Assyrian Army Assault on Lachish

Assyrian Army Assault on Lachish


Assyrian Army Assault on Lachish - History

Throughout history, there have been occasions when the intentions and grand scheming of one distant nation have caused repercussions across a wide adjoining region. Such was the case when the city states across the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of the Levant suffered at the hands of the expanding ancient Assyrian sphere of influence. We learn about these encounters in 1st and 2nd Kings of the Bible with corresponding and mostly corroborating discussions from inscriptions on monuments from the mid-late 9th c. BCE reign of King Shalmaneser III. While the westward incursions of the Assyrians continued nearly unabated, the actions came to a head in the late 8th century, when King Sennacherib’s army swept across all cities in its path right up to the doors of Jerusalem, where the destructive wave was stopped. Here again, we are provided with stirring biblical accounts and matching Assyrian evidence from Sennacherib’s prism tablets and inscriptions and graphic depictions on the walls of his Palace Without Rival, at Nineveh (now Mosul), in northeastern Iraq.

With an ironic stroke of misfortune, fate has decreed that the historically important and culturally rich remnants of that ancient Assyrian power shall now themselves be purposefully targeted for demolition, with the sole purpose of wiping the sculpture and architecture of that people from archaeological records–and thus from the pages of history. Fortunately, we have the ability to document and preserve archaeological evidence digitally so that future generations can continue to study, learn from, and revisit the past in unprecedented detail and precision. 3D computer modeling of the Assyrian citadels at Nimrud and Nineveh has become eerily relevant lately not only for understanding the empire’s capital cities, but also for envisioning the biblical stories that were turned into historical realities by the 19th-century discovery of Assyrian sites and accompanying inscriptions.

We invite you to watch our series of narrated videos and look at the accompanying descriptions, static images, and bibliography relating (1) the status of the Assyrian capital at Nimrud in the 9th c. BCE, during the time of Shalmaneser III, and (2) the later capital at Nineveh during the 8th c. BCE in which Sennacherib had tales of his conquest and destruction of the fortress at Lachish (now in southern Israel) carved across the walls of one room in his Palace Without Rival, an episode from his third campaign across the Levant chronicled also in several passages in the Bible especially in reference to his subjugation of King Hezekiah of Jerusalem.


Uncovering the Bible&rsquos Buried Cities: Lachish

I t stood proud as a city second only in importance to Jerusalem for the Kingdom of Judah. And yet, unlike modern-day Jerusalem, Tel Lachish has been left untouched since the days of the Greco-Macedonian Empire, free of development, leaving behind a veritable archaeological gold mine for excavators. Archaeologists have taken their cue, with excavations beginning in the 1930s and continuing on and off throughout the decades, revealing stunning finds all the way into 2016 that picture a microcosm of ancient Israel and confirm the accuracy of the biblical account.

Here’s a brief overview of the city and its amazing discoveries that have been made to this date.

A Canaanite City

The first biblical mention of the ancient city of Lachish, found southwest of Jerusalem, is in the book of Joshua.

“Wherefore Adonizedec king of Jerusalem sent unto [certain kings] and unto Japhia king of Lachish … saying, Come up unto me, and help me, that we may smite Gibeon: for it hath made peace with Joshua and with the children of Israel. Therefore the five kings of the Amorites [including] the king of Lachish … gathered themselves together, and went up, they and all their hosts, and encamped before Gibeon, and made war against it” (Joshua 10:3-5).

Like Jerusalem, Lachish was inhabited before the Israelites by the Canaanite, or more specifically Amorite, people (as verse 5 reveals). They went to war against Gibeon and the Israelites, whereupon they were overthrown (verses 6-8, 23-27). Interestingly, the name of the city Lachish is mentioned several times in the Amarna Letters, a trove of documents sent by the leaders of Canaan to Egypt, desperately asking for help in battling against the invading Habiru people who were threatening to overthrow the entire land of Canaan. The letters document the terrifying advancement of the Habiru against places like Lachish and Jerusalem. The interesting link between the Habiru and Hebrew names is unmistakable.

Tel Lachish has yielded a rich display of finds from this Canaanite period. The city was replete with a pagan temple, idols and cultic objects that have been discovered and documented. However, the archaeological record shows that the city was utterly destroyed and consumed by fire—a witness to the conquering Israelites. Lachish fell to the Israelites shortly after their battle at Gibeon, as Joshua 10:31-35 describe.

According to archaeological evidence, the city was thereafter left uninhabited for many years—perhaps as long as two centuries—before it reemerged as a powerful Israelite fortress.

Rehoboam Rebuilds

Excavations show Lachish was next restored sometime during the 10th-9th centuries B.C.—directly in conjunction with the next chronological biblical reference (2 Chronicles 11:5-12). This time period saw King Rehoboam take the reigns of leadership from his father Solomon—and the subsequent quick breakaway of the northern 10 tribes of Israel from his rulership. Rehoboam naturally wanted to consolidate the power that he still retained in the southern kingdom of Judah—and as 2 Chronicles 11 describes, he did this by strengthening the surrounding cities.

“And Rehoboam dwelt in Jerusalem, and built cities for defense in Judah. He built [a list of cities] and Lachish … and he fortified the strong holds, and put captains in them, and store of victual, and of oil and wine. And in every several city he put shields and spears, and made them exceedingly strong, having Judah and Benjamin on his side” (verses 5-6, 9, 11-12).

This city of Lachish slots perfectly alongside archaeological finds dating to a 10th-century B.C. rebuild under King Rehoboam. And its building style further shows evidence of a typical Israelite design.

