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Considering the Rejoinder to LMLK Chronology

Ussishkin, to the best of my knowledge, has never qualified what sort of evidence he would accept as “positive archaeological data” for determining that a class of artifacts could be dated to this early intermediate period. In fact, he goes so far as to eliminate the possibility that any artifacts were made during this stage by sweeping all LMLK seal types conveniently into the previous destruction level, regardless whether they were found under it, in it, or in this case, above it:

See Also: Considering the Reconsidering of LMLK Chronology

By G.M. Grena
February 2012

Back in 2010, I responded to an article by Oded Lipschits, Omer Sergi, and Ido Koch (“Lipschits et al.” herein) concerning LMLK (למלך) jar-handle seal impressions. Among other things, they had proposed a chronological division among the various LMLK seal types, referred to herein simply as 3 “early” sets and 2 “late” sets.1 Around that same time, David Ussishkin penned an independent response, which finally appeared in print a few months ago: “The Dating of the lmlk Storage Jars and Its Implications: Rejoinder to Lipschits, Sergi and Koch.” Whereas I mostly agreed with Lipschits et al., Ussishkin mostly disagrees.

When the Assyrian Shall Come into Our Land...

Regarding the suggestion that the LMLK phenomenon in Judah could have been instituted or inspired by Assyrians, Ussishkin wrote:

“Similar systems of stamping storage jars are not known in either Assyria proper or in the vast territories of the Assyrian empire. How is it that similar systems were not introduced in northern Israel or the kingdoms of Syria that fell under the Assyrian orbit about the same time as Judah?”2

On this point, we concur (as does Jeff Hudon3 ). We part company on the more complex issue pertaining to when and for how long the LMLK seals were used.

How Long Halt Ye between Two Opinions?

When a large quantity of artifacts are excavated from a stratigraphically secure context, especially one sealed by a rapid destruction, it is safe to assert that they date to the period shortly prior to the event that caused the destruction. In the case of Lachish, Ussishkin led a team that uncovered numerous LMLK jars in situ conforming to this scenario. The seal impressions appearing on those particular vessels represent only 3 of the 5 typological sets.4 But what about the other 2 sets?5

Ussishkin acknowledges that the majority of these specimens come from “sites in which a ‘clear 701 BCE destruction level’ was not properly recognized and in which complete lmlk stamped storage jars in a stratigraphic context were not uncovered.”6 He then lists and reviews excavation data from Jerusalem, Ramat Rahel, Gibeon, Tell en-Nasbeh, Tell el-Ful, Nebi Samwil, Hebron, Beth-Zur, Jericho, Khirbet es-Samrah, En-Gedi, and Hurvat Shilhah, which I’ll refer to herein as the eastern sites distinct from the ones in western Judah that suffered indisputable destruction at the hands of Assyrians.

He agrees with the published stratigraphy for most of these sites, but disputes a few. In robotic fashion for each site, he reiterates the same conclusion that none of the handles from these sites provide any data indicating their date of manufacture or use. Is that unequivocally true?

The Assyrian and Babylonian destruction layers at Judean sites span approximately one century. If, as Ussishkin himself agrees, “pottery found in a stratum sealed beneath a layer of destruction debris dates to the last stage in the history of that stratum,”7 then what about pottery produced in the early and middle stages that fell out of use decades before the next destruction? If not found neatly in place under the destruction layer, where would it be?

We Be Scattered Abroad upon the Face of the Whole Earth...

Here lies the heart of our contention. I, along with Lipschits et al., claim that the evidence from the eastern sites resembles what we would expect for a corpus of artifacts made shortly after one destruction event, but which were discarded long before the next catastrophic horizon. The long time would allow the fragile jars to be misappropriated (secondary use from their original purpose), mishandled/damaged, and discarded in a variety of contexts unrelated to their original purpose (i.e., they would not necessarily be found neatly stacked in a storeroom as they were in Lachish when Sennacherib attacked it). Ussishkin takes us to task on this point:

“A cardinal suggestion like the change in chronology made by Lipschits et al. needs some positive archaeological data in order to substantiate it.”8

If the western sites were destroyed, would not the discovery of newly populated sites in the east (i.e., those with stratigraphy differing from the western ones) constitute positive evidence? And if these eastern sites bear specimens of all 5 LMLK sets or just the “late” ones, whereas the western-site pre-Assyrian layers bear only the 3 “early” sets, would not this be considered positive evidence?

Ussishkin, to the best of my knowledge, has never qualified what sort of evidence he would accept as “positive archaeological data” for determining that a class of artifacts could be dated to this early intermediate period. In fact, he goes so far as to eliminate the possibility that any artifacts were made during this stage by sweeping all LMLK seal types conveniently into the previous destruction level, regardless whether they were found under it, in it, or in this case, above it:

“We can safely assume that all the lmlk stamped handles found at Lachish on the surface of the mound ... originate in Level III and date to before 701 BCE.”9

Safely? Why? We agree that these artifacts date to Hezekiah’s reign, but both the Bible10 and relatively contemporary Assyrian sources11 record this reign continuing after Sennacherib’s Judean campaign.12 If Judeans produced additional LMLK jars after Sennacherib left, but stopped producing them during his son, Manasseh’s reign, what would we expect from the archaeological data?

