BAR 35:01, Jan/Feb 2009
The Trowel vs. the Text
How the Amarna letters challenge archaeology
“What would we ever do without the Amarna tablets?” asks the text scholar. “Oh, yeah?” replies the field archaeologist. “What would we ever do without the corrective of our excavated sites?” “Corrective?” says the text scholar. “Who needs the corrective, you or me?” And that, as they say, is the question.
The Amarna tablets were discovered by accident. Professional archaeologists had nothing to do with it. In autumn 1887, a poor Bedouin woman found some inscribed clay tablets among ancient ruins located east of the Nile about 200 miles south of Cairo. The scholars called the site el-Amarna after the name of the Bedouin tribe living there.
The site was in fact the capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenophis IV, 1353–1337 B.C.E.), who was known as the heretic pharaoh because he recognized only one deity, the Egyptian sun god, Aten. (As Sigmund Freud observed, Akhenaten was the first monotheist.) To emphasize the profound change in Egyptian religious culture, he moved his capital from Thebes to an entirely new site that he called Akhetaten (“the horizon of Aten”). And that is where the Amarna tablets were found.
The Bedouin continued to excavate the site and eventually uncovered more than 300 inscribed tablets. They tried to sell them, but scholars failed to recognize their value at first, so the tablets were dispersed, carried about and sometimes broken. An unknown number were lost. Eventually 200 tablets were purchased by the Berlin Museum, and some 80 tablets were purchased by the British Museum. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo picked up more than 50, and smaller hoards were purchased by private collectors and other museums (notably the Louvre).
When competent scholars finally looked at the tablets, they saw that the cuneiform in which they were written was Akkadian, a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia that had become the diplomatic lingua franca in the 14th century B.C.E.
When he moved his capital to the virgin site of Akhetaten in the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten took with him the royal archive, which included letters from the reign of the previous monarch, Amenophis III. The tablets found by the Bedouin turned out to have been part of this royal archive!
Akhetaten remained the capital for about 15 years. When Akhenaten’s successor, Tutankhamun, reintroduced the old Egyptian religion and moved the capital back to Thebes, he naturally took with him the documents he needed to continue the royal correspondence. For whatever reason, either deliberately, because he no longer needed them, or as a result of some administrative error, part of the royal archive was left behind. That is what we now know as the Amarna archive or the Amarna letters.
Most of the Amarna letters were sent to the Egyptian monarch by rulers of the great powers, as well as by local rulers (vassals), in the land of Canaan and central Syria, which was an Egyptian province in the 14th century B.C.E. For some reason the Amarna archive also contains seven letters sent in the opposite direction, from the Egyptian ruler to his vassals in Canaan.
Many of the places mentioned in the letters were identified in the early stages of research. For example, Urusalim is Jerusalem, Shakmu is Shechem, Asqaluna is Ashkelon, Magidda is Megiddo, and Haṣura is Hazor. Small settlements named in the letters were also easily identified—Ayaluna as Aijalon and Shunama as Shunem. The three principal centers of the Egyptian administration in the country were also identified: Ḫazati as Gaza, Yapu as Jaffa, and Bitsani as Beth-shean.
In many cases, however, where the letters to the pharaohs (Amenophis III and Akhenaten) were written from continued to be a puzzle, either because the name of the sender was lost or the city from which it was dispatched was not mentioned. Recent petrographic and chemical analyses of the clay of the tablets now enable us to locate the source of the raw materials from which the tablets were made, thus determining their origin. Such a systematic analysis of all the Amarna tablets (minus the ones in Cairo, which are not accessible to Israeli scholars) has lately been carried out by three scholars from Tel Aviv University: Yuval Goren, Israel Finkelstein and me.1 The petrographic analysis also helps to determine the location of several cities that have been in dispute among scholars and has demonstrated the authority of the Egyptian government centers in the correspondence between the king and his subjects in Canaan.
The contents of the letters indicate that many Canaanite city-states existed in close proximity, which accords with the Biblical testimony that numerous Canaanite kingdoms existed all over the country. Archaeological excavations through the mid-20th century seemed to sustain this view. But those archaeological explorations focused on the great mounds, such as Shechem, Megiddo, Taanach, Beth-shean, Gezer and Lachish. Excavations at these sites did indeed support the view reflected in the Amarna letters, that is, of centers of government all over the country, comprising palaces and temples, public and private structures, and developed material culture. These findings seemed to bolster the image of a thriving urban culture in the Amarna period (the Late Bronze Age) all over Canaan. The Late Bronze Age (1500/1450–1150 B.C.E.) was especially important to students of Biblical history because it immediately preceded the settlement of the Israelites (sometimes referred to in scientific literature as “proto-Israelites”) in the land of Canaan in Iron Age I (c. 1150–950 B.C.E.).