Six-Chambered Gate

Tenth century Israelite cities have turned up an interesting gate structure, known as the six-chambered gate. These large stone entrances had three chambers on either side where business could be conducted, or where reinforcement could be added in the event of a siege. Many of these gates date to the time of King Solomon, proving that a powerful centralized government must have been present in order to standardize the construction of these gates all around Israel. Three particular examples of these notable gates, dating to the time of Solomon, were found in the cities of Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer—three cities directly mentioned as having been built up under Solomon’s command (1 Kings 9:15).

The Bible describes Israel’s city gates as an important place of trade, commerce, diplomacy and judging. It was at a city gate where Boaz sat down with the elders to settle a transaction with a relative (Ruth 4:1-2, 11). It was where David’s son Absalom stood to sway those coming into the city to his favor (2 Samuel 15:2-6). It was where King David himself sat in order to reassure his people after a battle (2 Samuel 19:7-8). It was a general place where judgment was to be carried out (Amos 5:15).

The six-chambered gate found at Tel Lachish fits the same mold. Benches with armrests were found within the gate chambers, alongside jars stamped with official lmlk (“belonging to the king”) markings and scoops for filling containers with grain or other products.

A Toilet Seat?

One of the particularly remarkable finds made at Tel Lachish this year would ordinarily be an unlikely contender for great biblical or archaeological significance: a toilet seat. Archaeologists were excavating a room inside Lachish that housed a number of pagan altars. The altars themselves had been vandalized, with their horns (or corners) smashed (itself a deeply symbolic act, Amos 3:14), and archaeologists discovered a toilet placed in the corner of the room. There was no evidence that the toilet had been used—its presence was merely symbolic. Which does, in fact, have a biblical precedent.

“And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them. And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house [public toilet] unto this day. Thus Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel” (2 Kings 10:26-27).

This vandalizing of the pagan room of worship at Lachish is thought to have been done by King Hezekiah during the period of revival of the worship of God under his reign (2 Kings 18:4, 22). It confirms a tradition, then, as recorded about the actions of Jehu (an earlier king of the northern kingdom of Israel), to show utter contempt toward pagan worship taking place. It is the first archaeological evidence ever found that confirms this kind of act, as recorded in the Bible.

Destruction and ‘Reliefs’

Lachish’s destruction during the time of King Hezekiah is well documented—in biblical history, in archaeology, as well as in the Assyrian records. The miracle of how God protected the city of Jerusalem from the invading Assyrian army is well known—perhaps not as well known is the history of how Lachish was overthrown beforehand in 701 B.C.

“After this did Sennacherib king of Assyria send his servants to Jerusalem, (but he himself laid siege against Lachish, and all his power with him,) …” (2 Chronicles 32:9).

A parallel account from 2 Kings 18:13-14, 17:

Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish [the city had been already overthrown, and his forces were now based there], saying, I have offended … and the king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rabsaris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to king Hezekiah with a great host against Jerusalem ….

Archaeologists have discovered massive carved portrayals (what are known as “reliefs”) of this siege against Lachish in the Assyrian palace at Nineveh. The long, detailed depictions show masses of Assyrian soldiers attacking, defeating and then leading away captive the Jews from this city. The portrayal also shows the city gate being besieged, and massive siege towers being pushed up a ramp in order to attack the city.

These depictions match exactly what has been revealed at Tel Lachish—a massive siege ramp has been identified at the site that these Assyrians would have used in order to launch their assault on the city from atop the towers. Much weaponry was also found, evidencing the terrifying battle that was fought at Lachish.

Another interesting tidbit of information is that the Assyrian reliefs depict an array of grapevines in the area. Even today, the land abutting Tel Lachish is a significant grape-growing area.

Letters and Repeat Destruction

After the departure of the conquering Assyrians, Lachish was repopulated and remained an important fortification for Judah, until the Babylonians swept into the land and conquered the cities once again. This time Jerusalem was successfully conquered as well. Further evidence of Lachish’s repeat destruction has been confirmed at the site, alongside an interesting find dating to just before this Babylonian destruction, called the “Lachish Letters.”

These “letters” are actually pottery fragments (or ostraca) written on by an officer located in a city outside Lachish to, most likely, the commanding officer inside Lachish. One of the letters gives an interesting glimpse into the desperation of the times for Judah, as the Babylonians began their conquests:

And may (my lord) be apprised that we are watching for the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord has given, because we cannot see Azekah.

Fire signals were given between distant major cities as a sign that all was well. The fact that the major city Azekah had failed to deliver a fire signal was a fearful sign that the city had already fallen to the Babylonians—and thus this outer city officer was worriedly watching to see if Lachish would deliver a fire signal (Jeremiah 34:7).

The destruction that followed shortly after marked another end for the fortress Lachish—yet the city would continue to function, at least in a limited capacity, until Greek times. Since then, however, the site has remained dormant, providing a spectacular location for archaeologists to reveal a past frozen in time.

Lachish Today

The history discovered at Lachish truly is a microcosm of Israel’s history as a whole—from the conquering of the Promised Land to the massive grand construction as a powerful fortress to a cycle of pagan worship and then revived worship of God to the destruction by the Assyrians and final destruction by the Babylonians. It is a city that has witnessed a massive amount of bloodshed and suffering.

Even in recent times, Lachish has still drawn blood. British archaeologist James Leslie Starkey was the first chief excavator of Tel Lachish, working there in the 1930s (his team revealed the Lachish Letters). In 1938, Starkey was robbed and killed by Arab terrorists on his way from Lachish to Jerusalem. It is believed that Starkey was murdered in revenge after a dispute with landowners at Lachish, after his desired place of excavation was expropriated from the landowners and not fully reimbursed. A leading terrorist held responsible for Starkey’s death was killed months later in a battle with the British.

