Uncovering the administration of the Kingdom of Judah
People across the ancient Near East used stamps to mark objects. One of the most frequent uses of stamps was to place stamp impressions on the handles of large storage jars. Pressed into soft clay before firing, such markings could label jars and their contents, express ownership, or serve as a manufacturer’s label. Although this phenomenon was widespread in the ancient Near East, individual stamp impressions were relatively short-lived and limited in their distribution.
In the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, however, archaeologist Oded Lipschits argues that beginning in the late eighth century BCE, the Kingdom of Judah started using stamped storage jars as part of a centralized administrative system that endured for six centuries. In his article “Enduring Impressions: The Stamped Jars of Judah,” Lipschits provides an overview of the different stamp impressions once used by the Kingdom of Judah. Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and Director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, Lipschits remarks that the introduction of such practices coincides with the beginnings of the mass production of standardized, large-capacity storage jars in the Kingdom of Judah. “These innovations indicate the transition to a more centralized, state-organized economy, which could be effectively supervised and controlled by a central authority.”
In summarizing key arguments from his latest book, Age of Empires (Eisenbrauns, 2021), Lipschits mostly draws on material excavated from Ramat Rahel. Located a mere 3 miles south of Jerusalem, Ramat Rahel served as the heart of this centralized administrative system that was based on collecting, storing, and transporting agricultural products in support of Judah’s economy and to pay the kingdom’s annual tribute—first to the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, Persians, and finally Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires.
The first stamp impressions employed in the Kingdom of Judah were the so-called lmlk stamp impressions, named for the Hebrew phrase (lmlk) that expressed the king’s ownership of the jar and its contents. Appearing first in the late eighth century BCE, these impressions featured a symbol (a four-winged scarab or a two-winged sun disk), the phrase lmlk “[belonging] to the king,” and a place name. In subsequent centuries, other types of stamp impressions with other types of imagery appeared, including the rosette, lion, and pentagram, and inscriptions yhwd (“Yehud”) and yršlm (“Jerusalem”), as seen in the chart above.
The last, yršlm stamp impressions appeared in the mid-second century BCE and disappeared by the end of that same century, by which time Judah’s royal administrative center at Ramat Rahel saw complete distruction. The establishment of the fully independent Judean kingdom under the Hasmoneans, in the latter part of the second century, meant that there was no longer a need to collect agricultural products for paying taxes or tribute to a foreign power. The system that proved so effective that it lasted for about 600 years was no longer needed.
To further explore the historical development of stamp impressions in the Kingdom of Judah and the evolution of the unique administrative system that the stamped jars supported, read Oded Lipschits’s article “Enduring Impressions: The Stamped Jars of Judah,” published in the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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