed the last letter of a previous word, the apparent gap in front of the rightmost letter could only have three possible explanations: Either (1) the rightmost figure is actually the first letter of the entire inscription that was written left-to-right around the neck of the pithos jar with ‘pot of Ner’ being the final portion of it; or (2) there is a letter (or an aborted letter in which a mistake was made) in this lacuna, but it is situated below the breakage line and, therefore, is not visible. Chris does entertain the possibility of a daleth (ד) in the lacuna, which would be appropriate in terms of its height and position. However, like Chris, I don’t think the expression mqlḥ nrd (‘pot of nard’) is plausible, since it is highly unlikely that nard was stored in pithos jars. Both the size and the openness of pithos jars precludes the storage of such a valuable luxury liquid commodity. If there is a daleth (ד), or another letter entirely, in this gap, I think we would have to see it as abnormally low. Therefore, I propose we see the rightmost letter as the putative first letter of the entire inscription.

Another interesting thing about Chris’ proposal is the possibility of an 11th century BC date. We will need to wait a few more seasons for excavations at the Ophel in Jerusalem to progress, affording us a more complete picture of the strata there. Eilat Mazar reported the fragment as coming from the Iron IIa level, which would be 10th century, so I’m cautious about dating the fragment much earlier than that. Either way, it’s significant to find this small evidence of at least a modicum of literacy in the Judean highlands at this time.

As ever, a personal inspection of the fragment itself is the best way to make the firmest conclusion. Reliance on photos and drawings has its unwitting setbacks (see, for example, my analysis of the extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription that is masked by the extant photos).

Finally, I hope Eilat Mazar’s team might be able to tell us what the contents of this pithos jar, and the other six jars found at the particular location, were. There might have been traces of the contents when they fragments were originally found, though cleaning may have eradicated these. We’ll wait and see.


Gershon Galil elaborates on his own suggestion.

Aren Maeir gives his preliminary perspective.

A New Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem (10th century BC?)

A new inscription purportedly dating to the 10th century BC has been discovered in excavations at Jerusalem. The inscription was inscribed on the shoulder of a large ceramic pithos jar that was turned up in Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the ‘City of David’ area (just south of the Old City walls). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has issued a statement about the find, which I copy below at the end of this blog post (see blue section). Two photos accompanied the statement, and I have included them here in this blog post, too.

Here is the first photo:

This jar fragment bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Noga Cohen-Aloro.)

My initial thoughts:

There is some confusion in the media statement (see blue section below) about the dating of this inscription. On the one hand the statement claims the inscription is in a Proto-Canaanite script and dates to the era before Israelite rule, but then it claims the inscription comes from the 10th century BC and dates to Israelite rule. I think what the statement is probably trying to say is that the letters of the inscription appear to be in a script that is known from the era before Israelite rule, but the piece of pottery itself comes from a period during Israelite rule, specifically Iron IIa (10th century BC).

To me the script certainly looks very old. I’m not sure I’d label it ‘Proto-Canaanite’, though. On first glance I would say tenth century BC seems about right, with the script bearing some resemblance to Phoenician. This is, of course, a preliminary estimate, because although there is a hi-res photo of the inscription here, I’d need to see the pottery up close in person to make a more definitive evaluation.

Also, the statement says that the letters seem to be (left-to-right) mqphn, (possibly) l, and n—that is ן לנחפקמ. I would suggest a few other possibilities (again, this is only on first impression). The first letter (that is, the rightmost) seems to be the top half of a nun (נ) fairly clearly. Then, moving leftwards, there is a gap, followed by some strokes above the breakage that appear to be the upper portions of what may be a beth (ב) that does not quite join up at the top. However, these two strokes could belong to completely different letters, which is perhaps given more weight by the fact that there seems to be the bottom portion of an elongated stroke a little way below. If this matches up with the second of the strokes above the breakage, then I’d suggest it may well be a mem (מ). On that basis, I’d propose the previous stroke might belong to a lamed (ל).

Moving further left, the next letter, which is the first complete letter, is very problematic. It appears to have the shape of a nun (נ), but in reverse (compare it with the first stroke on the very right hand side). Other than nun, though, I can’t see what other letter this might be. So I’m going for it as an anomalous nun (נ).

The next letter seems to be a ḥeth (ח). The next two letters, however, are difficult to decipher. The first is touted as a pe (פ) in the media release, but I’m not convinced. Looking closely at the hi-res photo, I think the right part of the letter is not completely rounded, but has a kink at the point where it bends downwards. Also, I think there may be a small tail stroke on the bottom of that right hand portion. To me, this suggests a somewhat truncated form of tsade (צ), though I couldn’t rule out an odd-shaped taw (ת) either. The next letter was touted as a qoph (ק), and while this is a plausible suggestion, it looks more like a resh (ר) to me. The final visible letter appears unambiguously to be a mem (מ).