Since that time, however, Lachish has been excavated peaceably with no such troubles. And while Jerusalem remains the most significant Judahite city, its heavy population, multiple destruction and reoccupation layers, and unique current political situation unfortunately make it an extremely limited area to excavate. Not so, however, with the second-most important biblical Judahite city—that of Lachish. From this city we have been able to gain a greater understanding of Israel’s history, with a broad array of tangible remains that can be seen and touched, giving us an amazing glimpse into Israel’s history.


Return to Lachish

“It feels good to be back,” says David Ussishkin as we approach the impressive mound of Lachish, a major military outpost of the Judahite kingdom that fell to a massive Assyrian onslaught in 701 B.C. The Assyrian king Sennacherib celebrated his capture of Lachish with a series of reliefs in his palace at Nineveh, showing his forces laying siege to the town, running a huge battering ram up an assault ramp to the town’s tower and smashing through Lachish’s defenses.

Ussishkin looks a good decade younger than his 66 years. Quietly intelligent and formal, he tends not to speak until spoken to. As I would quickly learn, he is also a very methodical man. He led the Lachish dig on behalf of Tel Aviv University for 11 seasons between 1973 and 1987 and then continued at the site until 1994, working with Israel’s National Parks Authority on restoring the city’s gate. At its peak, Ussishkin’s dig at Lachish involved 150 people. “It was the busiest dig in the country,” he tells me.

There is no mistaking the tell (mound) of Lachish when you see it: As you come around the bend of a modern road, the sides of the nearly square mound rise almost straight up for 50 feet. With a summit of 20 acres, Lachish is one of the largest ancient sites in Israel it is bigger than Megiddo, for example (though far smaller than ancient Jerusalem, which during the time of King Hezekiah encompassed about 150 acres).

The ancient city of Lachish was a heavily fortified garrison town. It guarded Judah on the southwest, where the coastal plain ends and the gently curving hills of the 048 Shephelah rise before giving way to the taller hills of the Judahite highlands.

In a cuneiform inscription, Sennacherib boasted of having destroyed Lachish and 46 other cities during his campaign against Judah. The Bible tells us that after capturing Lachish, Sennacherib sent to Jerusalem an emissary, called the rabshakeh, to urge King Hezekiah to surrender rather than meet the same fate. In his inscription, Sennacherib claimed he imprisoned Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” But he never claimed to have captured Jerusalem. The Bible ( 2 Kings 19:35–36 ) records that during the siege of Jerusalem, an angel of God slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian troops, decimating their ranks and forcing Sennacherib to withdraw his remaining forces.

On our visit to Lachish, Ussishkin leads us first to a spot outside the tell’s southwest corner. Here a topographic saddle makes the tell approachable—and vulnerable. The Assyrians chose this spot to build their siege ramp. Its remnants rise 40 feet in front of us, bisected by a huge gash left by James Starkey, who excavated Lachish in the 1930s. Not recognizing the ramp for what it was, Starkey mistook it for part of the city’s defensive fortifications.

As we face the tell from this vantage point, Ussishkin notes, “This is the view seen on the [Assyrian] reliefs.” Turning around, he points to a spot 20 or 30 yards behind us. “That’s where Sennacherib sat to watch the battle.” It’s a bracing thought: We’re standing almost at the same spot as the ruler of the greatest superpower in the world in the eighth century B.C., the man who devastated Judah and nearly conquered Jerusalem.

The ferocity of the Assyrian attack was concentrated on this corner of the tell as the Assyrians built up the siege ramp, the city’s defenders desperately sought to raise the level of the ground inside the wall opposite the ramp and to erect new defenses on the higher ground. The intensity of the assault can be gauged from the number of arrowheads found in this part of the tell—more than 800.

The Assyrians were not the only ones to recognize the strategic importance of Lachish. As Ussishkin leads us up a sloping path to the city gate, on the west side of the site, we encounter remnants of a higher level of occupation, level II, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. It was destroyed during part of the same campaign in which Jerusalem was put to the torch with that destruction the Babylonian Exile began. Just inside this gate was the Letters Room, so named because in it Starkey discovered seven letters written on pottery sherds. They describe a deteriorating military situation and plead for help. Scholars disagree, though, on where these letters originated. Several, including Ussishkin, believe they were copies of correspondence written in Lachish and sent to Jerusalem most scholars, however, believe they were original letters sent to Lachish from another Judahite site facing the Babylonians.

Turning to the right, Ussishkin leads us into the earlier level III gate, the one destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. “This gate is the largest found in Israel,” Ussishkin explains. It measures 27 by 27 yards (25 by 25 meters), compared to 17 by 17 yards (16 by 16 meters) at Megiddo. The Lachish gate is a classic six-chambered gate, with three chambers on each side of the path into the city. Ussishkin excavated only the northern three chambers (on the left as you enter). “I’m a great believer in not excavating everything,” he explains that way, future excavators, presumably armed with more sophisticated methods, will have something left to uncover. Inside this six-chambered area, Ussishkin found two storage jar handles bearing the inscription l’melekh (“belonging to the king”), the name of a city and a winged scarab or a winged sun disc. In all, Lachish yielded 430 l’melekh handles, more than any other site in ancient Israel. Scholars have suggested that the l’melekh handles were part of Hezekiah’s efforts to prepare for the Assyrian invasion—that he had many storage jars made and stamped with the royal seal to indicate official contents or an approved amount of grain, olive oil or other essential materials needed to withstand an anticipated siege of Judahite cities.

Once inside the city gate, we approach the center of the tell. Ussishkin brings us to a 80-by-250-foot building with pillars that he believes served as stables other scholars have argued that the structure—and ones just like it at Megiddo and Hazor—served as a storehouse. Perpendicular to the stables is a 120-by-250-foot Judahite-era palace and fort. At the very heart of the tell is a 200-by-360-foot courtyard that may have been used for practicing chariot maneuvers. Its impressive size befits an important military outpost and reminds visitors of Lachish’s role as guardian of the Judahite kingdom’s southwestern flank.

