Archaeologists in Jerusalem have dug themselves into a stunning remnant of the past, a house from the 6th century BC. There’s much to see, from burnt wooden beams to split pillars to shattered crystal floors. So, it’s all the more surprising that they happen to notice a tiny piece of clay etched with a few words that mean so much to Christians the world over.
It wasn’t the first time that archaeologists had made an important find at the Givati Parking Lot. As the name implies, the site used to be a place where neighborhood residents would leave their cars. However, now it’s a busy archaeological site, opposite the entrance of the City of David, archeological park, another proverbial gold mine for excavators.
In fact, the City of David is one of Israel’s most extensively excavated locations. Since 2003, though, archaeologists moved across the road to discover what lay beneath the Givati Parking Lot. Nearly 20 years later, they still make finds, including an extra-small remnant that seemed to confirm a reference made in the Bible.
According to the locals, people have inhabited the East Jerusalem village of Silwan since the 7th century. Today, the neighborhood houses mostly Palestinian residents, although approximately 40 Jewish families live there, as well. But it also encompasses remnants of the distant past – and that’s no surprise, considering Jerusalem’s history begins in the 4th century BC.
One of Silwan’s most valuable ties to the past is the Givati Parking Lot. At first, the village’s residents used the open stretch of land as a spot to leave their cars. But in 2003, an excavation of the parking lot began. It made sense for experts to dig there, considering it sits adjacent to the City of David archaeological park.
The City of David is actually a neighborhood within the confines of Silwan’s borders. It has proven to be a rich archaeological site, and one of the Holy Land’s most extensively explored areas. That’s partly because of its ties to the Hebrew Bible. The holy book references a City of David, and archaeologists have spent more than a century trying to confirm its actual location.
Their digs into the City of David have at least proven the longevity of the neighborhood. Local history dates Silwan back to the 7th century, but the City of David long preceded its now-encompassing neighborhood. For instance, a dig into the bedrock revealed shards of pottery that dated back to the Chalcolithic period, which stretched from 4500 to 3500 BC.
Little relics from relatively later periods in the City of David’s history have been discovered, as well. For instance, in 2010, excavators found an etched tablet that dated back to the 14th century BC. Its discovery made it the oldest-ever written document found in Jerusalem. And visitors to the area can peruse all of the dig sites when they visit the archaeological park.
Across the road, the Givati Parking Lot could become an obvious extension to the City of David archaeological park because it, too, yielded some important ancient finds. For starters, excavators uncovered the largest-ever trove of gold coins that date back to the Byzantine era. The Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire lasted from 330 to 1453 AD.
Digs into the Givati Parking lot also revealed the bones of an ancient structure, which archaeologists dated back to the Second Temple period. This era stretched from 516 BC to 70 AD, and it marked world-altering changes in culture. Specifically, early Christianity began to form during this era in Jewish history.
Archaeologists believed that they hadn’t found just any Second Period structure, though. They theorized that the building once housed one of the era’s queens. Not much is known about Helena of Adiabene, but she reigned over Edessa, now Urfa in modern-day Turkey, and Adiabene, which today is Iraqi Kurdistan.
Flavius Josephus kept a record on Queen Helena, as he lived in Jerusalem during her reign and after her death between 50-56 AD. Much of the royal’s history comes from his memory, which he wrote down. The Talmud, an ancient Jewish text, also contains stories about her, but it dates from long after Josephus committed his words to the page.
These ancient records reveal Helena of Adiabene be a generous queen, especially in the midst of a major famine in Jerusalem. Rather than allow people to starve between 45 and 46 AD, the royal wrote to other kingdoms and asked them to send supplies. She secured corn from Alexandria and dried figs from Cyprus, all of which was re-distributed to those suffering.
On top of that, the Talmud notes Queen Helena’s strict following of Jewish law. She presented lavish gifts at the Temple of Jerusalem, including a golden candlestick. And she made a vow – on which she followed through – to become a Nazirite if her son returned safely from war. By making such a promise, Helena would abstain from alcohol and let her hair grow, which she did for 21 years total.
Clearly, Queen Helena served as an important figure in both Jerusalem and Judaism, so finding what could be her palace in the Givati Parking Lot was a big deal. Public interest in the digs on site increased with findings like this one, as well as with the cache of Byzantine coins.
But the Givati Parking Lot has had more to share than just those two impressive findings. Archaeologists also uncovered residential compounds which date back to the 8th or 9th century, a time period known as the Abbasid. Digs also tapped into the foundation of Byzantine-era structures, as well as Roman-era ones.
On that note, excavators found remnants of a half-acre-large Roman-era building, which served as a residence to locals at the time. Someone who lived in the dwelling – which likely stood between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD – left an earring behind. The golden bauble had precious stones and pearls set within it.
The Roman-era residence also yielded the figurine of a Roman boxer, which experts say was used as a weight. Not far away lay another building where they discovered the trove of Byzantine coins. Indeed, the majority of the remains in the Givati Parking Lot come from either the Roman or Byzantine eras.
Eventually, developers hoped to transform the Givati Parking Lot into something else entirely. They proposed building a four-story building over the archaeological dig where City of David visitors could go before continuing onto the ancient ruins. The structure would encompass a coffee shop, museum and other features, too.
