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The Ancient City: The Public Sphere

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The city of Jerusalem was the capital of a small city-state called Judah which, for more than a century prior to its destruction, was a client kingdom of Mesopotamia-based empires: first the Neo-Assyrian Empire, followed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Being a client kingdom, or a vassal, meant that Judah sent tribute payments to the Assyrian king, promised not to fight against him or against his allies, and sometimes to fight with him against his enemies. In exchange, the Assyrian king would protect Judah from its own enemies.

The capital was dominated by the palace, home of the Davidic kings and their court, and by the temple, centre of the State Religion. This public sphere formed the backbone of life in ancient Jerusalem and Judah. Its activities brought people together and unified them as a people. While private lives would have differed from family to family, the people of Jerusalem and Judah would have shared common ground in their identity as a people ruled by a specific king, with a particular attachment the god associated with the royal family, Yhwh.

The monarchy was the foremost of Judah's public institutions, and the kings’ fortunes in trade and warfare played a significant part in the livelihood of the people. When the kings were strong, winning battles, brokering treaties and securing useful trade routes, the people prospered and the kingdom could grow economically. When the monarchy was weak, the people suffered with their king. The royal household was also directly responsible for the administration of the kingdom. One of major royal activity was the levying of taxes to support the army, the temple, and the governmental system; evidence of this kind of administrative activity may be seen in the seals, stamps, and ostraca (inscribed pot sherds) from Iron Age Judah.

Our knowledge of life in the city and its environs comes in part from the biblical texts and in part from archaeological excavations at sites in and around the city. This collection highlights various aspects of public life in ancient Judah, and in its close neighbour to the north, Israel. First among these is the institution of monarchy and its relationship to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires: in the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III we see the Israelite king Jehu paying tribute to the Assyrian king, while the reliefs of the capture of Lachish mark the terrible price of Hezekiah's rebellion against Sennacherib. Second, the collection highlights public aspects of cultic practice: we see the temple at Arad as an important focus of the city's religious activity, while other cultic items from Judah and beyond also illustrate religious activities in the public realm. The collection also illustrates the particular hallmarks of a developed state: an organised bureaucracy and economy. 

Clay seal of Gemariah son of Shaphan

Clay seals of Gemariah and Azariah

In one of the houses destroyed by the Babylonians in Jerusalem, excavators discovered 53 clay seal impressions ('bullae'). These small lumps of clay, impressed with the seal of a particular individual or official, were used to seal documents, and suggest that by time of the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE the kingdom of Judah had a group of literate elites, who presumably controlled the administration of the city.

It is a pleasant surprise to find, among these bullae, two with likely connections to biblical personages: Gemeriah, son of Shaphan, and Azariah, son of Hilkiah.

Bulla of Gemariah son of Shaphan The inscription on the seal reads: (Belonging) to Gemaryahu [s]on of Shaphan

This Gemariah, son of Shaphan, should probably be identified with the person by this name known from the book of Jeremiah:

"Then, in the hearing of all the people, Baruch read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll, in the house of Yhwh, in the chamber of Gemariah son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper court, at the entry of the New Gate of Yhwh's house." (Jeremiah 36:10)

Gemariah's father Shaphan was the chief scribe at the time of King Josiah and appears as a key player in the story of the finding of the law during work in the Temple (2 Kings 22). It is important to note that the term scribe is probably best translated as secretary, and to be understood as a high ranking official as in 'secretary of state'.

Bulla of Azariah son of Hilkiah The inscription on the seal reads: (Belonging) to 'Azaryahu son of Hilqiyahu

This Azariah, son of Hilkiah, may be identified with the person by the same name in the priestly genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:13. Azariah himself is not a major biblical figure but, if the identification is correct, his father Hilkiah was high priest in the temple in Jerusalem at the time of King Josiah, and a key figure in the story of the finding of the law in the Temple (2 Kings 22).

Incense Altar 2 (Tel Halaf, BM)

Incense Burner from Tel Halaf

This elaborately carved tripod vessel may have served as an incense burner, as evidence of burning substance was found in the bowl. It comes from a royal tomb of the tenth or ninth century BCE at Tel Halaf (ancient Guzana). Tel Halaf was an important Aramean site that became a vassal of the Neo-Assyrian empire in the early ninth century and was assimilated fully into the Neo-Assyrian empire by the end of that century. The sides of the vessel are decorated with carvings of bulls, a winged quadruped, and a man shooting a bird with a bow and arrow. The legs of the tripod are decorated with incised rosettes. Another example of an incense burner may be found here.