At the end of our visit, Ussishkin leads us to the west side of the tell. Here his team has literally left its mark—a deep gash two excavation squares wide and seven squares long running from the city wall to a corner of the palace/fort complex. Each square measured 5.5 by 5.5 yards (5 by 5 meters). Ussishkin chose to excavate extensively on the western side of the tell because (along with the north side) it’s where ancient sites tend to have their most extensive remains. “It was the best part of town because you get the breezes here,” Ussishkin explains.

Gazing over this huge excavated area leads Ussishkin to reminisce about the dig. He tells me that what are called by some “Josh cloths” were first used at the Lachish excavation. These large black cloths provide the diggers with shade and are named in honor of Joshua, the Biblical hero who made the sun stand still ( Joshua 10:12–14 ). Another innovation at Lachish: the use of sandbags atop the balks between excavation squares to keep the balks from collapsing, especially between excavation seasons. (When excavators lay out their squares, they leave a meter-wide strip of earth, called a balk, between them to preserve the stratigraphy of the area.) Ussishkin got the idea for the sandbags after seeing them used to protect army trenches during his service in the Sinai Desert in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

The excavation area reminds Ussishkin of an incident during the dig, one that reveals a great deal about his methodical nature and his discipline. Ussishkin insisted on staying within the square—he didn’t want to be tempted to pursue things further and further away from the square. On one occasion, his team found a vessel that was sticking partly into the square, but was embedded in the balk that bounded it. The excavators debated about whether to leave it alone, excavate it or, Solomon-like, cut it along the balk and keep only the part sticking into the square. They finally decided to excavate it from the balk. As it turned out, the vessel was not whole, so it was not of great use. But to keep his team from being drawn to dig further into the balk at that point, Ussishkin covered the spot with concrete.

After our tour of Lachish, Ussishkin and I stop at a roadside diner in a nearby town for lunch. I ask him to tell me how he came to dig at Lachish. Ussishkin had been a student and assistant of Yigael Yadin at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, working with him at Hazor, Megiddo and in the Cave of Letters, in the Judean Desert. a By the early 1970s Ussishkin was a young lecturer at Tel Aviv University and eager to take on a major dig. “I was interested in a long-term dig at one site,” he explains.

Typical of his methodical nature, Ussishkin composed a list of attractive sites. Megiddo and Lachish were on top of his list. But Megiddo was already being reexcavated by his mentor Yadin. In the end, Ussishkin settled on Lachish for three reasons: its importance during the Iron Age, its role in Biblical history and because of the Assyrian reliefs. “I never regretted my choice,” he says.

Ussishkin was then faced with the problem of obtaining financing for the dig. Again, he went about the issue methodically. He had heard of a work called The Foundation Book, a listing of philanthropic organizations. “I made a list of ten and marked their addresses on a map of Manhattan. I put on a jacket and tie and began knocking on doors. I was thrown out of eight immediately. Two were more cooperative. One was the Andrew Mellon Foundation, but they had stopped supporting archaeology. They told me, ‘Archaeologists are terrible people. They take more and more money and never finish their work.’”

At the tenth foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Ussishkin’s persistence paid off. Deputy President Mary Davies came out to meet him she listened 051 to his plan to excavate Lachish and eventually arranged the funding that made the dig possible. “Mary Davies later told me that she also would have turned away a cold-caller,” Ussishkin says, “but she was told that I was visiting from Jerusalem and decided to let me in.”

Ussishkin is finishing his distinguished career much like how he started: Since 1992, he has been reinvestigating his old mentor Yigael Yadin’s site, Megiddo, with his Tel Aviv University colleague Israel Finkelstein and American scholar Baruch Halpern. “Like at Lachish, we are coming back to a site that was previously excavated. We are faced with the problem of how to accommodate ourselves to an old dig.”

Most importantly, Lachish and Megiddo are central to understanding the chronology of the Iron Age—the heart of the Biblical period. “The two sites are pivots,” Ussishkin explains. “Megiddo marks the arrival of the Philistines [in the 12th century B.C.] and the end of the Canaanite period. Level III at Lachish fixes the Assyrian destruction.”

Ussishkin says he had no agenda at Lachish. “I had no questions to solve, no thesis to protect. I didn’t mind what I found.”

Summarizing the dig, Ussishkin says, “The key to our success was that we were systematic. We aimed at quality, not quantity. We did not have theories about the Bible to protect.”


Why Lachish Matters

The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish

David Ussishkin (Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology, Tel Aviv Univ., 2004), 5 vols, 2,754 pp., $250 for the set, plus $50 air mail postage (available from the publisher at [email protected])

Among cities in ancient Judah, Lachish was second only to Jerusalem in importance. A principal Canaanite and, later, Israelite site, Lachish occupied a major tell (mound) 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, nestled in the foothills of Judah (the region known as the Shephelah). The nearly rectangular tell extends over 18 acres on the summit. Nearby wells provide abundant water for drinking and vegetation. Surrounded by deep ravines on all sides, except at the vulnerable southwest corner (where a topographical saddle connects the site with an adjacent hill), Lachish was easily defended. The city-gate complex, however, on the relatively exposed southwest corner of the city, had to be strongly fortified. Modern visitors (not to mention excavators) can attest to the difficulty of negotiating the steep incline on the way to the summit.

Perhaps more is known about Lachish than any other Near Eastern site, thanks to more than 25 Biblical references and extra-Biblical references in Egyptian and Assyrian records, as well as commemorative releifs carved on stone panels in Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik, in northern Iraq). And we have a world of information from three excavations of the site.