Doubts about the validity of this picture began to crop up in the late 1960s, mainly after extensive Israeli archaeological surveys demonstrated that large parts of the country had been very sparsely populated or altogether uninhabited during the Late Bronze Age—for example the entire mountain range that runs through the center of the country (often referred to as the central mountain range), the Beersheba Valley, the Galilee highland, the Negev region and large parts of Transjordan. Even the lowlands were sparsely populated with rural settlements during the Late Bronze Age.
All this seemed to differ from the picture painted by the Amarna letters. For example, Shuwardata, king of Gath, wrote to the pharaoh: “May the king, my lord, be informed that 30 cities have waged war against me. I remained alone.”2 No archaeological support has been found for such dense settlement in the 14th century B.C.E.
Archaeologists and archaeological surveyors could be confident of their picture because it was juxtaposed with the picture that these same surveys and subsequent excavations painted of the Middle Bronze Age II–III (17th–16th centuries B.C.E.). These excavations and surveys revealed that Canaanite culture experienced its highest flowering of the second millennium B.C.E. at that time. In the Middle Bronze Age, strong fortified cities were built all over the country and were surrounded by networks of rural settlements. This thriving, highly developed settlement network collapsed in the course of the late 16th and early 15th centuries B.C.E., and the urban system that was gradually reconstructed afterward was vastly inferior—in all its elements—to that of the Middle Bronze Age. Thus it was discovered that most of the city-states in the Late Bronze Age (including the Amarna Age) were unwalled, and in the few cities that were walled, the fortifications were much poorer than those of the fortified cities in the Middle Bronze Age. Many cities that had been inhabited in the Middle Bronze Age II–III were abandoned or only partially inhabited in the Amarna period. A number of city-states that had spread over large tracts in the Middle Bronze Age shrank noticeably in the Late Bronze Age.
Looking at the overall archaeological picture, we find that the Amarna period was conspicuous in the decline of all aspects of urban culture, in contrast to the early impression made by looking at the Amarna tablets without the archaeological context.
How can these two views be reconciled?
A similar conflict arises with respect to major Canaanite cities. Let us look at some specific examples.
Seven long, detailed letters sent to the pharaoh by ‘Abdi-Heba, king of Jerusalem, are in the Amarna archive.3 The letters are of unusual literary quality and diplomatic wit, indicating the presence of a first-rate scribe in Jerusalem. The king of Jerusalem sat in a “house,” that is, a palace. One of the letters describes an incident in which 50 Egyptian soldiers were stationed temporarily in the city. High-ranking Egyptian officials visited Jerusalem, and ‘Abdi-Heba sent the pharaoh caravans loaded with tribute and gifts, including slaves of both sexes and a good deal of silver.
In a different letter ‘Abdi-Heba was accused by Shuwardata, the king of Gath, of trying to expand into his territory; the latter compared ‘Abdi-Heba to Lab’ayu, the ruler of Shechem, who terrified many Canaanite rulers.4 The picture arising from these letters suggests a kingdom of substantial strength, with Jerusalem as its capital city, enjoying a solid economy and dominating a territory that spread east of the foot of the central mountain range.
Reading only the Amarna documents, you would expect excavations in Jerusalem to reveal a large, thriving city in the Late Bronze Age. But these expectations were totally dashed. A large fortified Canaanite city was in fact discovered at the site, but it dated to the Middle Bronze Age II–III. From the Late Bronze Age, excavators found only some unimpressive walls and a modest amount of pottery. So poor were the finds from that period that some scholars doubted the identification of the Urusalim mentioned in the Amarna documents with the city of Jerusalem.5 But of course there is no doubt about it. The discrepancy between the documents and the archaeological findings can largely be explained by the state of preservation of the settlement strata from the Amarna period, as Jerusalem was inhabited continuously through thousands of years. Given that the bedrock at the site is very high and there is little accumulation of strata on top of it, every new settlement damaged the previous strata, especially those from the city’s periods of decline. Many of the ancient structures at the site, especially those that were skimpy and fragile to begin with (big, robust structures are naturally better preserved), had disappeared entirely, and only a few poor remnants survived from the Canaanite city that stood there during the Late Bronze Age.
So the Amarna letters indeed help us to understand the archaeology of Jerusalem.