Thus, on a preliminary deciphering, I would propose the letters might be read ן למנחצרמ (n lmnḥṣrm). However, since I have not seen the fragment itself and only have the photo to go on, I won’t set that reading in stone (or ceramic!). It is purely a first impression. As I clearly learnt with the Tel Dan Inscription, you cannot rely solely on photographs of inscriptions, no matter how good the photos appear to be. Nothing beats an actual physical inspection made in person, because photos can unwittingly mask critical features (like the extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription).

What might this preliminary rendering of the letters mean? Well it might refer to something coming from the ‘courtyards’ (ḥaṣerim: חצרים), perhaps of the temple or the palace. Alternatively, perhaps the pithos jar held something ‘from Hadramaut’ (lemin ḥaṣramawt: למן חצרמות)—the biblical Hazarmaveth. The first possibility would be significant in and of itself as providing some evidence of a royal and/or cultic installation in Jerusalem during the 10th century BC. The second possibility would be stupendous, providing evidence of contact between Jerusalem and southern Arabia during the tenth century BC. However, as enticing and sensational as these possibilities are, we have to wait further work on this ceramic piece and get the eyes of a few more epigraphers onto it. We also have to ensure we understand the stratum in which the ceramic piece was found properly. This will come with further excavations in coming years.

Nonetheless, even if this inscription doesn’t quite live up to the deliciously sensational possibilities I’ve just mentioned, it is still significant as evidence of officialdom in (most likely) 10th century BC Jerusalem. The average person generally did not write things into their newly made ceramic jars. It was usually an administrative authority of some kind that needed to do that kind of thing. So this inscription should make us sit up and take notice. It does not tell us who was in Jerusalem, but it suggests that there was someone there with enough officialdom to require large pithos jars to be labelled in some way. This would have been to distinguish the jar either for its source, its destination, its function, its content, or its owner. Thus, this little inscription is a very neat find of considerable historical significance.

The language of the inscription is difficult to ascertain from so few letters, but there is good reason to think it is probably Hebrew. First, it was found in Jerusalem! Second, the ceramic piece probably dates to the tenth century BC. Third, the (visible) mem (מ) might be the masculine plural substantive ending. Fourth, we might have the preposition מן (‘from’) in a form with the preposition ל—a construction known from biblical texts (cf. Micah 7.12) While these last two reasons are still speculative at this stage, it seems sensible, given the first two reasons, to propose that this is a Hebrew inscription—one of the earliest we have (cf. the Tel Zayit Abecedary, Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon, and Gezer Calendar).

Feel free to interact with or challenge my suggestions here. As I’ve mentioned, they are only first impressions, so I’m very open to correction, improvement, or updating.

Here now is the official media release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem:

Inscription From the Time of Kings David & Solomon
Found Near Southern Wall of Temple Mount
in Hebrew University Excavations

Jerusalem, July 10, 2013 —Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar has unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.The inscription is engraved on a large pithos, a neckless ceramic jar found with six others at the Ophel excavation site. According to Dr. Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city’s history.

Dated to the tenth century BCE, the artifact predates by two hundred and fifty years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, which is from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century BCE.

A third-generation archaeologist working at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar directs archaeological excavations on the summit of the City of David and at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

The discovery will be announced in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, “An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel,” appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).

Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar displays a jar fragment unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Oria Tadmor)

The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type. The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10thcentury BCE).  An analysis of the jars’ clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.

Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to mqphn, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription’s meaning is unknown.

The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar’s contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

Excavations at the site are conducted in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The site is in the national park surrounding the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount compound. The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains the excavation site as a national park open to the public.

The excavations are made possible through a generous donation by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York. Participants in the dig include Israeli students and workers, along with students or alumni of Herbert W. Armstrong College sent to Jerusalem from Edmond, Oklahoma to participate in the excavation.

For more information:
Dov Smith

Hebrew University Foreign Press Liaison
02-5882844 / 054-8820860 (+ 972-54-8820860)

Here also is a YouTube clip featuring Eilat Mazar and Shmuel Ahituv talking about the inscription and their understanding of it as a Canaanite (non-Hebrew) text.


Christopher Rollston has given his own analysis. I also have some further thoughts in light of his.

Gershon Galil also elaborates on his own suggestion.

Aren Maeir also gives his preliminary perspective.

The Ark of God found at Khirbet Qeiyafa?

No, the Ark of God hasn’t been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. But at a press conference this morning, Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, presented some artefacts that they think are related to the Ark of God in some way. However, as you’ll see, at this stage I’m a little sceptical about their claim.

So what did they announce? Well, Garfinkel and Ganor presented three artefacts: two small boxes, one of stone and the other of clay, and a fragmentary stone artefact that looks like some kind of cultic stand. They were discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which is a single stratum fortification in the Valley of Elah (30 kms southwest of Jerusalem) dating to c.1000 BC. It’s a significant archaeological site because it gives us a window onto life in the region at the beginning of the Iron II period, and some would argue bolsters the claim for the historicity of a monarchy under David and Solomon. The two boxes presented are, according to Garfinkel and Ganor, miniature models of the Ark of God. They were among a cache of artefacts discovered within three large rooms that appear to have been shrine installations at the site. Amongst the other objects found were five standing stones (or massebot), two basalt altars (was one of these the third artefact displayed at the press conference?), and two clay vessels for libations.