How Turn Ye Again to the Weak and Beggarly Elements?

Ussishkin argues that since the clay used for ordinary13 LMLK jars came from the Shephelah (i.e., western) region of Judah, then this chronological division of LMLK seals “borders ... on the impossible, and it is clear that no such production center could have functioned in the Shephelah after 701 BCE. Only towards the end of the 7th century, when Judahite settlements, economy,and rule in the Shephelah had been renewed, was this central workshop apparently restored....”14

But what weakens this argument is that it assumes a more untenable one, namely that for most of the next century (for the rest of Hezekiah’s reign, all of Manasseh’s, all of Amon’s, and all of Josiah’s wherein the Pax Assyriaca period was characterized as being economically stable), Judeans ceased manufacturing storage jars of this shape and size, resuming it only during the next foreign invasion crisis! Bear in mind that most jars bearing LMLK stamps were only a minor percentage of the unstamped jars of that same type produced and used in Judah (about 10-20% according to published excavation data15).

To prove his point, Ussishkin would first need to find storage jars dated to the early part of the subsequent era, explain why they date exclusively to the period shortly after the Assyrian destruction but well before the Babylonian destruction, and then perform a chemical analysis showing they were made exclusively from non-Shephelah clay. Alas, these points are the very ones we are taking sides over!

Since we do not know exactly where the jars were manufactured, it certainly seems possible, even likely to me, that Judeans living in the east could have continued using Shephelah clay, even if their core manufacturing facilities were no longer located there. Bear in mind that we do not know where they were located prior to the Assyrian invasion. Clay mining, clay processing, and pottery manufacturing were (and still are) distinct operations that do not need to be performed at the same location. So labeling this hypothesis “impossible” seems premature, and merely begs the question (a circular argument) about how soon Shephelah clay was used after Sennacherib’s invasion, or how jar production was impacted by it.16

Another argument Ussishkin used was that a personal name ("Nera son of Shebna") on a private-type seal impression has been associated with LMLK seals belonging to the “early” and “late” sets.17 His point is not just weak, but entirely irrelevant to the discussion since the named person could easily have stamped jars before and after Sennacherib’s invasion, the same way Hezekiah reigned before and after it.

Prove Me Now Herewith...

I propose the following two cases, either of which would falsify the thesis I published back in 2004 (equivalent to that of Lipschits et al. in 2010):

1) We should never find a single hoard of these “late” seal types under a destruction layer caused by Sennacherib. A “hoard” would be comprised of a restorable jar bearing at least one LMLK impression, or multiple-but-unrelated jar fragments (used as a building foundation) including at least two LMLK impressions in the same locus.18

2) We should never find a relatively contemporary text by Judeans or Assyrians stating that no LMLK jars were made after Sennacherib’s campaign.

And to reiterate the collectively positive19 data recognized by Lipschits et al., though not acknowledged as such by Ussishkin:

1) We have found numerous stamps made by all 5 sets of LMLK seal types at eastern sites never destroyed by Sennacherib.

2) We have found numerous stamps made by only 3 of the 5 known seal sets under the Assyrian destruction layer at western sites such as Timnah, Lachish, Khirbet Rabud, Tell Beit Mirsim, and Beersheba.20

A scientific theory gains validity and momentum when its application makes successful predictions. For a recent demonstration of this, see my messages and reply from archaeologist Joe Uziel posted on the August 2010 blog for the Tel Burna Excavation Project under the “Hebrew article on volunteering and drawing of LMLK seal” entry.

When I Spake, Ye Did Not Hear...

In his “Summary and Conclusions” section, Ussishkin reiterates that “[t]here is no positive evidence indicating that the two-winged stamps of [“late” types] post-date Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 BCE.”21 Curiously, the words “Timnah” and “Tel Batash” appear nowhere in Ussishkin’s “Rejoinder.” Why?

During excavations conducted there by Amihai Mazar and George Kelm in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, 15 LMLK handles were recovered:22

Amazingly, these latter 2 specimens were excavated from within a post-Assyrian, pre-Babylonian layer (Stratum II). 24

Furthermore, the only LMLK-type handle with concentric circle incisions found at Batash also came from Stratum II, the most likely place since nearly all such incisions are associated with the 2 “late” LMLK sets. Ussishkin did not mention this one in his rejoinder either but did mention a few similar handles found on the surface of Lachish. In a classic example of forcing the facts to fit his theory, he said these surface finds “have to be assigned to Level III.”25 At this point, why ask why?

Clearly David Ussishkin (and any scholar26) can continue believing that all LMLK seal types were made prior to Sennacherib’s invasion; however, I along with Lipschits et al. see the evidence aligning with a chronological division when everything has been taken into account.27


Barkay, G. 2011. “A Fiscal Bulla from the Slopes of the Temple Mount – Evidence for the Taxation System of the Judean Kingdom (in Hebrew).” New Studies of Jerusalem (conference proceedings): 152–179.

Grena, G.M. 2004. LMLK--A Mystery Belonging to the King vol. 1. Redondo Beach.