From 1932 to 1938 James Starkey, ably assisted by Olga Tufnell and G. Lankester Harding, led the first expedition to Lachish. With careful attention to architectural units, Starkey was able to distinguish more than seven occupation levels. Starkey produced only brief preliminary reports, however. The Lachish excavation came to a sudden end in 1938 when Starkey—on the road to Jerusalem to attend the opening of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum)—was murdered by bandits. After his death, Olga Tufnell assumed responsibility for the final publication, bringing it to completion in 1958. 1 Yohanan Aharoni led 038 a second, limited, excavation at Lachish in the 1960s.

From 1973 to 1994 (the excavation proper ended in 1987), David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University undertook renewed excavations at Lachish to complete Starkey’s unfinished work. He continued the excavation of a Judahite palace-fort and the city-gate complex previously investigated by Starkey. Ussishkin’s special interest was in the Late Bronze (1550–1200 B.C.E.) and Iron Ages (1200–587 B.C.E.). The chronology of the Iron Age at Lachish had been left unresolved by Starkey and his team. Ussishkin’s work at the city-gate complex is outstanding for resolving knotty problems associated with the pottery chronology of Iron 039 Age II (1000–587 B.C.E.). Ussishkin deliberately left areas only partially excavated so that future archaeologists could test his conclusions with fresh concepts and newer techniques.

Ussishkin appreciated the methods and accomplishments of his predecessors at Lachish and said so 040 publicly. Starkey’s excavation was a model by the standards of its time. Except for the Assyrian siege ramp, which he had mistaken for collasped stones from the upper fortifications and which he largely removed, few of Starkey’s conclusions had to be revised by the renewed excavation. Though Ussishkin’s methodology was a combination of two excavation approaches—the horizontal, which concentrates on architecture, and the vertical, which focuses on strata—he emphasized mainly the vertical, in the spirit of Kathleen Kenyon (“the Queen of Stratigraphy”). In addition, Usshishkin and his team paid close attention to pottery forms.

Ussishkin introduced numerous practical devices to aid excavation, including sunshades (awnings) over excavation areas to protect workers from sunstroke, and sandbags to preserve the edges of the excavation areas (balks) from being destroyed in the off-season. Adopting a technique Aharoni had introduced at Arad, pottery at Lachish was dipped in water before scrubbing to reveal writing that may have been inscribed on the potsherds.

Lachish was occupied from the Pottery Neolithic (5500–4500 B.C.E.) and Chalcolithic (4500–3300 B.C.E.) periods, and from the beginnings of the Early Bronze Age (3300–3000 B.C.E.) to the Persian and Hellenistic periods (538–37 B.C.E.).

In the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E. (Level VII, the Late Bronze Age) Lachish was a large, prosperous Canaanite city before being destroyed by fire. A shrine called the Fosse Temple, constructed in three major phases, dates to this period. It was built within a filled-in moat (hence the name) at the northwest corner of the mound, outside the city, and was in use throughout the Late Bronze Age.

Level VI, which followed stratigraphically and chronologically, reflected cultural continuity with the Level VII city. Level VI represents the last prosperous Canaanite city, then under Egyptian control, however. It was built shortly after the destruction of Level VII and eventually met the same fate at whose hands is uncertain, although it may have been the Sea Peoples—tribes from the Aegean, among them the Philistines, who entered Canaan in the 12th century B.C.E.

Usshishkin discovered another temple, totally different from the Fosse Temple, which had been built on the summit of the mound and that reflected Egyptian architectural style. A large bronze shoe for the city’s gate socket bore the cartouche of Pharaoh Ramesses III (1182–1151 B.C.E.), undoubtedly the builder of the city gate. The finds in Level VI suggest that Lachish was firmly under the control of Egypt. Without Egyptian protection Lachish was vulnerable to attack.

Archaeologists disagree about the date of the destruction of Level VI. Ussishkin maintains that it could not have been before 1130 B.C.E. because there is evidence of Egyptian occupation at Lachish until that time. Because no Philistine pottery was found in the level of Egyptian occupation, Ussishkin thinks that the Philistines could not have settled along the nearby coast before 1130 B.C.E. surely had the Philistines settled before them, their distincitive painted pottery would have reached Lachish during Level VI. (In this view, Ussishkin is joined by his colleague at Tel Aviv University, Israel Finkelstein, as this date of 1130 B.C.E. has become the early anchor point for the “low chronology.”)

Harvard’s Lawrence Stager, who is excavating the Philistine city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, Hebrew University’s Amihai Mazar and Trude Dothan and others, on the other hand, favor a date of about 1175–1160 B.C.E. for the arrival of the Philistines. Stager has argued that there is nothing odd about two cultures living side by side for decades but maintaining cultural boundaries between them. Although Stager does not disagree with Ussishkin’s date of 1130 B.C.E. for the destruction of Level VI at Lachish, based on the archaeological sequence at the Philistine sites of Ashkelon, Ekron and Ashdod and the sequence of Mycenaean IIIC pottery in the Aegean, he argues strenuously against that being the date of the Philistines’ arrival in Canaan.

After the destruction of Level VI, Lachish was abandoned for two centuries. In the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.E., during the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, Lachish was settled by the Israelites the Israelite city is contained within Level V. Little is known about Lachish at this time except that it was unfortified. It may have been destroyed by Pharaoh Sheshonq (Biblical Shishak) about 925 B.C.E.

In Level IV, dating to the reign of King Asa (908–867 B.C.E.) or King Jehoshaphat (870–846 B.C.E.), Lachish was a strongly fortified, royal Judahite city with two massive city walls, one on the middle of the slope and the other along the top, with a glacis (an artificial, sloping rampart) in between intended to protect against undermining the city walls. The higher wall was constructed of mud brick and laid on a stone foundation. In this period a massive six-chamber gateway controlled entrance to the city. A large palace-fort on a raised platform occupied the center of the mound.