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Shalmaneser III's 'Black Obelisk'

This black limestone obelisk, inscribed at the command of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, was found in the city of Nimrud in modern-day Iraq. The bas-reliefs* and inscriptions on the obelisk record and glorify the achievements of the king, the impressive extent of his authority, and the vast tributes paid by his client kings, whose territories spanned a wide geographic extent, from modern Egypt and Turkey to northern Iran. Of particular interest to historians of Israel and Judah is that these client kings include King Jehu, who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel from c. 841–814 BCE. He has the distinction of being the only Israelite or Judean king of whom we have a picture: he is shown paying homage, prostrate before Shalmaneser. Tribute payments of the kind recorded on the Black Obelisk were made by the kings of Israel and of Judah to their Mesopotamian suzerains in the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries BCE, first to Assyrian kings and later to Babylonian kings. Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE and Nebuchadnezzar's sieges of Jerusalem in 597 and 586 BCE were the result of Judean king's decision to refuse payment.*Bas-reliefs are a type of sculpture that depicts figures and faces in a shallower form than their usual proportions. Bas-reliefs allow the inscription to be viewed from many angles without distorting the image.

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Sennacherib's South West Palace at Nineveh, portraying the capture of Lachish

This panel is part of a series of wall reliefs excavated from the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s (ruled 705–681 BCE) palace at Nineveh. The panels records the Assyrian siege and eventual capture of the city of Lachish. The panel shown here depicts Assyrian soldiers carrying away cultic items from the city. Lachish was one of the most important cities in Judah, perhaps second only to Jerusalem, and it played an important role in the administration and military strength of the kingdom. Sennacherib’s army's siege of Lachish is reported in 2 Kings 18–19 (cf. Isaiah 36–37). On the upper left hand side of the relief the besieged city of Lachish is shown, with archers and siege engines (perhaps spiked battering rams) attacking the walls. On the upper level there are various trees, which probably represent the journey to Assyria on which the deportees in the bottom two registers are embarking. In the middle register Neo-Assyrian soldiers can be seen carrying away the spoils of war. These include a chariot and shields and, to the right of those pulling the chariot, two figures are shown carrying incense stands or burners. These are cultic (religious) items that have been looted from the city, either from its main shrine or from private homes. Cultic items were a prized spoil of war, because they symbolised the defeat of the god associated with them, and the power of the god of the attacking forces.  A similar practice may be seen on one of Tiglath-pileser III's wall reliefs. The Bible does not record the Assyrians plunder of cultic items during Sennacherib's invasion (perhaps because Hezekiah was supposed to have destroyed them, according 2 Kings 18:4), but it does report that the Babylonians took cultic items away from the Temple of Yhwh when they attacked Jerusalem in 597 BCE and when they destroyed it in 586 BCE (2 Kings 24:13; 25:13–17).

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Clay Model Shrine from Megiddo

This clay model shrine, found at Megiddo, is one of a number of similar shrines found in the southern Levant over an extended period; others include the shrines found at Yavneh. The shrines are thought to be miniature representations of actual temples, in which the god or gods were thought to dwell and to be particularly accessible to their worshippers. Some shrines had small figurines of deities placed inside them, to symbolise the presence of the deity, while others appear to have been empty. This shrine was found in one of a series of rooms on the north side of a Late Bronze Age palace at Megiddo. The function of these rooms is unclear, but the room in which this particular shrine was found did not seem to have been a dedicated shrine or religious room, as such. Indeed, the exact purpose of such shrines is not clear although, on the basis of its shape and the decorations on the front, this one seems to have been an architectural model. The shrine stands at just over a metre tall and is square with the sides tapering toward the top. The clay is coarse, with a pink buff finish; the front of the shrine is decorated with red lines and caprids (sheep or goats) lining the upper windows. The head of an animal may be seen protruding from three of the four top corners.

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Horned Incense Altar from Megiddo

This altar was one of three limestone altars found in the vicinity of a storeroom in Megiddo. This one is carved from a single block of stone, has horns at the top four corners and tapers toward the bottom of the stand. It is partially discoloured by fire. These altars are usually interpreted as incense altars, because they are too small for animal sacrifice, although grains or other small offerings may also have been burnt on them. The horns may symbolize the divine, or indicate that the altars are imitations of architectural structures (towers), or they may have been intended to hold the bowl or vessel in which the offerings were burnt. Quite possibly they are a combination of all three. Altars such as these are predominantly known in the western ancient Near East, and are especially common in Israel and Judah between the eighth and fifth centuries BCE. They could have been used to make offerings to any deity, as incense and burnt offerings were part of everyday cultic activity. The Bible attests to incense being burnt to Yhwh (e.g. Exodus 30; Leviticus 16; 1 Kings 9), as well as to other gods (e.g. 1 Kings 11:8; Hosea 2:13). Both Zephaniah (1:4-5) and Jeremiah (19:13) attest that the people of Jerusalem were burning offerings, usually identified as incense, on the rooftops of their houses, and a small incense altar like the one above was found in a rooftop collapse at Ashkelon. Two incense altars have been found in Iron IIC contexts in the City of David excavations and can be seen in the Israel Museum. The small size of these altars and the fact that they are often found in domestic or industrial contexts suggests that they were part of popular religious practice, perhaps mirroring some of the rituals which took place in the larger temples. They are part of a wider architecture of ritual which includes the Altar from Tel Rehov, the Offering Stand from Jerusalem and the Musicians Cult Stand from Ashdod.

