A Tale of Construction, Destruction, Excavation and Restoration
By David Ussishkin
Translation by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh
(Jerusalem: Israel exploration Society and Biblical archaeology Society, 2014), 446 pp., 326 illustr., $52
Reviewed by Larry G. Herr
This volume has everything you could wish for. Drama, clear storytelling, lots of pictures (most in color), archaeological integrity, strong Biblical content, murders and resolution. Ussishkin wrote the book in Hebrew, but the very skillful English translation tells the tale in language clear enough for interested beginners in archaeology to understand and enjoy. It is the rich story of two remarkable excavations, separated by almost 40 years, at the Biblical city of Lachish, the second city of Judah, perhaps its winter capital. No other excavation of a Biblical city presents quite the drama found here. In my view the only other similar popular book is Yigael Yadin’s book on Masada published in 1966.
As told in the Bible, Lachish has an unfortunate and violent history. Joshua 10 describes how the Canaanites in Lachish banded together with other Canaanite cities to confront the invading Israelites, only to lose a major battle. Second Kings 14:19 relates the story of the assassination of King Amaziah of Judah at Lachish, after he fled there from Jerusalem. Second Kings 18 and 19 outline the Biblical view of the invasion of Judah by the great Assyrian monarch Sennacherib, how he battled against Lachish and took it with destructive force. And finally, the Bible tells of the destruction of Lachish by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah 34.
Lachish simply seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong times. But, violent as it may have been for the ancient inhabitants, archaeologists love destructions, gleefully excavating the tumult of their remains. Most destruction layers preserve valuable finds on the floors under the tumbled walls and ceilings of their houses. In fact, destruction layers preserve most of the objects that do not decay over time, such as chaotic piles of bricks and stones, smashed pantries full of storage jars, mounds of carbonized grain, weapons left over from attacking armies, inscriptions written on pottery, objects from daily life and much more. They also allow excavators clearly to separate the various layers of cities, piled one on top of the other.
Ussishkin’s archaeological integrity comes through in many pages. (1) He refuses to excavate all of major buildings, because something should be left for later excavators who may have superior methods and technologies. (2) He presents multiple sides of the most debatable topics even though he himself favors just one of them. (3) He respectfully and admiringly describes the results of the earlier British excavations under James Starkey and Olga Tufnell during the 1930s. (4) He has published this popular version of his story only after producing five massive volumes detailing the technical aspects of the dig and was thus able to take advantage of reactions from other scholars. I think that process contributed to the clarity of this book.
Ussishkin also dispels false rumors along the way. Until I read this book, I had always believed the story told to me in the 1960s that the British director Starkey was murdered by disgruntled workers. But Ussishkin provides indisputable documentary evidence of his murder by people whom the British Mandate officials called “Arab bandits.”
One of the most interesting things about the book for beginners is how Ussishkin describes the various steps of mounting an archaeological excavation. First, it is conceived in the mind of the archaeologist, then, second, funding and staffing has to be arranged, and last, the actual fielding of the excavation on the ground takes place with many logistical problems to overcome along the way. Readers get a real sense of a team at work.
All periods of this multi-age site are described and illustrated with many photos and drawings (279 of them in total). Readers get a good picture of the Canaanite city during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (c. 2000–1200 B.C.E.). Especially interesting are the descriptions of the Fosse Temple and the Acropolis Temple along with their finds, including those from Greece and Egypt. One of the most spectacular finds was a gold plaque of a goddess standing on a moving horse. One slight problem throughout these chapters is Ussishkin’s decision to follow the low chronology of Egypt, bringing the dates slightly lower than the comfort levels of many scholars. But, probably because it amounts to a difference of only about 50 years, he does not explain or defend it. (The dates I give here are not the low chronology.)
In his chapter on the Iron I period (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.) he entertains the possibility that the Israelites could have destroyed the Canaanite Lachish under Joshua (Joshua 10), but notes that it may be more realistic to suggest that the destruction was due to Philistine expansion. The point is well taken: There were several military/political/social forces at work in the region that could have caused upheavals and destructions.
But the most dramatic story of Lachish is that told by the remains found in the fortress city of Level III, dated to the eighth century B.C.E. It was destroyed spectacularly in 701 B.C.E. by King Sennacherib of Assyria. Before Ussishkin’s excavations, most archaeologists accepted Starkey’s interpretation that Level III was destroyed during the first invasion of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 598/597 B.C.E. The next level, Level II, was then destroyed in the second invasion of 586/587 B.C.E. I was one of those archaeologists.
But the new excavations proved beyond the shadow of doubt that Sennacherib was the culprit for the destruction of Level III and that Level II was the result of the major Babylonian destruction in 586/587 B.C.E. I well remember the lectures Ussishkin gave at the time with his strong sense of certainty and the subsequent gradual shift of consensus.
What made all of this so vital and interesting was not only the solution to this archaeological problem of the two levels, nor even the Biblical texts mentioning these two destructions, but, most important, the depictions of the Assyrian siege of Lachish on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Indeed, these large bas reliefs covered more than half of the wall space of one of the central rooms in Sennacherib’s palace. We now have archaeological evidence to support the Nineveh reliefs. Ussishkin devotes a whole chapter (Chapter 16) to describing and illustrating all aspects of the reliefs, comparing them vividly with the results of his excavation.
Some scholars have suggested that the reliefs were not actual depictions of Lachish and its siege, but simply present the scene in the typical artistic conventions of the time. But Ussishkin is able to suggest a specific location from which the images in the reliefs are viewed by the artist. He adds that the artist even depicted the Judahite palace in the center of the siege scene (fig. 16:9, behind the gate). This seems obvious to me. I would add that the palace battlements are shown in slightly smaller details than those of the city walls, probably due to the perspective of the artist who saw the walls closer than the palace.
Ussishkin discusses all the major finds of Level III, including the official government-stamped lmlk jars (a special interest of his) and the specific finds connected with the Assyrian siege. What emerges is not simply the story of walls, surfaces and inscriptions on seals, but a story about people, their aspirations, hopes and fears as they confront the ultimacy of violence and war. True human drama.
And it happened all over again in Level II, the destruction wrought by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 34). Although we do not have a relief on the walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon and although the city had only partially rebounded after Sennacherib’s violent destruction, one can still see the drama of the siege through the eyes of the defenders because of the Lachish Ostraca, inscriptions left behind in the gate of the city. An ostracon (plural, ostraca) is a broken piece of pottery with an inscription written in ink or inscribed with a sharp tool cutting into the pottery. These 16 ostraca were written in ink and describe events in the final days of Biblical Lachish. Most ostraca found in excavations are receipts for goods sold or delivered, but the Lachish ostraca actually talk about life and events in a firsthand sort of way. More human drama.
After all of this intensity, it seems almost anticlimactic to talk about Level I, the Persian period, but Ussishkin patiently describes how the Judean palace was turned into a governor’s residence and suggests that the Solar Shrine, excavated by Yohanan Aharoni in the 1960s, was probably Persian rather than Hellenistic, as Aharoni suggested.
The book closes by describing the attempts to turn the site into an archaeological park for tourists, an eminently logical idea. Although stopped for a while, it seems like the idea is again moving forward. One irony about the book is that its last sentence expresses regret that a planned reconstruction of the gate complex was not finished. It is almost an apology! But this book is no apology. It is a triumph and any new edition should end on that note.
I should note that a new excavation has begun at Lachish sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Southern Adventist University and directed by Yosef Garfinkel. We can only hope that many more dramatic finds will follow.
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