During the reign of King Hezekiah (715–687 B.C.E.) Judah enjoyed great prosperity. Level III at Lachish was a densely populated city with a rebuilt and enlarged palace-fort, enclosure wall and city-gate complex. However, a turning point in the history of Judah came with Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyrian hegemony. Hezekiah headed a coalition against Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.E.), the Assyrian king, but he 042 could not withstand the superior forces of Assyria. Lachish and dozens of other towns in Judah (46, according to Sennacherib’s account) were destroyed by the Assyrian forces in 701 B.C.E. This was Sennacherib’s greatest military victory, which he portrayed on grand reliefs in his palace in Nineveh. With the destruction of Level III at Lachish, the palace-fort ceased to exist, and the platform on which it stood fell into disuse until a residency was built on it in Level I (Persian period).

The Annals of Sennacherib are in substantial agreement with the Biblical account regarding Sennacherib’s devastating campaign in Judah: “As for Hezekiah of Judah, who did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to forty-six of his strong cities, walled forts, and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered them . I drove out 200,150 people” (see 2 Kings 18:13–16 ). The prophet Micah (1:10–15) lists the towns of the Shephelah, including Lachish, that Sennacherib devastated. Lachish was Sennacherib’s field headquarters at the time of its destruction: “After this, while king Sennacherib of Asssyria was at Lachish with all his forces, he sent his servants to Jerusalem to King Hezekiah of Judah” ( 2 Chronicles 32:9 ).

Lachish is famous for having many examples of a special type of Judahite storage jar, stamped with the word lmlk (lemelech, or “belonging to the king”) on the handle. Of the approximately 4,000 examples of these stamped handles, more were found at Lachish than at any other site, and all are from Level III, definitively settling the earlier debate concerning the date of these handles. In addition to lmlk, the impression includes the name of one of four cities, Hebron, Socah, Ziph and MMST (the only one which has not been identified). Most of the lemelech handles found at Lachish bear the name of the city of Hebron. In addition to the inscription, each stamp features a four-winged scarab beetle or a two-winged sun disk. Neutron activation analysis on the clay of the Lachish specimens supports the conclusion that the storage jars with these seal impressions were produced in the region of Lachish. Jars with four-winged (predominantly) or two-winged symbols, as well as unstamped jars, were uncovered at Lachish beneath destruction debris in rooms dating to Level III. None was found in later levels. They must, therefore, have been produced exclusively during King Hezekiah’s reign. (This type of jar was used both before and after this period, but without the symbols.) According to Tel Aviv University historian Nadav Na’aman, Judahite officials produced these royal storage jars in preparation for the imminent Assyrian invasion.

The excavation of Level III at Lachish provides an excellent guide to eighth-century B.C.E. warfare. There is a remarkable correlation between what was found in the excavation of the 701 B.C.E. battle and the detailed commemoration of the Assyrian conquest depicted on reliefs carved on stone panels at Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh. These reliefs attest to the importance of Lachish in the eyes of the conquering Assyrians. They were excavated by British archaeologist Austen Layard from 1847 to 1851 and later transported to the British Museum in London, where 043 they are permanently on exhibit.

In warfare, defenders have certain advantages over attackers. The Assyrians constructed a siege ramp, first identified by Yigael Yadin, to more effectively fight the Lachishites who manned the city tower. The siege ramp was constructed of tons of bonded cobbles and boulders, topped with a platform to accommodate the wooden siege engines, with frames covered with leather. The siege engines were rigged with battering rams that were mounted on wooden wheels. The reliefs at Nineveh depict five siege engines deployed on the siege ramp at Lachish.

The defenders at Lachish responded by constructing a counter ramp inside city wall, opposite the Assyrian siege ramp excavated by Ussishkin.

After the Assyrian victory the victors impaled some of their captives on the city wall and exiled others. Starkey uncovered a mass burial of 1,500 people in a nearby cave, an indication of the intensity of the fighting.

Remains at the foot of the city wall where the fighting took place included scales of armor, sling stones, iron arrowheads, firebrands, large perforated stones suspended from ropes, and fragments of an iron chain. The stones on ropes were used by the defenders to try to knock off the siege machine’s long wooden beam, which was topped with a metal blade to batter the city’s mud brick wall. The chain hung from the wall and rested on the ground. After the Assyrian ram was in place, the defenders would pull up the chain to deflect and dismantle the ram.

By the seventh century B.C.E. the kingdom of Judah had survived Sennacherib’s assault, but it still had to contend with the three principal international superpowers of Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia—all fierce antagonists. The traditional rivalry between Assyria and Egypt transformed into an alliance Egypt supported waning Assyria against rising Babylonia. After 044 Assyria’s collapse in 612 B.C.E., an imperial power struggle developed between Egypt and Babylonia, with Judah, as happened so often, caught in the middle. Eventually Babylonia replaced Assyria and Egypt as the dominant power in the region.

When Ussishkin began his execavation, the chronology of the destruction of Lachish’s superimposed city-gate complex (Levels III and II) had long been an unresolved problem. Starkey had detected little difference in pottery types between Levels III and II, so he assigned the Level III destruction to the powerful Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C.E., and the final destruction (Level II) to Nebuchadnezzar’s attack in 586 B.C.E. Olga Tufnell, on the other hand, using ceramic typology, detected a difference 045 between the two levels. She identified the Level III destruction with Sennacherib’s conquest in 701 B.C.E. and then distinguished two phases in the gate area of Level II, one dated to 597 B.C.E. and the other to 586 B.C.E. However, all the greats—William Albright, G. Ernest Wright, Kathleen Kenyon and Yigael Yadin—dated Level III to 597 B.C.E. and Level II to 586 B.C.E. They were wrong: Tufnell (later joined by Yohanan Aharoni) was correct, as Ussishkin conclusively demonstrated with his careful stratigraphic excavation. At the conclusion of his excavation, Ussishkin undertook the reconstruction and preservation of the city-gate complex in preparation for the conversion of Lachish into a national park—an objective not yet realized.