The Canaanite city of Shechem presents a similar picture. From a reading of the Amarna letters, we see that Shechem was the most important city in the central hill country. It commanded an extensive territory that spread eastward to the Jordan River and west and north to the foot of the central mountain range. Lab’ayu and his sons, the rulers of Shechem, regularly clashed with the nearby lowland rulers while striking alliances with distant kingdoms and extending their sphere of influence well beyond the mountain boundaries. The rulers of Shechem are mentioned in documents sent by other rulers, and it appears that during the Amarna period, Shechem was a strong hill-country state with considerable influence over neighboring kingdoms. We get the impression that the rulers of Shechem occupied a large flourishing center from which they launched their military campaigns and to which they returned with their booty.
But the archaeological evidence is quite different. Excavation of the site reveals that the city was primarily a medium-sized royal stronghold built in the Middle Bronze Age II–III, which included a splendid temple. In the Late Bronze Age, Shechem remained mostly unchanged, without any large new structures. It is only the textual evidence that tells us that the site was one of the principal and most influential centers in Canaan during the 14th century B.C.E.
In short, the picture we get from the Amarna letters—of two rulers of city-states (Jerusalem and Shechem) who wielded considerable influence over developments throughout the country—has little support in the archaeological findings.
If this was the situation in the central highlands, what about the area of low hills in western Judah known as the Shephelah?
Excavations at Lachish, in the southern Shephelah, produced only meager finds from the 14th century B.C.E. (Level VII), principally a modest-sized temple (the Fosse Temple) built in the moat of the imposing Middle Bronze Age fortifications. Moreover, the Late Bronze Age settlement was unwalled. No public buildings from the time of the Amarna letters have been found. Without the historical documentation, scholars would have assumed that Lachish became a city-state only in the 13th century, doubtless under Egyptian overlordship, and that earlier it had been a provincial city in the territory of a neighboring kingdom. From the Amarna letters, however, we learn that three different rulers claimed Lachish as the seat of government. The city is mentioned two times by ‘Abdi-Heba, king of Jerusalem, on one occasion side-by-side with Gezer and Ashkelon, the two most important kingdoms in southern Canaan.6
At Gezer, 15 miles north of Lachish, on the country’s main south-north road from the Shephelah to the central highlands, excavations unearthed some buildings from the Late Bronze Age but no monumental structures (Stratum XVI), in contrast to the large, fortified, thriving city of the Middle Bronze Age II–III.7 If our knowledge of the place were based entirely on the archaeological findings, we would have concluded that Gezer was, at most, an unimportant city-state, and no one would have assumed that it was one of the leading kingdoms in the array of Canaanite city-states during the Amarna period. The most prominent king of Gezer was Milkilu. He formed alliances with rulers in the vast territory ranging from Pihilu (Pehel, of the cities of the Decapolis), a kingdom in the northern Gilead, and Gath, a city in the Shephelah south of Gezer. Small kingdoms in the vicinity of Gezer lived in the shadow of their powerful neighbor. The three rulers of Gezer paid tribute and sent offerings to Egypt, but Gezer also had commercial relations with Egypt. A letter sent from Egypt to Milkilu ordered him to prepare a gift of 40 tall, good-looking women as payment for precious metals and valuable artifacts sent to him from Egypt.8
Moving to northern Canaan, we go first to Megiddo and then farther north to Hazor. Megiddo is strategically located on the outlet of the country’s main south-north highway. It has been extensively excavated—more than any other site in the country. The excavations revealed a remarkable palace, a fortress-temple, public structures, a monumental gate to the city and an abundance of finds (Stratum VIII), but all from earlier periods. During the Amarna period the rulers mainly preserved and restored what their predecessors had built. Surprisingly, Megiddo was unwalled during the Late Bronze Age. It seems that the structures standing on the rim of the mound created a line of defense protecting the city, which was perceived as a city wall.
Yet the Amarna tablets (and other Egyptian documents) indicate that Megiddo was one of the country’s most important Canaanite cities. Biridiya, the king of Megiddo, played a crucial part in the alliance of kingdoms that confronted Lab’ayu, the king of Shechem, and his sons. In one Amarna letter to the pharaoh, the king of Megiddo wrote that he withstood a siege of the city and, in another, was fully guarding the city: “I am indeed guarding Megiddo, the city of the king, my lord, day and night. By day I guard [it] from the fields with chariots, and by night on the walls of the city of the king, my lord.”9 From this we could assume that Megiddo was a fortified city during the Amarna period, an assumption reinforced by an Egyptian relief from the reign of Thutmose III (1479–1425 B.C.E.), depicting Megiddo as a city enclosed by a wall.
In short, the Amarna letters again provide a critical corrective to the archaeological picture we get from the site.
