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LMLK seals were stamped on the handles of large storage jars in and around Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah (circa 700 BC) based on several complete jars found in situ buried under a destruction layer caused by Sennacherib at Lachish. None of the original seals have been found, but about 2,000 impressions (also referred to as stamps) made by at least 21 seal types have been published. Photos of more than 600 stamps on broken handles are viewable on the LMLK Research website.
LMLK stands for the Hebrew letters Lamed Mem Lamed Kaf (L' Melech), which can be translated from Hebrew as:
- "belonging to the king" (of Judah)
- "belonging to King" (name of a person or deity)
- "belonging to the government" (of Judah)
- "to be sent to the King"
In each of the above readings, the prefix L' could be read as "to (belonging to or towards)", "for", "of", or even "from". The word Melech is translated "king", but can refer to a specific king, to any king, or to the king's government.
Beginning with the editio princeps by Charles Warren in 1870, a diverse assortment of theories has been promulgated to explain their function (Grena, 2004). Since the landmark excavations at Lachish by David Ussishkin during the 1970s (Ussishkin, 2004), the number of feasible explanations has narrowed down to these:
- Military rations collected as an emergency during a short period (several months to a few years at most) preceding the Assyrian invasion by Sennacherib
- Government taxes collected throughout the majority of Hezekiah's reign (either 14 or 26 years depending on chronological interpretations) as a long-term economic buildup until the Assyrian invasion by Sennacherib
- Religious tithes collected throughout Hezekiah's 29-year reign in response to his worship reformation following his accession (completely irrespective of the Assyrian invasion by Sennacherib)
In support of the first two theories are the inscriptions, which can be read as the names of four places; in support of the third theory are the geographic statistics, which do not associate any of the four words to a particular place or region other than the entire southern kingdom of Judah. Furthermore, approximately 10 - 20 percent of the excavated jars and jar handles were stamped (Grena, 2004, p. 377).
Depending on which of the above theories are preferred, several other aspects of the operation need interpretation:
- The people who performed the stamping were either government officials working directly for King Hezekiah or Levites and/or priests associated with Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
- The icons symbolize either royal stature or a religious nature (Deuteronomy 32:11-12, Ruth 2:12, Psalms 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 91:4, and Malachi 4:2).
- The super-inscription, LMLK, denotes the Judean government or a specific, divine being (see Moloch, but also consider its application to the Israelite YHWH as in Psalms 10:16, Isaiah 6:5, and Zechariah 14:9)
- The sub-inscriptions (Hebron, MMST, Socoh , and Ziph) record either 4 places or 4 votive statements.
Types of LMLK seals:
Notice that the engraving styles indicate at least two, possibly five, people made the seals. The 21 types can be grouped together in five or six sets, but they may have been created or utilized in pairs based on quantities of their impressions found so far (Grena, 2004, p. 349) and internal evidence such as inconsistent use of divider dots.
Researchers frequently use a lowercase "x" as a wildcard character when referring to a series such as x4C instead of using an uppercase "G", "H", "M", "S", or "Z" for the first letter designator. Likewise, an "x" can be used for the second letter designator when referring to all seals with the same word, such as H2x in lieu of H2D, H2T, and H2U.
Thus far, significant quantities of x4C, x4L, and x2U stamps have been excavated from below the destruction layer caused by the Assyrian conquest of Sennacherib, but only a single specimen each of the G2T and M2D stamps (excavated from Jerusalem, which was not destroyed by Sennacherib). This suggests that 12 of the 21 seals were made prior to the attack, and the remaining 9 afterwards. The first significant evidence to support this datum came from the landmark excavations at Timnah led by George L. Kelm and Amihai Mazar (Mazar and Panitz-Cohen, 2001).
Several hundred seal impressions made on the same type of jar handle have been found in the same contexts as the LMLK stamps. Over 50 types have been documented, and most of them have a 2-line inscription divided by two somewhat parallel lines. Some have an icon in addition to the inscription; others are strictly anepigraphic (Vaughn 1999).
In addition to the seals, which were stamped in the wet clay before being fired in a kiln, certain other marks were incised on these jar handles:
- Concentric circles (usually two--sometimes only one; sometimes applied to unstamped handles but it is uncertain whether they were ever incised on unstamped jars)
- Plus marks (resembling "+" or "t" or "X")
- Hole marks (resembling the central anchor dot of the concentric circles)
- Drag marks (probably attempts to cancel or obliterate the LMLK stamp)
Hundreds of the Circles have been found, but only a few of the Plus, Hole, and Drag marks. Several LMLK stamps may have had additional inscriptions incised over them containing marks resembling the letters "I V" (hence "Ivy incisions"); however, one or more of these handles may just contain stray Drag marks resembling the letters "I V" with no literate semantics intended.
- Mazar, Amihai, and Panitz-Cohen, Nava, (eds.) (2001). Timnah (Tel Batash) II, the Finds from the First Millennium BCE, Text. Qedem 42, Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology. Jerusalem, Israel: The Hebrew University. ASIN B0006E90Z6.
- Ussishkin, David (2004). The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973 – 1994) Volumes 1 and 4. Tel Aviv, Israel: Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University. ISBN 965-5-266-017.
- Vaughn, Andrew G. (1999). Theology, History, and Archaeology in the Chronicler's Account of Hezekiah. Scholars Press; Atlanta, Georgia. ISBN 0-7885-0594-7.
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