The most significant single discovery from the last days of Judah was the Lachish Letters, a series of Hebrew-inscribed potsherds (called ostraca), found by Starkey. Eighteen lay sealed beneath a pile of debris in a guardroom of the gate area of Level II three additional ostraca were uncovered in the vicinity of the palace-fort (all were published by N. H. Torczyner). 2 These 21 ostraca are military correspondence written in black ink and relate to the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah (about 589 B.C.E.). Needless to say, these “letters” have occasioned debate about their origin and purpose. Were they sent to Yaosh (Yaush), military commander of Lachish, by a subordinate named Hoshiah (Hoshayahu) stationed between Lachish and Jerusalem just before the Babylonian destruction of Lachish? Or did they originate at Lachish? Are they originals or copies? Yadin, following Tufnell, was inclined to think the ostraca were drafts or copies of letters sent from Lachish to Jerusalem. Ussishkin finds Tufnell’s ideas “indeed convincing.”

There is a reference in Ostracon III to “the prophet” (unnamed) Jeremiah comes to mind because the circumstances of the letters resemble the tragic times of the Biblical prophet, who warned King Zedekiah of Nebuchadnezzar’s imminent destruction of Jerusalem. Azekah (11 miles northwest of Lachish) and Lachish are mentioned in the letter as cities that held out during the assault, recalling the Biblical passage, “Then the prophet Jerermiah spoke all these words to Zedekiah, last king of Judah, in Jerusalem, when the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left, Lachish and Azekah for these were the only fortified cities of 046 Judah that remained” ( Jeremiah 34:6–7 ). Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and Lachish in 586 B.C.E. and exiled most of Judah’s inhabitants.

Level I at Lachish includes the Babylonian, Persian and the Hellenistic periods (sixth-first centuries B.C.E.). The excavators report that from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C.E. there was no sign of violent destruction. A residency was the main building, erected on the summit of the mound, which had been the podium of the destroyed Judahite palace-fort. In the post-Exilic period, during the governance of Nehemiah, Jewish returnees from Babylonian captivity settled at Lachish ( Nehemiah 11:30 ).

In about 200 B.C.E. the inhabitants of Lachish built a cultic center in the eastern sector of the tell consisting of two main rooms and a court with an altar. Because its entrance faces the rising sun, it is called the Solar Shrine. It was abandoned during the Hellenistic period. Yohanan Aharoni conducted a limited excavation of the Solar Shrine in 1966 and 1968.

I have surveyed only the most salient features of David Ussishkin’s magisterial 5-volume final report on his renewed excavations at Lachish. No one in Near Eastern archaeology has ever published concurrently an excavation report of this magnitude (2,754 pages). It is a tour de force: five attractive volumes, reader- and 047 user-friendly. A detailed table of contents of all five volumes appears at the beginning of each volume for the convenience of the reader helpful indices of personal names (ancient and modern), place names (ancient and modern), selected structures, archaeological features and artifacts follow the end of Volume V. Every section within each volume (and there are many of them) ends with a selected bibliography. This feature alone makes the volumes invaluable.

David Ussishkin produced the lion’s share of this magnum opus, with the help of assistant editor Jared Miller and with contributions by more than 60 specialists from all over the world. Volume V contains their supplementary studies: chipped stone assemblages, archaeobotanical and palynological studies, archaeozoological studies, skeletal remains from Level VI, studies in pottery, petrography, geology, environment and technology, and metallurgical analyses. These specialized studies, however, would be even more valuable had they been integrated into the overall text.

The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish is an enormous achievement in archaeology and Biblical studies. Archaeologists may not agree with all of the author’s conclusions, but they certainly will have to take them into account. David Ussishkin has performed a great service that deserves to be emulated.

Uncredited photos are courtesy of the Lachish excavation.


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Discover more programmes from A History of the World in 100 Objects about war

Location: Nineveh, northern Iraq
Culture: Ancient Middle East
Period: About 700-692 BC
Material: Stone

The Lachish relief depicts the Assyrian army laying siege in 701 BC to the town of Lachish, about 40 kilometres from Jerusalem. Soldiers storm the town walls while prisoners are marched out of the town into exile. The relief was created for the walls of the great palace of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, in Nineveh. Such scenes demonstrated the consequences of rebelling against the Assyrian empire. Sennacherib is shown as an invincible king presiding over a perfect victory.

Were the Assyrians war-like?

The Assyrians were renowned for their military successes yet they initially developed a strong army as a means to defend themselves. The Assyrian heartland has no natural defences and was vulnerable to attack. Soon the Assyrians had conquered an empire stretching from Egypt to Iran. Lachish was just one city that fell in a long series of wars that saw many people shifted from their homelands and put to work on such projects as building Sennacherib's palace.


Assyrian Army Assault on Lachish - History

This series of photos gives you a feel for what it is like to visit Tel Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir) especially around the southwest corner where Sennacherib's army overran the site. All of these photos are public domain, courtesy of an anonymous visitor to the site who cares about Israel's rich Biblical history & the preservation thereof.
A panoramic view at the end of the path leading up to the outer gate between the inner and outer walls:
The overall gate complex & surrounding valley where the Assyrian army encamped as viewed from the Israelite counter-ramp:
A panoramic view outside the inner gate:
Close-up inside the inner gate:
The 3 inner gate rooms where many of the restorable LMLK jars were found:
The palace-fort complex including podia, the main architectural structure in the middle of the tel, as viewed from the Israelite counter-ramp ( there were more LMLK handles found scattered across the surface of this tel than in any single excavation at any other site in Israel ):
One of the outer walls facing the Assyrian siege-ramp:
A panoramic view of the Assyrian army's siege-ramp at the southwest corner of the tel:
Lachish remains . a broken capital:


The Lachish Reliefs: Biblical Archaeology in Contested Lands

The Lachish Relief. Museum Number 124911 © 2020 The Trustees of the British Museum.

