Olga Tufnell and the Lachish Letters
As any archaeologist will tell you, being an eyewitness to discovery, especially something that might rewrite history, is a special thrill. This was the case for Olga Tufnell, a British archaeologist who worked on three major digs in southern Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s: Tell el-Far‘ah (South), Tell el-‘Ajjul, and Tell ed-Duweir (ancient Lachish). Her letters and photographs from this time are presented in a new book, Olga Tufnell’s ‘Perfect Journey’ (UCL Press, 2021), sharing aspects of dig life, travel, and personal and professional networks.1 This era coincided with the British Mandate period, described by some as a “golden age” of biblical archaeology in terms of the scale of the discoveries and their impact.2 Tufnell and her colleagues certainly saw their fair share of them.
Tufnell got into archaeology through working for Flinders and Hilda Petrie at the London-based British School of Archaeology in Egypt. She was invited to join Petrie’s expeditions in Egypt and Palestine, and so became a “Petrie Pup.” Thrown in at the deep end, she gained vital skills including the excavation of the famous “Hyksos”-era equid burials at Tell el-‘Ajjul, located in today’s Gaza Strip. Over a decade, she went from novice to experienced archaeologist, having a significant impact in coming years through her publications. Although not as well-known as Kathleen Kenyon, Tufnell blazed a trail as a female archaeologist in a male-dominated field.
Along with J.L. Starkey and G.L. Harding, Tufnell left the Petries to join a new expedition to Tell ed-Duweir (ancient Lachish), known today as Tel Lachish in modern Israel. Probably the best-known discovery from the excavations was the “Lachish Letters,” also known as the Lachish Ostraca. An ostracon (plural ostraca) is a pottery sherd featuring incised or inked writing. Sixteen ostraca were found in January 1935. The inscribed sherds were first spotted by Harding’s assistant, Hasan ‘Awad al-Qatshan. Tufnell and Harding searched through all the sherds unearthed in the area, finding two more precious fragments. The ostraca came from a burnt layer above a floor of a gatehouse of the late Judahite kingdom that had been destroyed during the Babylonian campaign of 587/6 B.C.E. (Level II). A few more were found in the 1937‒1938 season.
At the time of their discovery, expertise was needed to read these ancient texts. According to Starkey, the expedition director, Père Vincent of the École Biblique was the first specialist to read some of them. A study at the dig camp was carried out by Benjamin Maisler (Mazar), H.L. Ginsberg, and Shmuel Yeivin from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Harry Torczyner (N.H. Tur-Sinai), professor of Semitic languages at Hebrew University, was tasked with their publication.3
After the discovery, Olga Tufnell had to contain her excitement, but soon was able to share more with her parents, as reflected in this letter from March 29, 1935:
We have had some good finds of which you may have heard if you have been listening to your wireless industriously. Letters written on potsherds at the time of Jeremiah, just before the invasion of Palestine by Nebuchadnezzar. Some passages are almost word for word the same as the Book, so you can imagine the thrill it is to have something so close to the original document. So far we have 12 letters but hope to get more. Nothing has ever been found like them, as other ostraca (as these written sherds are called) just contained receipts of oil and wine sold and that sort of thing…4
As the story was breaking in the news, interest in the expedition’s findings began to grow, as she noted to her mother in a letter from April 4, 1935:
…We have had masses of visitors mostly lured hither by the thought of “this century’s most amazing discovery,” which is the worst of going to press so early, though rumours in Jerusalem were getting so hectic it seemed safer to put in something official. We have got the word Lachish in such a context that there is little doubt of its identification with this site, as well as a host of biblical references and names. One letter almost seems to be the official document on which a passage in Jeremiah is based. Nice for Charlie, isn’t it? We sent off a report today of 16 pages so they ought to have enough to read until the next one goes in.
“Charlie” was British industrialist and philanthropist Sir Charles Marston. He co-sponsored the expedition and raised much publicity through his media connections and by writing popular books that sought to prove the historical veracity of the Bible through archaeology.5
The significance of the find at the time was immense. The ostraca were considered the earliest examples of personal writing yet found in Palestine. Furthermore, they provided striking parallels in language and content with passages from the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Jeremiah. Lachish Letter IV, for example, specifically names the cities of Lachish and Azekah—both mentioned in Jeremiah 34:7 as Judah’s only remaining fortified cities while Jerusalem was being besieged by the Babylonians—and notes how the letter’s writer was on guard watching for the fire signals of Lachish. The striking similarity in names and content helped the expedition identify Tell ed-Duweir with biblical Lachish. Tufnell later suggested that these ostraca were drafts or copies of letters sent from Lachish to Jerusalem, a view supported also by Yigael Yadin.
