Since explorer Charles Warren discovered the first examples during his excavations in Jerusalem in 1870, well over 2,000 royal Judahite storage jar handles with thumb impressions, stamped seal impressions or incised concentric circle markings have been unearthed at sites throughout Judah as well as several sites in Israel and at Tall Jalul in Jordan. The initial production, distribution and use of government issue jars with thumb print impressions on their handles may date as early as the tenth century, BC. A cache of thumb-impressed jar handles were recovered at Khirbat Qeiyafa (biblical Sha’arim), a fortified administrative center dating to the time of King David. However, at some time during the eighth century BC, a series of new stamps with several variations of two distinct iconographic images depicting either a four-winged scarab or a two-winged disc began to appear on storage jar handles. Moreover, they were inscribed with the Hebrew lmlk; literally “belonging to the king” or more accurately, “royal property.” In addition, one of four place names appeared; Hebron, Socoh, Ziph or the enigmatic mmšt, which apparently represents an ancient place name unattested in the Bible, nor found in other sources. The name may indeed refer to an otherwise unknown town or perhaps to a similarly unrecorded royal estate. In 1948, epigrapher H.L. Ginsberg argued that mmšt was an abbreviated Hebrew term for government, but this theory is unlikely. The exact date and purpose of these jars has been the subject of intense scholarly speculation and debate. Currently, most archaeologists date the lmlk stamped jars exclusively to Hezekiah’s reign (e.g. Ussishkin 1977; Vaughn 1999), while others suggest their production began earlier (e.g. Hudon 2010). Limited use of these jars, largely those from royal storehouses in Jerusalem likely continued into the seventh century BC. Scholars ascribe various functions to these stamped jars, including military provisions in anticipation of Sennacherib’s Assyrian campaign against Judah in 701 BC, produce from royal viticulture, or containers earmarked for royal (agricultural) tax collection. The four place names seem to represent sites in Judah’s rural hinterland ideally suited for grape production (Rainey 1982), but other evidence suggests taxation collection centers. The Some royal jar handles were incised with concentric circles after firing. These appear alone as well as alongside lmlk impressions. The purpose and meaning of the concentric circle motif is uncertain and debated. Views include a form of cancellation symbol, releasing the vessel from royal use, a royal Assyrian symbol marking reuse of the jar during the seventh century BC, when Judah was an Assyrian vassal, or a schematic symbol representing the later rosette stamps. Indeed, later during the same century, a new class of seal impressions utilizing rosette symbols appeared on storage jars. Most likely, either King Josiah or Johoiakim implemented this new type of royal seal. The rosette stamped jars went out of use in 586 BC, when the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and deported most of the population, therefore ending the Davidic monarchy.
Relevance to the Biblical Account
These impressed royal jar handles represent the activities of the kings of Judah, from the time of David (ca. 1000 BC) until Zedekiah (ca. 586 BC). However, the lmlk stamps are particularly important as the Book of 2 Chronicles may indirectly refer to them in passages recording the reigns of Uzziah (2 Chr 26:10) and Hezekiah (2 Chr 32:27-29). Other possible references to these seal impressions and jars include 1 Chr 4:21-23 and Malachi 4:2.
The Jars themselves were oval-shaped with a capacity of ca. 9-14 gallons, a broad shoulder and a small ca. 100 mm wide rimmed mouth. Earlier forms were fatter, while later, seventh century BC forms were more slender in shape. All had rounded bases and four equally spaced handles. The lmlk seal impressions measure ca. 34 x 24 mm. Of the three lmlk jar handles in the Horn Museum collection, one has a two winged impression with the Hebrew letters lmlk only faintly visible. The town designation is illegible, although the first letter of Ziph was previously read. The second handle is also a two-winged impression, but also has an incised concentric circle. No letters are visible. The third handle is a short stump and lacks any impression, but does include a concentric circle.
The royal jars and seal impressions testify to the fact that the Kingdom of Judah had a well-developed royal bureaucracy and administrative network that included taxes and wide scale production of agricultural products at royal estates. Various biblical texts mention and often describe these royal projects initiated during the reigns of many Israelite and Judahite kings.
The use of seal impressed jars continued after the fall of Judah in 586 BC, notably the m(w)ṣh (Moza) seals from the period of Babylonian rule and the more numerous Yehud stamps used during Persian administration. The legacy for stamping storage jar handles continued into the Hellenistic period. Beautifully crafted wine amphora (called Rhodian Jars) from this era bore stamped impressions.
Cahill, J. M.
1995 Rosette Stamp Seal Impressions from Ancient Judah. Israel Exploration Journal 45: 230-52.
Grena, G. M.
2004 LmLk: A Mystery Belonging to the King, Vol. 1. Redondo Beach: 4000 Years of Writing History.
Hudon, J. P.
2010 The LMLK Storage Jars and the Reign of Uzziah: Towards a mid-eighth century B.C. terminus a quo for the Royal Jars of the Kingdom of Judah. Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin 55: 27-44.
Rainey, A. F.
1982 Wine from the Royal Vineyards. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 245: 57-62.
1977 The Destruction of Lachish by Sennacherib and the Dating of the Royal Judean Storage Jars. Tel Aviv 4: 28-60.
Vaughn, A. G.
1999 Theology, History, and Archaeology in the Chronicler’s Account of Hezekiah. Archaeology and Biblical Studies 4. Atlanta: Scholars.