Growing up in Gaza, my grandmother once told me about a horde of gold that was unearthed somewhere near Gaza’s coastal shore. She described mummies, gold jewellery, ornaments and a golden diadem that once adorned an ancient Queen’s head. Many years later, I read about the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s excavations in Tell Al-Ajjul, in a mound located some five kilometres south of Gaza in 1933. The gold horde my grandmother had described, included what was called the Astarte pendant, but it was never to be seen by her or anyone in Gaza, for it was to be part of Petrie’s Palestinian exhibition in London in 1930. Pieces of the horde were later sold to the British Museum in 1949 by his widow Hilda Petrie, where they remain today. But my forthcoming podcast will not be about the Tell Al-Ajjul horde, rather, it concerns the Lachish Reliefs, one of the of the British Museum’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ project. Both digs, however, and their finds are connected to the archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s lifelong pursuit of biblical archaeology in contested Palestine.

As the leader of Palestine Exploration Fund fieldwork during his many decades of excavations in Palestine, Petrie initially believed that he had found biblical Lachish in Tell el-Hesi in 1890, east of the city of Gaza. However, later excavations in the 1930s by his former students, James Leslie Starkey and Olga Tufnell proclaimed that a nearby site, Tell el-Duweir, was the biblical Lachish. Locating biblical Lachish, as well as other biblical sites mentioned in the bible, such as Ekron, Gath, Jericho and Megiddo, was a fervent pursuit for archaeologists like Petrie biblical scholars, missionaries, colonial officers, and trailblazer adventure seeking women like the founder of the Egyptian Exploration Society, Amelia Edwards, who was the chief financier and sponsor of Petrie’s extensive excavations in Egypt (Ucko, Sparks 2016).

Situated in a room in the British Museum, the Lachish reliefs depict an ancient and animated scene of conquest, occupation, depopulation, and deportation that took place around 700 B.C. These large stone panels excavated and removed from the Palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib in Nineveh in northern Iraq show a heated battle scene of a bloody siege of a fortified hill town. The stone carvings show the mass transfer of men, women, children as well as beasts of burdens, wretched refugees, carrying their worldly possessions, fleeing their homes while a triumphant King Sennacherib, sitting on an elaborately carved throne, is seen receiving tribute from his prostrated subjugated hostages.

The narrator of the British Museum podcast, Neil MacGregor, explains the historical context of this work, saying that the scene takes place in heavily fortified Lachish, some 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, what is today known as Tell el-Duweir. At the time of the siege, Lachish, MacGregor says, was the second most powerful city after Jerusalem, in the Kingdom of Judah.

MacGregor then, reflects on the warfare tactics of the ancient world and the plight of refugees both in the past and the present day. Commenting on the Lachish Reliefs, guests on the program included British politician Paddy Ashdown, who described his anguish and tears as a witness to the sight of refugees during his role in the NATO army in the Balkan War. Another guest speaker, military historian Anthony Beevor, drew a modern parallel to the efficacy of ancient warfare tactics as carved in the reliefs to Stalin’s ruthless deportation of people in the 1930s including the Crimean Tartans, the Chechens and Kalmucks.

In his poignant tribute to the misery of war and its brutal and devastating consequence in modern times, MacGregor chooses not to acknowledge the deportation, depopulation and destruction of Palestinian towns and villages in 1948 on the very landscape where the Lachish siege allegedly took place. Lachish, a biblical name that comes from the Hebrew Bible was superimposed on the Palestinian landscape during British Mandate colonialism in Palestine, another subject MacGregor chooses not to acknowledge.

I wonder why the Assyrian stone reliefs in room 10b in the British Museum are called the Lachish Reliefs, and not referred to as sculptures from Sennacherib’s Palace, or the Nineveh Reliefs from Northern Iraq. The biblical association, it seems, remains a powerful statement on the enduring legacy of biblical archaeology practices that have endured till the present day.

In All That Remains, historian Walid Khalidi references more that 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed and depopulated by Israel in 1948. It was the hastily orchestrated departure of the British Mandate from Palestine in 1948 that enabled the formation of the state of Israel and the expulsion of 300,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands in what remains the longest refugee crisis in modern history. After the withdrawal of the British mandate in 1948, Tell el-Duwier and its neighbouring Palestinian inhabited village, Al-Qubayba, were occupied and depopulated by the Zionist army. In 1955, an Israeli settlement named Lakish was established on the appropriated land southwest of the excavation site of Tell el-Duweir.

The British Museum’s podcast includes a biblical segment describing the siege of Lachish in which, “people old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude were forced to flee”. If stone reliefs could speak, we might hear the stories of those ancient refugees. Frozen in stone, we could almost sense the distress of deportation plastered across the rooms of the British Museum. We can only imagine their words, their cries, their anguish. However, in more recent times, the voices of Palestinian refugees from Tell el-Duweir, what has been renamed Biblical Lachish, and its nearby depopulated village of Al-Qubabya remain unacknowledged.

Walid Khalidi, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1992).

Peter J. Ucko, Rachael Thyrza Sparks (eds.), A Future for the Past: Petrie’s Palestinian Collection (London: Routledge, 2016).


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Watch the video: The Brutal Assyrian Siege of Lachish: Judean City Destroyed