While Starkey, Tufnell, and colleagues claimed there was little doubt that Tell ed-Duweir was biblical Lachish, as also depicted on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace of Nineveh, other possibilities could not be ruled out. Petrie, for example, had long thought that Tell el-Hesi was Lachish. Alongside other accumulated evidence, it was the discovery of the Assyrian siege ramp by the Tel Aviv University expedition of the 1970s and 1980s that put any doubts to rest.6
1 The main sources for this book come from the Olga Tufnell archive at the Palestine Exploration Fund, London, and the Wellcome-Marston Expedition archive in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum.
2 W.F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1949); P.R.S. Moorey, A Century of Biblical Archaeology Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1991).
3 James L. Starkey, “Discovery,” in H. Torczyner et al., Lachish I: The Lachish Letters (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), pp. 11–14; Harry Torczyner, with Gerald L. Harding, Alkin Lewis and James L. Starkey, Lachish I: The Lachish Letters (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938).
4 An account of the discovery and this letter is also included in Billie Melman’s Empires of Antiquities: Modernity and the Rediscovery of the Ancient Near East, 1914–1950 (Oxford University Press, 2020).
5 This included his 1937 book The Bible Comes Alive (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode), which featured the Lachish Letters discovery.
6 Read more about the Lachish Letters and the British excavations at Tell ed-Duweir in David Ussishkin, Biblical Lachish: A Tale of Construction, Destruction, Excavation and Restoration (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society/ Biblical Archaeology Society, 2014). See also Philip J. King, “Why Lachish Matters: A Major Site Gets the Publication It Deserves,” BAR, July/August 2005, and Abigail Zammit, The Lachish Letters: A Reappraisal of the Ostraca Discovered in 1935 and 1938 at Tell ed-Duweir. PhD Thesis (University of Oxford, 2016)
Olga Tufnell’s ‘Perfect Journey’: Letters and Photographs of an Archaeologist in the Levant and Mediterranean, edited and introduced by John D.M. Green and Ros Henry, is published by UCL Press.
John D.M. Green, Ph.D., is Associate Director at the American Center of Research (ACOR), Amman, Jordan. His professional and research interests are in archaeology, cultural heritage, museums, and archives.
“Answers at Lachish,” By David Ussishkin Lachish was one of the most important cities of the Biblical era in the Holy Land. The impressive mound, named Tel Lachish in Hebrew or Tell ed-Duweir in Arabic, is situated about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Judean hills. Once a thriving, fortified city, the almost 18 acre tela today stands silent and unoccupied.
“News from the Field: Defensive Judean Counter-Ramp Found at Lachish in 1983 Season,” By David Ussishkin Our expedition to Lachish is described in detail in the review/article “Destruction of Judean Fortress Portrayed in Dramatic Eighth-Century B.C. Pictures.” In this brief note I would like to describe for BAR readers the exciting results of our 1983 season, in which, for the first time, we extensively excavated the Assyrian siege ramp outside the city wall.
“The Mystery of the Unexplained Chain,” By Yigael Yadin In the March/April BAR, David Ussishkin reported on the Assyrian siege ramp and the Judean counter ramp that he excavated at Lachish (see “Defensive Judean Counter-Ramp Found at Lachish in 1983 Season,”). His report, together with the review of his book on the Assyrian siege of Lachish, extensively illustrated with reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace and photos of excavated finds, provides an unusual account of siege warfare in ancient times.
“Lachish—Key to the Israelite Conquest of Canaan?” By David Ussishkin It is now more than seven years since my first report to BAR readers on the excavation at Biblical Lachish (“Answers at Lachish,” ). At that time, I primarily discussed Iron Age Lachish, the Lachish of the Judean monarchy. Judean Lachish was twice conquered and destroyed. Lachish Level III was conquered and destroyed in 701 B.C. by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib. Lachish was rebuilt (Level II) and then conquered again and destroyed again in 588/6 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian, as is known from the Bible (see Jeremiah 34:7) as well as from the excavations and from the famous Lachish letters found in the city gate.
“Restoring the Great Gate at Lachish,” By David Ussishkin The largest and most impressive city gateway in ancient Israel is being restored. It stands at the entrance to the ruins of the great Judean city of Lachish—a mighty reminder of past glory.
“Return to Lachish,” By Steven Feldman “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.
“Why Lachish Matters,” By Philip J. King 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.Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.
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