Defending Against Sennacherib at Tel Burna

Reinforced walls failed to stop the Assyrian threat

Gate destroyed by Sennacherib

Aeriel photo of Tel Burna’s city gate in Area G. Courtesy Tel Burna Excavation Project.

With the looming threat of Sennacherib’s invasion at the very end of the eighth century BCE, the people of Tel Burna, a site located in the Judean Shephelah southwest of Jerusalem, prepared for war. Unfortunately, all their efforts were for naught. At least that is the conclusion of the archaeologists digging Tel Burna, who have published the results of more than a decade of excavations in the journal ‘Atiqot.

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Preparing for War in the Shephelah

The invasion of Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE is one of the most consequential events recorded in both the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 18:13–15) and the region’s archaeology. Its significance is evidenced not only by the many destruction levels left behind in the wake of this brutal event, but also by clear indications of Judah’s preparation for the invasion. Tel Burna, possibly biblical Libnah, is one Judahite site where such preparations can be seen in the archaeological record.


Map of the around surrounding Tel Burna. Courtesy Tel Burna Excavation Project.

Excavations at Tel Burna, which is just a few miles north of Lachish, revealed a Judahite town on the border between Judah and Philistia that was first fortified soon after the invasion of Pharaoh Sheshonq I (biblical Shishak) in the late tenth century BCE. Tel Burna’s casemate wall—the type of fortification found at dozens of Judahite fortresses and towns during the Iron Age—stood unchanged for nearly 200 years, only to be suddenly altered in the late eighth century.

At that time, the western section of the casemate wall, which was made up of a series of rectangular, thick-walled rooms or cells encircling the town, was filled in with earth, effectively turning the rooms of the casemate into a massive, solid wall. To this was added a steep earthen glacis that would have projected strength to potential enemies, including Sennacherib and the encroaching Assyrian threat. It is not certain if this change was made around the city’s entire 52,000-square-foot fortification system. It is possible that the inhabitants only had the time or resources to reinforce the most strategic points in the wall.

Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Tel Burna, their reinforcement efforts proved too little, too late. According to Assyrian sources, though Sennacherib failed to take Jerusalem, he did conquer 46 towns and cities in Judah. Archaeological evidence from across southern Israel suggests that is likely an accurate number; late eighth-century destruction layers have been found at Lachish, Azekah, Beth Shemesh, and other sites. While the Burna fortifications may have held off the Assyrian forces for a bit longer, they ultimately proved insufficient, as excavation identified a clear destruction layer contemporary with those found at other Judahite sites.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

Sennacherib’s Siege of Lachish

Missing Wall of Biblical Jerusalem Discovered

All-access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Sennacherib’s Siege of Jerusalem: Once or Twice?

In the Path of Sennacherib

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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