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Kernos from Megiddo

This vessel is a very well preserved kernos ring from Megiddo. The term kernos (plural kernoi) is borrowed from Greek archaeology and refers to a pottery ring with small vessels for holding offerings. As the borrowed terminology suggests, kernoi may have originated in Cyprus or elsewhere in the Aegean, and been brought to the southern Levant by traders or immigrants. Although fragments of four others were found in Megiddo, this example is the most intact. It is made of baked clay and originally featured eight attachments, of which seven have survived. These include a cup, two doves, two pomegranates, one jar and an animal previously thought to be a gazelle but more recently identified as a bull. The prevailing view is that kernoi were ritual vessels, perhaps used for pouring libations. The liquid (likely wine, oil, or milk) could be poured into one of the attached vessels and would run around the hollow ring at the base and fill up the other attachments, which could either be drunk from or used to pour out the liquid. Libation rituals are widely known in the Hebrew Bible and seem to have been a part of daily religious life that anyone could enact anywhere. An example from Jeremiah 19:13, announces judgement on the inhabitants of Jerusalem because they have poured out libations to 'other gods' (that is, gods other than Yhwh) on the roofs of their houses. Jeremiah 7:18 similarly accuses the people of Judah and Jerusalem of pouring libations to the 'Queen of Heaven'. These texts suggest that libation rituals were widespread in late seventh century Jerusalem and Judah. Another example of a kernos is the Tell el-Hammah Kernos.

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Forty shekel weight from Jerusalem, with reconstructed scales

The presence of limestone weights in Jerusalem and Judah during the late Iron Age attests to an increasingly standardised economy. This economic system does not yet involve coins, which only appear during the Persian period, but does use precious metals. Because these metal pieces were not issued and guaranteed by a central authority, they had to be carefully weighed at each transaction. Stone weights like the one shown here were used, along with scales, in order to make these measurements. The reconstructed scales (the pans are ancient) give an idea of how such weights would have been used. The presence of weights and scales throughout the kingdom of Judah attests to a shift from a subsistence-type economy, typical of smaller, more locally- and tribally-based societies, to a more complex state society, with centralised power and bureaucracy. The term shekel, which comes eventually to refer to a specific denomination and coin, originated as the word for 'weight'. This development is common to various languages: the lira and the pound, for example, were in the first instance terms for weight, only subsequently used for the currency used to represent the metal of that weight.

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Reconstruction of the Shrine of the Temple at Arad

Arad is famous as royal Judean fortress, outside Jerusalem, that housed a temple of Yhwh. Although debate continues as to the exact date of its construction and subsequent phases of its use, the identification of the temple as dedicated to Yhwh is not in doubt.The shrine, a reconstruction of which is shown here, was situated at the far end of the temple and only accessible by going through the temple. This has led to the shrine being described as a 'holy of holies', or the most sacred space within the temple complex. It is unclear who would have had access to the shrine, but it would probably have been only the priests. The entrance to the shrine is flanked by two small limestone incense altars. Inside was a small platform and a smooth stele, or massebah ('standing stone'). The incense altars had been laid on their sides—that is, put out of use—but still had traces of incense on them when they were found. The main space of the temple contained a large altar; two offering bowls were found by its base. The Arad temple and shrine were put out of use around the end of the eighth century BCE, drawing comparisons with King Hezekiah’s reform (2 Kings 18:1-4). Scholars remain divided on the exact dates and the interpretation of these events.An ostracon—a pottery sherd with ink writing—also found at the site refers to an unidentified person 'in the house of Yhwh'. The letter was written by a subordinate to one 'my Lord Eliashib' sometime in the late seventh or early sixth centuries BCE. Because the ostracon post-dates the activity of the temple at Arad, this 'house of Yhwh' is usually understood be the Jerusalem Temple.

