Key site from biblical kings’ time unveiled near US Embassy in Jerusalem

An impressive structure built of concentric walls was uncovered during the preparation works for building a new residential area in the neighborhood of Arnona.

Aerial Photo of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation on the slopes of Arnona (photo credit: ASSAF PEREZ/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Aerial Photo of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation on the slopes of Arnona
A 2,700-year-old archaeological site recently uncovered in Jerusalem now offers an extraordinary glimpse into the life of the region at the time of biblical kings.
Located in the southern part of the city, between Talpiot and Ramat Rachel, the Arnona neighborhood acquired international fame when two years ago it became home to the US Embassy in Israel. Quiet and green, the area presents many spectacular views over the Judean Desert and even the Dead Sea, which can often be enjoyed from the new multi-story buildings that keep on springing up.
Findings from the First Temple Period at the Arnona Excavation Site (Credit: Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
It was while preparing the site for a new residential complex that the archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) came across one of the most significant discoveries made in the city in recent years: a major administrative center believed to date to the days when Hezekiah and Manasseh reigned over the Kingdom of Judah.
“Excavations here started about two years ago,” IAA archaeologist Benyamin Storchan explained to The Jerusalem Post while touring the site. “Prior to the excavations, there was only one major ancient remain that was known in the area, a giant stone pile completely constructed of flint stone.”
Israel Antiquities Authority Excavations at the Arnona Site from the First Temple Period Reveal the Impressive Remains of Structures (Israel Antiquities Authority)Israel Antiquities Authority Excavations at the Arnona Site from the First Temple Period Reveal the Impressive Remains of Structures (Israel Antiquities Authority)
Carrying an archaeological survey ahead of any construction projects is legally mandatory in Israel and it is tasked to the IAA.
Aware of the presence of the ancient artificial hill near the site of the new buildings, the archaeologists explored its surroundings and came across a monumental concentric structure. Its size, the location which dominates the valley, as well as the artifacts uncovered provided evidence that the site was not just a common private estate but an important administrative center, from a period between the eighth and the middle of the seventh century BCE.
“We found about 120 stamped seal impressions on jar handles written in ancient Hebrew script, which translate as ‘belonging to the king.’ These stamped jars were usually related to tax collection. Up to this day, only 1,000 similar items have been found in over a century of excavations in Israel, which gives us an idea of the importance of this area,” Storchan pointed out.
The minute ancient Hebrew letters are still visible on the pottery, accompanied by different symbols, such as a flying eagle or a sun disk. Following is the name of one of four cities in Judah, Hebron, Ziph, Socho or Memshat. While the first three are well identified, scholars are still debating about the identity of Memshat, the archaeologist explained.
One of the hypotheses is that Memshat corresponded to the site uncovered in Ramat Rachel, located just across the valley.
“The second largest collection of these stamped jars was found in Ramat Rachel where we know that an important administrative center stood,” Storchan said. “This circumstance raises a question: Was the site we just discovered a tax collection center satellite to the one in Ramat Rachel or an independent one? Or maybe it was a royal estate or an administrative office? This is one of the lines of research that we are pursuing.”
In the eighth century, the site was likely surrounded by fields, olive groves and orchards. The jars were used to collect taxes for agricultural produce, such as wine and olive oil, in a standardized manner but could also be sent from the king to different cities for other purposes, such as funding military campaigns.
“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,” IAA directors of the excavation Neria Sapir and Nathan Ben-Ari commented in a press release. “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.”
While the stamped seals do not mention the name of the king, the pottery was instrumental in allowing the researchers to date the site, by comparing it to artifacts uncovered in different places.
The royal jars were not the only artifacts uncovered. Several similar items featuring private names – Naham Abdi, Naham Hatzlihu, Meshalem Elnatan, Zafan Abmetz, Shaneah Azaria, Shalem Acha and Shivna Shachar – were also exposed. The names appear on jar handles found in other sites from the Kingdom of Judah, suggesting that the people were probably senior officials or wealthy individuals.
Clay Figurines of Women and Animals Found at the Site (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)Clay Figurines of Women and Animals Found at the Site (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
“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,” Sapir and Ben-Ari added.
Moreover, statuettes depicting animals and human figures – and especially women – were also found, items which were probably associated with some form of idolatry, a phenomenon anything but rare at the time.
“Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah became king... He did what was pleasing to the Lord, just as his father David had done. He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it,” reads a passage in the biblical book of Kings II (18:1,4, translation
The researchers explained that the site appeared to have been abandoned at the time of the Babylonian conquest and destruction in 586 BCE, but it was resettled shortly after.
“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,” the head of the excavations explained.
The excavation is still ongoing, conducted by the IAA and funded by the Israel Land Authority and administered by the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation.
“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,” Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem district archaeologist of the IAA, stated in a press release. “This is part of the IAA’s trend 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.”