Searching for cuneiform tablets at Tel Hazor
“Joshua […] took Hazor and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time, Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms. […] Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn.”—Joshua 11:10–13
It was only natural that the expressive Biblical account of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan guided the earliest archaeological investigations in the Land of Israel. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists turned their attention to Jericho, Lachish (then identified with Tell el-Hesi), ‘Ai and Bethel, all of which were reportedly conquered in the latter part of the 13th century B.C.E. by the invading Israelites. None of these cities, however, was as prominent as Hazor, whose king headed the northern coalition of Canaanite kings.
The Biblical Book of Joshua and historical documents from the second millennium B.C.E. picture the northern Canaanite city-state of Hazor as the most important urban center in the Southern Levant. The Late Bronze Age city of Hazor—located on a mound seven miles north of the Sea of Galilee—boasted an impressive acropolis with temple and palace buildings as well as a lower city spread out below the tell. One major discovery remains elusive, however: Where are Hazor’s cuneiform archives? Tel Hazor field co-director Shlomit Bechar describes the search for the archives in “How to Find the Hazor Archives (I Think)” in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Sometime in the second half of the 13th century B.C.E., a sudden ruin fell upon the city, leaving behind massive destruction layers. Archaeology provides us with tangible evidence of a violent conflagration: the heat must have been excessive, as it cracked the basalt slabs lining the walls, melted clay vessels and turned mudbricks into glass. Most scholars now eliminate the Egyptians, the Sea Peoples and the rival Canaanite city-states as suspects, largely accepting the claim expressed in the opening quote from the Book of Joshua that it was the Israelites who destroyed Hazor in the course of their ultimate conquest of Canaan.
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A Canaanite city of such importance, argue archaeologists further, must have harbored an extensive archive of documents. The late Yigael Yadin, who excavated Tel Hazor in the 1950s and 1960s and was a great proponent of the conquest theory of the Israelite settlement of Canaan, was first to suggest the existence of an archive of cuneiform tablets at Tel Hazor. In fact, he expected two archives—one from the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 B.C.E.), the other from the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.).
Upon joining the resumed excavations at Tel Hazor in the early 2000s, Sharon Zuckerman of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem refined Yadin’s argument, focusing on the Late Bronze Age archive. Zuckerman even suggested a specific location within the Canaanite city where she expected an archive of cuneiform tablets dating to the period just before the alleged conquest of Canaan by the Israelites.
During the past ten excavation seasons—even after Zuckerman’s untimely passing in 2014—archaeological works at Tel Hazor, headed now by Amnon Ben-Tor, have been focused on the suggested location. It lies just south of the so-called Podium Complex at the entrance to the acropolis of the late Canaanite city of Hazor and has been identified as the administrative palace of the king.
So far, no archive has been discovered, but archaeologists are confident that it is just a matter of time before their long-held hopes come true. To be sure, a royal archive of a prominent Canaanite city-state would greatly expand our knowledge of the Levantine societies in the final stages of the Bronze Age.
In Hazor: Canaanite Metropolis, Israelite City, a popular summary of 30 excavation seasons by long-time Hazor dig director Amnon Ben-Tor, discover ancient Hazor’s remarkable history.
Two kinds of archaeological finds from Tel Hazor deserve mentioning here in support of the enthusiastic expectations: isolated discoveries of cuneiform clay tablets and numerous fragments of Egyptian statuary.
To this day, 18 cuneiform tablets have been recovered from within the Canaanite city. The latest two pieces come from secure archaeological contexts, meaning they were found in their original position during a controlled excavation. They represent a legal document concerning a slave rental and a text for divination (see images below).
Similarly promising are 18 fragments of Egyptian statues found across the site—sharing the fate of the local, Canaanite cultic shrines and figurines deliberately smashed into pieces, which might signal iconoclastic motivations that would fit well with the assumed identity of the conquerors as the worshipers of Yahweh.
Two of the latest finds from Tel Hazor are particularly intriguing in that they represent the only monumental Egyptian statues found so far in second millennium contexts in the whole of Levant. Strangely enough, one of them represents King Menkaure, who ruled Egypt in the late 26th century B.C.E.—well before anything is known about the settlement at Tel Hazor. It is also the only known representation of the king as a sphinx (human-headed, reclining lion). The other statue belongs to a priest of the Egyptian god Ptah (see image below).
For a detailed discussion of the leads and clues in the search for a cuneiform tablets archive in the Canaanite city of Hazor, read Shlomit Bechar’s article “How to Find the Hazor Archives (I Think)” in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Sharon Zuckerman, “Where Is the Hazor Archive Buried?” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2006.
Amnon Ben-Tor, “Who Destroyed Canaanite Hazor?” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2013.
Amnon Ben-Tor, “Excavating Hazor, Part One: Solomon’s City Rises from the Ashes,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1999.
Amnon Ben-Tor and Maria Teresa Rubiato, “Excavating Hazor, Part Two: Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1999.
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