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Musical Instruments: Flute, Rattle, and Conch Trumpet

In ancient times as in modern, both religious and non-religious life often involved music. Several ancient instruments are shown above. The flute above is made of bone, with incised decoration at the top and bottom. It was found at En-Gedi, near the Dead Sea. It is one of several similar flutes known as 'Megiddo-type flutes', named after a famous example from Megiddo. These flutes tend to be between 7 and 12cm long, are generally made of bird or goat bones, and have a hole in the center. They produce a shrill tone and have been found in a variety of contexts. There is no specific information known about their use; they may have been children’s toys, cultic instruments, domestic instruments, or even amulets. The rattle is made of pottery and decorated with painted red lines. It was found with another rattle under a layer of ash at Hazor, in a large house that had suffered a violent destruction. Similar rattles have been found in tombs in Samaria. The conch trumpet is made from a large shell (Charonia tritonis), with the point snapped off to form a mouthpiece and a small hole pierced near the end. It was found inside a casemate wall at Hazor, where it may have been used as a signal-horn. Conch trumpets are known in the Levant from the third millennium BCE. Almost all were found within areas connected with the Phoenician or Philistine cultural spheres—as one would expect, given they are made from sea-shells!Musical activity is also attested by the figurine of a double flute player and the cult stand from Ashdod with musicians on it.

Model Shrine (Yavneh)

Model Shrines from Yavneh

These two models shrines come from a pit used for the disposal of cultic items at Yavneh. The pit was uncovered by accident in 2002, during the development of a garden. In the pit excavators found an unprecedented number of cult stands, as well as numerous bowls, chalices, fire pans, and an altar. Many of these items were identified as having had religious significance because they were all broken and thrown into the pit together in a relatively short space of time during the mid ninth and early eigth centuries BCE. The two shrines shown here are examples of a wide assemblage of mostly rectangular pottery models found at Yavneh. The roofs tend to be open, with strips of pottery across them, perhaps representing wooden beams. The figures in the openings were made separately and feature humans and animals. The excavators called these models 'cult stands', although their function is unclear. Unlike some cult stands, the top of these models could not have supported any weight, either to burn incense or to bear a statue of a deity. Notably, no evidence of burning was found on the models, in contrast to many of the other items in the repository. Although they are shaped like buildings, the models do not resemble any known building styles. They seem to have functioned simply as models, perhaps meant to be dedicated to the gods as votive offerings by being placed within temples. Though the figures that adorn the openings and sides of the models are probably deities of some kind, it is impossible to know which gods were venerated through the use of these models.See also the Model Shrine from Megiddo.

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Figurine of a double flute player from Tel Malhata

This item is a hollow pottery head and shoulders of a figurine playing a double flute, like one of the musicians from the cult stand from Ashdod. The figure has a large nose and protruding eyes, and the beard indicates it is male. The core was wheel-made with various other parts handmade and stuck onto the core. Originally it was painted in black and red. The figurine is one of a number of similar figurines found at Malhata. Only one other flute player appears in this assemblage (also male), but there are some female drummer figurines and a range of other anthropomorphic (human-shaped) and zoomorphic (animal-shaped) examples. As the body of the figurine is missing, it is unclear what the item was intended for. It may have been a small anthropomorphic figurine, part of a hollow cult stand, or perhaps part of a rattle with an anthropomorphic body. As the figure plays the flute it probably depicts a worshipper rather than a deity; musical instruments were often used in worship. Comparisons with other figurines from sites such as Horvat Qitmit suggest that it reflects Edomite cultural traditions, from the area of modern Jordan, and close interaction between Edomites and Judeans in the Negev region in the seventh century BCE. 

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Musicians Cult Stand from Ashdod

This cult stand depicts a musical ensemble made up of five figures playing different instruments. The figures are displayed around the base, with three four-legged animals above them. Four of the figures are modelled in the round and appear in small windows. One plays a flute, one the cymbals, one a lyre, and one a tambourine or drum. At least two of the four (the cymbal and tambourine players) are wearing hats or headdresses; the pointed chins on some may indicate beards. The fifth figure is larger than the other four and probably represents the leader of the group. The lead figure plays a double flute, like the one of the figurine from Tel Malhata, which held differently to that played by the smaller flute player. The stand comes from a group of buildings in Ashdod which produced numerous other fine cultic and domestic items. The unusual architecture of the buildings, combined with the finds, led to its identification as an official or elite building, part of which had a cultic function. The complex did not function as a temple and so attests to the close intertwining of daily life and cultic practice. The musicians are often thought to symbolise worshippers, but it has also been suggested that they could depict a wealthy family engaging in musical activities—perhaps the family to whom the stand belonged. Offerings or incense may have been placed in the dish at the top of the stand.See also the Altar from Tel Rehov, the Offering Stand from Jerusalem and the Horned Incense Altar from Megiddo.

