What's in a name...

2,600 year old seal impression may belong to Nathan-Melech, an official in King Josiah’s court

The value of an ancient artifact often transcends its size and composition. This is exemplified in the recent discovery of a seal impression (bulla) recovered during excavations in the City of David, Jerusalem. The hardened lump of clay is only about one centimeter in size, but it bears a name which carries us into the courts of King Josiah, some 2,600 years ago. The agate stamp-seal found nearby also bears a name, but one less familiar to archaeologists and historians.

Givati Parking Lot Excavations in the City of David.  Photo:  Kobi Harati

Givati Parking Lot Excavations in the City of David. Photo: Kobi Harati

The seal and bulla were found within a large public building which was destroyed sometime in the 6th century BCE, most likely during the Babylonian’s conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Inside the building archaeologists found burnt wooden beams, charred pottery sherds and stone debris, clear traces of a massive conflagration. The size of the building and quality of its ashlar stones indicate it’s significance and public function. Archaeologists also found remnants of polished plaster from a second story floor which collapsed onto the floor below.

The Natan-Melech bulla found in the Cutybof David.  Photo:  Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

The Natan-Melech bulla found in the Cutybof David. Photo: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

“And he (Josiah) took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the Lord, by the chamber of Nathan-Melech the officer, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.”
— 2 Kings 23:11

Bullae were used in ancient times to sign letters. While the parchment this bulla sealed didn’t survive the fires that devastated ancient Jerusalem, the clay itself became rock hard in the flames, preserving it for us to read some 2,600 years later. Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Center for the Study of Ancient Jerussalem interpreted the bulla which reads “(belonging) to Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King” (LeNathan-Melech Eved HaMelech). The name Nathan-Melech is familiar from 2 Kings 23:11, which describes him as an officer of Josiah’s court who lived near the entrance of the temple. 

While it is impossible to claim with certainty that the recently discovered bulla was made by the hand of the Nathan-Melech in 2 Kings, Dr. Mendel-Geberovich says “it is impossible to ignore some of the details that link them together.” For one, 2 Kings describes Nathan-Melech as an officer, and the bulla specifically titles it’s owner as “Servant of the King” (Eved HaMelech). This term appears often in the Bible to describe a high-ranking official close to the king. Additionally, the fact that the bulla only gives Nathan-Melech’s first name with no reference to his lineage indicates he was well known, and probably held a position of authority. Another common factor is time frame. The seal dates to the middle of the seventh or beginning of the sixth century BCE, and King Josiah is believed to have sat on Israel’s throne from about 641 to 610 BCE. 

Sveta Pnik working at the site where the bulla was found in the City of David.  Photo:  Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

Sveta Pnik working at the site where the bulla was found in the City of David. Photo: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

The stamp-seal discovered in the same building also dates to the mid-seventh or early sixth century BCE. Unlike the Nathan-Melech bulla, however, the seal bears a name previously unknown to archaeologists. Engraved in bluish agate, the script reads “(belonging) to Ikar son of Matanyahu” (LeIkar Ben Matanyahu). Dr. Mendel-Geberovich says that while the name Matanyahu is known from Biblical texts and previously discovered stamps and bullae, “this is the first reference to the name ‘Ikar,’ which was unknown until today.” The literal translation of Ikar is ‘farmer,’ but Dr. Mendel-Geberovich believes that here it most likely refers to a private individual with that name as opposed to a description of his occupation. Stamps such as this were often set in signet rings and noted the identity, lineage and status of their owners.

According to Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Since many of the well-known bullae and stamps have not come from organized archaeological excavations but rather from the antiquities market, the discovery of these two artifacts in a clear archaeological context that can be dated is very exciting.” A number of other bullae and seals have been found in the Givati Parking Lot excavation, but the names of these are distinct. The seal bears a previously unknown name and the bulla is the first archaeological evidence of the Biblical name Nathan-Melech.

“These artifacts attest to the highly developed system of administration in the Kingdom of Judah and add considerable information to our understanding of the economic status of Jerusalem and its administrative system during the First Temple period, as well as personal information about the king’s closest officials and administrators who lived and worked in the city.”
— Prof. Gadot & Dr. Shalev

Both the bulla and the agate seal will be presented in full in the Israel Exploration Journal, published by the Israel Exploration Society. The dig was conducted within the City of David National Park by archeologists from the IAA and Tel Aviv University.

Video: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David

Abby VanderHart, FIAA Contributor

News RSS