Nevertheless, the digs continue at the Givati Parking Lot, which is good news for historians because they have only made more stunning archaeological discoveries. In March 2019, a team composed of experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University shared a small-but-mighty find amidst a Babylonian-era structure.
Indeed, the structure itself was a noteworthy find. It stood at the same time that the Babylonians raided Jerusalem and destroyed the city’s First Temple in 586 BC. What remained of the building showed that the invaders had not spared it, either. Experts could see that it had been burned down.
Indeed, the building once stood in the capital city of Judah, the ancient kingdom invaded by Babylonians. They set the structure ablaze, charring the crystal flooring that glittered in purple, red and other hues. Experts could tell that the tiles fell when the wooden beams that upheld the building’s second story burned.
Yiftah Shalev, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “The entire place was consumed by a terrible fire.” The destruction explains why the Babylonian-era build contained shattered pottery and cracked pillars within it, too.
Still, the archaeologists’ most important find would be much smaller than all of that. Within the ancient, burned rubble, they happened to notice a tiny seal. The impression featured the name of Nathan-Melech, who served the King of Judah in his court. This isn’t the only remnant with Nathan-Melech’s name in it, though.
More importantly, though, Nathan-Melech’s name appears in the Bible, too. Finding a seal with his name provides a piece of physical evidence to back up his appearance in the holy book. Indeed, many scholars consider the Bible to be the first book to chronicle the history of this period in modern-day Israel’s history.
The Israel Antiquities Authority announced that the small impression read, “[belonging] to Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King.” The latter title also appeared in the Bible as one bestowed upon officials who maintained close relationships with the King of Judah. Archaeologists also unearthed other seals and stamps with Servant of the King etched on them, too.
But Nathan-Melech’s seal proved all the more special because his name appears in the Bible, too. He had ties to the 7th century BC leader of Judah, King Josiah. During his reign, Josiah made it his mission to cease polytheistic practices in the kingdom. Instead, he wanted his people to worship in the First Temple.
In the Bible, 2 Kings 23:11 makes mention of both King Josiah and Nathan-Melech. It says Josiah “took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entering in of the house of the Lord, by the chamber of Nathan-Melech the chamberlain, which was in the suburbs, and burned the chariots of the sun with fire.”
One could argue that the Nathan-Melech mentioned in the Bible was a different person than the one whose name appeared on the Babylonian-era seal. However, Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Anat Mendel-Geberovich countered that “it is impossible to ignore some of the details that link them together.”
For one thing, the dated seal lines up with the references to Nathan-Melech described in the Bible. The clay imprint came from somewhere between the mid-7th century to the early 6th century BC. King Josiah, born in 649 BC, reigned as Judah’s 16th leader until his death in 609 BC. So, the timelines of both the stamped Nathan-Melech and the King overlap.
Secondly, Nathan-Melech’s seal was found within a large building, which shows that he was likely a prominent figure in Judah at the time. And then there’s the fact that the seal doesn’t include his family name. This likely meant that everyone knew who he was, so it was needless to include any other identifying information to the seal.
Nathan-Melech isn’t the only biblical figure to have his identity confirmed with an ancient seal, either. Archaeologists have also found impressions belonging to King Hezekiah, who reigned during the 8th century BC. Another stamp appeared to come from the Prophet Isaiah, from whom a book in the bible takes its name.
Even within the same structure in which they found Nathan-Melech’s seal, archaeologists found another stamp that could have come from a biblical figure. The inscription said “Lelkar Ben Matanyahu,” which means “[belonging] to Ikar, son of Matanyahu.” Like Nathan-Melech, the name Matanyahu appears in the Bible, as well.
Even with such stunning finds under their belts, archaeologists barely scratched the surface of what the First Temple-era building had to offer them. At the time that they discovered Nathan-Melech’s seal, they had only examined three of the building’s rooms. Each one contained within thick surrounding walls.
And, as previously mentioned, the structure once boasted a stunning set of tiled floors. They crumbled with the rest of the building as it burned down. But, if they had survived and been polished, they would glisten in purple and red, among other colors. Archaeologist Yiftah Shalev said this showed that “there was a huge investment in this building.”
Experts still don’t know what, exactly, the structure was used for in the past. However, the high-class features, combined with the seals from high-ranking officials, meant that Shalev was willing to warrant a guess. He thought that a priest may have lived in the building, which also served as a public or administrative hub.
What the experts did know for sure was that the building had, indeed, burned down. They also knew when the blaze happened. But they wanted to research further to uncover when the structure was built in the first place. As such, they hoped to continue digging so that they could find and date its original set of floors.
Even without every question answered, the building presented an incredible research opportunity to the Jerusalem-based team. Tel Aviv University archaeologist Oded Lipschits described the find as “unparalleled,” presenting a one-of-a-kind opportunity for experts to see how high-class people lived during the First Temple era.
And, while ancient people roamed the building now located in the Givati Parking Lot, someone was writing the text that would become the Bible. In fact, Lipschits speculated that someone who resided in the lavish house could have helped put together the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy. Its pages appeared in the First Temple during King Josiah’s time on the throne of Judah.
All of these possibilities made future digs into the house and all of its contents even more exciting for Lipschits and the rest of the archaeologists. Nathan-Melech’s stamp was just the beginning. Lipschits explained, “It is a living testament of the Jerusalemite elite that shaped the history and character of Judaism as we know it today. These are the floors that Josiah’s scribes walked on.”