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Altar from Tel Rehov

This clay altar has two stories, with a roof that extends beyond the width of the altar and a slightly raised horn at each of the four corners. It is made from coarse clay and there is a certain roughness to its manufacture; the figures either side of the window are at different heights and the windows are asymmetrical. It is decorated with two molded figures flanking the lower windows, with an incised palm tree between. Each horn of the altar is incised with a palm frond and the space on the sides in between the horns is decorated with incised lines. The palm decoration is a symbol for an unidentified goddess. The altar shows signs of burning on the top, which indicates it was used for burning offerings at some point. The signs of burning on the sides are a result of the fire that destroyed the building it was found in. The altar was found along with a painted chalice and some other vessels close to an area that was devoted to producing honey and beeswax (an apiary). A number of clay cylinders bore traces of beeswax and were used as beehives. This apiary is the only one ever found in an excavation in the Levant. The altar and related objects found near the apiary are probably part of a 'cult corner' in this industrial area and, while the palm fronds on the altar indicate that a goddess is in view, they are also a symbol of fertility—an emphasis on which is to be expected given the apiary was dependent on the productivity of its bees. Another four horned altar of a similar, though finer, style was found at Megiddo, along with fragments of twelve others. These cult stands (see also this one from Jerusalem) were clearly popular among the inhabitants of the site in the tenth century BCE.


Ahiel Inscription from Jerusalem

This fragmentary inscription was discovered in the House of Ahiel. It is written in ink on a jar in formal handwriting. Sherds (broken pieces) from storage jars were often used as a writing surface, so the inscription may be unrelated to the jar or its contents.The inscription's meaning is difficult to understand, but it mentions three individuals by name. Two of the names mention Yhwh. There is also a desciption of each person. These are harder to decipher, but may be tentatively translated as:...]s son of Ahiel, who marks [?] rags...]yahu son of Hesedyahu, who gathers silver...]yahu [son of Y]adayahu, who gathers [gold ?]Although the purpose of the inscription remains enigmatic, the House of Ahiel is named after the first individual named in the text.

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Offering bowl from Arad

The main room of the temple of Arad contained a large altar. Two offering bowls (one pictured above) were found by its base. Both bowls have inscriptions consisting of two incised letters: ק (qoph) and כ (kaph). These are thought to be abbreviations for קדשׁ כהנים (qdš khnm), meaning 'holy / set apart for the priests'.See also the reconstruction of the shrine at Arad.

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'House of Yhwh' ostracon from Arad

This ostracon—a pottery sherd with ink writing—was written by a subordinate to 'my Lord Eliashib' sometime in the late seventh or early sixth century BCE and was found at Arad. It reports that an unidentified person is 'in the House of Yhwh'. Because the Arad shrine was no longer in use at that time, it is usually understood as a rare extra-biblical reference to the Jerusalem temple. More than two hundred ostraca were found at Arad, dating over several centuries and providing a unique insight into the administrative activity at the fortress.

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Rosette seals and ink marking on storage jars

The rosette seals appear on large numbers of storage jar handles, from the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. They represent an official, centralised marking system, a successor to the lmlk ('belonging to the king') stamps used during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.  The group here also includes an unusual ink marking—a letter he or het, written in black ink—preserved on a complete storage vessel. The meaning of this sign on the vessel is unknown. It may have indicated something about the contents, or perhaps the provenance or destination of the vessel. This marking is exceptional, in that it is written in ink rather than incised or stamped on the vessel. However, this rarity may simply be the result of the reality of what survives in the archaeological record, because markings in ink are more likely than incisions to have been washed away or lost.

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The Broad Wall, Jerusalem

Excavation works in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City revealed a significant stretch—65 metres long and varying between six and seven metres wide—of a major defensive wall of Jerusalem. The construction of this wall has been dated to the late eighth or early seventh century BCE, because is built over the top of earlier, eighth century houses. The wall may have been built during preparations for the Assyrian invasion by King Hezekiah, as described in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2-5. Hezekiah is rebuked for his preparations by Isaiah 22:9-11, protesting that he ought to have trusted in Yhwh to protect him but also that he broke down houses to build the wall. The wall serves as a poignant reminder of the impact that warfare and royal authority could have on the lives of individuals. This part of the wall must have been still standing after the the Babylonian sieges in 597 and 586 BCE, although other parts of it would undoubtedly have succumbed to the onslaught of the Babylonian siege engines.