The two boxes found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which Garfinkel and Ganor claim are miniature models of the Ark of God.

Below is an excerpt from Demotix relating some of the details given at the press conference (you can go to their website for their full story):

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples—separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).

The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.

Two portable shrines (or “shrine models”) were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.

The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the “triglyph,” is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.

The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.

The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon’s palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term “Slaot,” [צלעות] which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term “Sequfim” [שקפים], which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as “triple recessed doorway.”

Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel 41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.


My first impression is that we have here some excellent examples of the religious practices at the beginning of Iron II, and they seem to be similar to what we have found at other Iron II religious sites throughout Judah, Samaria, Jezreel, and Galilee. But at the same time, I think Garfinkel and Ganor may be reading too much into these artefacts. To say that these boxes are miniatures of the Ark of God is a claim that can only be made with reference to the descriptions of the Ark in biblical literature. This raises a methodological issue as to whether they are letting the biblical text colour their thinking of ordinary artefacts. But besides that, the boxes don’t seem to resemble the descriptions of the Ark very closely.

Now this is where things get a little hazy with the reports. Garfinkel and Ganor perhaps realise the discrepancy between these two boxes and the description of the Ark in the Bible. And so, it appears that they are arguing that the biblical description of the Ark is based on a ‘desert’ Ark, but that the Ark in use in Solomon’s day was different somehow. If this is indeed what Garfinkel and Ganor are arguing, then it seems to be an argument based on silence. There is nothing other than their tentative suggestion that these boxes are Ark miniatures to suggest that there was more than one Ark of God. I’m afraid this sounds like cart-before-the-horse kind of logic. I’m just not convinced.

Furthermore, Garfinkel and Ganor point to similarities between the carvings on these boxes and the description of Solomon’s temple. Yet, if one follows the biblical narratives, Solomon’s temple is at least a generation later than these artefacts, in which case, the boxes are not demonstrating specifically biblical artistic motifs, but rather generic religious motifs evident throughout the wider region. The connection with Solomon’s temple is, therefore, weakened. Thus, it seems a bit of a stretch to go basing clarifications of some of the architectural terms in the Hebrew narrative of 1 Kings based solely on these boxes.

What is missing from the reports so far is a detailed description of how these boxes were found. These details would perhaps give us more of an insight into their function and help us to evaluate more precisely Garfinkel and Ganor’s thesis. Until then, they’re just nicely crafted boxes found at a religious installation dating to c.1000 BC. I’d love them to have some kind of connection to Solomon’s temple, but I’m just not convinced of one at this stage. At this stage, it looks more like wishful thinking than probability. I’m certainly willing to be swayed, but we need more information.

What these artefacts do seem to confirm for us is that there is a significant religious installation in the Valley of Elah during a time when some scholars are questioning the existence of a Kingdom of Judah/Israel. These finds by no means prove that such a kingdom existed. However, they do suggest some kind of organised or official religion. Just how official (local, district, realm, or regional) is unknown. But it points to some kind of organisation in religion on the fringes of Judah in c.1000 BC. The single-stratum nature of Khirbet Qeiyafa is quite critical in discerning this. These wares are not merely hangovers from previous eras, but objects and installations produced specifically at the beginning of Iron II. In other words, some kind of ruling authority was operative in this area, and it seems more and more to have been different from the Philistines just a stone’s throw away.

The most likely explanations for this state of affairs are that either there was a localised authority in the Shephelah region (cf. David Ussishkin’s perspective), or someone up in the highlands of Judah had a hand in this. Are the spotlights converging on us finding the kingdom of David in archaeology? Well, if there was a House of David (which I argue is another name for Jerusalem) that could be a player on the international stage in c.800 BC as per the Tel Dan Inscription, and there is an organising authority in the Valley of Elah in c.1000 BC, it’s not inconceivable that the two entities could end up aligning, such that we eventually have some strong evidence for a Kingdom of Judah in the time of David and Solomon. However, we don’t have that yet. Even with these artefacts announced today, we have not confirmed that the two entities do align. We must await further archaeological evidence to fill in the two-century gap between Khirbet Qeiyafa (c.1000 BC) and the Tel Dan Inscription (c.800 BC) before we can make a call either way on that.

UPDATE: Some more comments on the finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa can be found HERE.

Upcoming Press Conference about Finds Relating to David, Solomon, and the Temple

A Media Release has been issued:
On Tuesday, May 8, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will hold a press conference and private tour to announce all-new findings related to the time of Kings David and Solomon, including presentation of artifacts never before seen by the public related to construction of Solomon’s temple and palace.
The findings relate to the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa—a site that has led to a storm of debate about the origins of the kingdom of Judah. It’ll be interesting to see what is announced tomorrow.

Khirbet Qeiyafa