Grena, G.M. 2010. Considering the Reconsidering of LMLK Chronology. The Bible and Interpretation.

Hudon, J. 2010. “The LMLK Storage Jars & 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 vol. 55: 27-44.

Lemaire, A. 1981. “Classification des estampilles royales judeennes.” Eretz Israel 15: 54–60.

Lipschits, O., Sergi, O., Koch, I. 2010. “Royal Judahite Jar Handles: Reconsidering the Chronology of the lmlk Stamp Impressions.” Tel Aviv 37: 3-32.

Mazar, A. and Panitz-Cohen, N. 2001. Timnah (Tel Batash) II: The Finds from the First Millennium BCE—Text (Qedem 42). Jerusalem.

Mommsen, H., Perlman, I. and Yellin, J. 1984. “The Provenience of the lmlk Jars.” Israel Exploration Journal 34: 89–113.

Tufnell, O. 1953. Lachish III: The Iron Age. London.

Ussishkin, D. 2011. “The Dating of the lmlk Storage Jars and Its Implications: Rejoinder to Lipschits, Sergi and Koch.” Tel Aviv 38: 220-240.

Vaughn, A.G. 1999. Theology, History, and Archaeology in the Chronicler’s Account of Hezekiah. Atlanta.

Yellin, J. and Cahill, J. M. 2004. “Rosette-stamped Handles: Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis.” Israel Exploration Journal 54: 191–213.


1 Their 2010 proposal resembles one I had published independently in 2004.

2 Ussishkin (2011: 222).

3 Hudon (2010: 38, f/n 5).

4 Types Ia, Ib, and IIa according to Andre Lemaire’s 1981 classification system used by Ussishkin and Lipschits et al., which is adequate for the present discussion though I developed my own system in 2002 due to minor errors in Lemaire’s. Visit the Typologies page of the LMLK Research website for exhaustive details on these systems.

5 Lemaire Types IIb and IIc.

6 Ussishkin (2011: 224).

7 Ussishkin (2011: 223).

8 Ussishkin (2011: 230).

9 Ussishkin (2011: 231).

10 Hezekiah reigned 29 years in Jerusalem (2Kings 18:2; 2Chronicles 29:1) with Sennacherib invading during the 14th year (2Kings 18:13; Isaiah 36:1).

11 Cuneiform prisms record the death or dethroning of various foreign rulers, with Hezekiah being allowed to remain in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage” continuing to live and rule there.

12 For the sake of this present discussion, it does not matter whether Sennacherib launched one or two campaigns against Judah during Hezekiah’s reign.

13 These are known as “Type 484” per a landmark excavation report published after the original British excavations at Lachish (Tufnell 1953). Another, though very rare class of LMLK jars known simply as “pithos type” have also been discovered, made from non-Shephelah clay. So far the impressions on these pithoi exclusively bear impressions from the “early” seal sets (Mommsen, Perlman, and Yellin 1984; Yellin and Cahill 2004).

14 Ussishkin (2011: 236).

15 Grena (2004: 377, 392).

16 If Judeans sensed that the Assyrians would not be returning soon (per what at least appeared to them to be a miracle that Jerusalem was not conquered), there is no reason why they would not return to destroyed sites or adjoining regions for agricultural purposes. I would not expect them to expend resources to immediately rebuild fortresses there since farming would take priority over military build-up. Vaughn’s landmark 1999 thesis emphasized this point.

17 Ussishkin (2011: 232).

18 I had to define “hoard" to eliminate stray handles that could easily enter destruction layers at later times; indeed, such specimens have been found at Tell en-Nasbeh, Jerusalem, and Arad.

19 Taken in isolation, the absence of something is considered negative, but in conjunction with all that is presently known and expected, it constitutes a positive datum (a site with only “early” types in a particular stratum, as opposed to the absence of a “late” type therein). Whether or not any future evidence will support or refute what we presently know becomes a matter of probability, which is a separate issue.

20 Significant quantities of the 3 “early” types have probably also been excavated under Assyrian destruction layers at Beth Shemesh and Tel Zayit, but have not yet been formally published.

21 Ussishkin (2011: 237).

22 Mazar and Panitz-Cohen (2001: 191) reported 12 from Stratum III, 3 from Stratum II.

23 One impression cannot be positively matched to a single LMLK seal design due to the poor quality of the published photo (I’m 100% confident I could make a positive identification if I had access to the handle or to high-resolution photos using alternate lighting angles), and photos of the other 3 handles have never been published.

24 Lipschits et al. (2010: 8) cited Mazar and Panitz-Cohen as “2001: 194–195, Photo 122, Pl. 51:12; 195, Photo 124, Pl. 61:13,” but the correct photo references are “Photo 123, Pl. 59:16; Photo 124, Pl. 61:13.”

25 Ussishkin (2011: 233).

26 In 2011 Gabriel Barkay published a “Gibeon LMLK” fiscal bulla and suggested that its discovery in some way discredits this chronological thesis of Lipschits et al.

27 Ussishkin opened his “Rejoinder” with a quotation by an Agatha Christie character, “Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory—let the theory go.”