The Cruel End of Canaanite Azekah

Demise of a Late Bronze Age city

Tel Azekah is a massive archaeological mound (tell) in the heart of the Shephelah, or “the lowlands,” in south-central Israel. Watching over a strategic junction in the Elah Valley, it always was a place of importance: from the first settlement, in the Early Bronze Age III (c. 2900–2500 B.C.E.), until the Roman period (31 B.C.E.–324 C.E.).

tel-azekah-aerial

Tel Azekah dominates the landscape of the Elah Valley, known as the scene of the battle between David and Goliath. Photo: Courtesy of the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

Many may know about Tel Azekah from the Biblical account of the battle between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1) that allegedly took place “between Socoh and Azekah” sometime around 1000 B.C.E. The ongoing archaeological exploration on the top of the mound, however, is shedding light on a different, earlier event in the history of the site, namely its violent destruction at the very end of the Late Bronze Age, around 1130 B.C.E., when the city of Azekah was inhabited by the Canaanites and was under the direct control of the biggest regional power of the day, Egypt.

Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues on the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition present the latest discoveries related to this dramatic event in their article “The Last Days of Canaanite Azekah,” published in the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Their presentation goes beyond the usual overview of archaeological findings because they have a story to tell.

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True, good archaeology does always ask questions and tries to provide answers, even construe a narrative. But the Tel Azekah team has uncovered a particularly gruesome story, one materialized in four human skeletons; and these individuals apparently did not die a natural death.

These poor victims of what appears to be related to the final demise of the city at the end of the Bronze Age were found under thick layers of destruction debris of a large building, which consisted of at least three rooms and a roofed courtyard.

tel-azekah-skeletons

Crushed under destruction debris, this and the other three individuals must have witnessed the final moments of Canaanite Azekah at the end of the Bronze Age. Photo: Courtesy of the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

“The four victims were discovered in positions that reveal the sudden and dramatic nature of the fatal catastrophe: In crawling or protective postures, they had been crushed by stones or heavy ceramic containers that fell from the upper floor or as part of the collapsing walls and roof,” the authors detail of the macabre discovery. “When the compound collapsed and burned, these four individuals were probably trapped inside the structure by the debris and smoke while attempting to escape the fire.”

Numerous amulets and impression seals were found at the site, as well as tools, pigments, and minerals—all revealing close relations between Canaanite Azekah and Egypt. Evidence also indicates that amulets and other personal adornments, possibly makeup creams or perfume, were locally produced.

tel-azekah-scarab

Among the many Egyptian artifacts discovered at Tel Azekah is this dung beetle-shaped impression seal (scarab), depicting a gazelle with her suckling baby. Collectively, such objects attest to Egyptian activity in the region of Canaanite Azekah. Photo: Courtesy of the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

To explore the details of this story from the end of the Bronze Age and what it reveals about the status and wealth of Azekah’s residents —and also to learn about the methods involved in researching all the collected data (and, yes, the skeletons), read the article “The Last Days of Canaanite Azekah,” published in the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “The Last Days of Canaanite Azekah” by Oded Lipschits, Sabine Kleiman, Ido Koch, Karl Berendt, Vanessa Linares, Sarah Richardson, Manfred Oeming, and Yuval Gadot in the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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  • Jose Mauricio says

    Very good article on a very, very promising excavation. I remember Azekah but in a dramatic account of the siege of Lakish by the Assyrians. The governor of the important city of Lakish, or his captain, wrote in an ostraka that a messenger took to his superiors: “Sir, we see no more signs of Azekah.”


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