The last site we will look at is Hazor—where the situation is somewhat reversed. Excavations at Hazor have revealed a city of some 210 acres, encompassing an upper city and a large lower city, most of which was inhabited during the Late Bronze Age. It is vastly bigger than any other site in Canaan, with impressive fortifications, a magnificent entrance to an important public building, an immense temple with a large altar in its façade (the excavation director, Professor Amnon Ben-Tor, interpreted it as a ceremonial palace), a number of other temples, orthostats, basalt statues and an abundance of finds, including several cuneiform tablets. All of this reflects the city’s splendor and widespread connections.
Hazor is a minor player at best, however, in the Amarna letters. Only two letters from the rulers of Hazor were found in the Amarna archive, and they shed no light on the status of the city. The king of Hazor is mentioned in two other letters, indicating contacts with Tyre and Ashtaroth in Syria. The reason for this paucity of information in the Amarna archive is that, by and large, Hazor was not involved in the struggles in Canaan during the Amarna period. The city’s material culture is associated primarily with the north, the kingdoms of Syria. Hazor mainly faced north and was not involved in the conflicts waged to the south during the Late Bronze Age.
But if we had to deduce Hazor’s status from the Amarna documents (and Egyptian royal inscriptions), we would have assumed it was just one of numerous, relatively small Canaanite city-states. In the case of Hazor, the archaeological excavations provide a corrective to the picture we get from the documentary evidence.
Beginning in the Late Bronze Age (from the time of Pharaoh Thutmose III), it is clear that the Egyptians ruled over Canaan and established six government centers in the conquered territory. The Amarna letters clearly reflect the manner in which the Egyptians ran the lands they had conquered. Hence, we might have expected the material culture from that period to reflect the Egyptian presence in the country, but so far only a single stela, erected by Thutmose III at Chinnereth (Tel Kinrot), has been found, and nothing in the archaeological findings indicates the passage of Egyptian armies or the presence of their stationed forces and officials in the country during the 15th and 14th centuries B.C.E. Not a single letter exchanged between Canaan and Egypt has so far been found in the excavations of the Canaanite sites. Even in Egyptian government centers that have been excavated, there is hardly any evidence of an Egyptian presence in Canaan during the Amarna period. If our information had come exclusively from the archaeologists, we would never have suspected that Egypt dominated all of Canaan in the time of the 18th Dynasty (which ruled Egypt between 1550 and 1295 B.C.E.).
The great discrepancy between the testimony of the archaeological excavations and surveys, on the one hand, and the written texts from the Amarna period, on the other, highlights the advantages and the limitations of each discipline.
The picture of a dense, flourishing array of kingdoms in the Amarna period, which scholars deduced early on from the letters, did not correspond with reality. Archaeological research has shown that, compared to the Middle Bronze Age, the Late Bronze Age experienced a sharp decline in population and material culture throughout the country.
The Amarna texts appear to reflect a network of city-states subject to Egypt, keeping in constant touch with the pharaoh, sending tribute and gifts—sometimes of great value—and maintaining wide-ranging relations with neighboring kingdoms. The archaeological evidence, however, shows that many of these cities were unwalled, scantily inhabited, contained few public buildings and poor private houses, and that many areas were either completely abandoned or very sparsely populated.
The country was undergoing one of the major declines in its history. A proper evaluation of the Amarna letters can only be made when we take this into account. In short, an exclusive study of the correspondence does not provide a true picture of the situation in the country, and analyzing it without juxtaposing it with the archaeological findings can lead to historical conclusions very far from reality.
But the picture we get from archaeology is likewise limited. Sites such as Shechem, Jerusalem, Gezer and Lachish are illustrative. From these multistrata settlements, in periods when the urban culture was at low ebb and only a few poor structures were built (and these often on the foundations of structures from an earlier time), it is too easy to draw negative conclusions. They were more important than the archaeological findings alone would indicate. This is especially true of highland tells, where the bedrock is high and later construction and leveling can remove almost all traces of the earlier culture.
This situation is especially important to bear in mind in the ongoing debate among archaeologists and historians concerning the period of Israel’s United Monarchy (tenth century B.C.E.), which, archaeologically, was a time of decline when only a few poor public buildings were constructed. In sites of a single stratum or only a few strata, even poor and scattered structures may be well preserved. In the central cities, however, especially those located in multi-strata highland tells, the public and private buildings may have disappeared completely due to the extensive construction and developments carried out on the site in later periods.
I don’t mean to disparage the importance of archaeology. Archaeology sheds light not only on the material culture of a site, but also on its economy and social relations, trade, religion and cult. But in regard to political relations in a broader territory, the relative status of cities vis-à-vis their neighbors, as well as the cities’ relationship to the dominant political power (in this case, Egypt), archaeology is severely limited. Exclusive reliance on archaeology can give rise to a distorted picture of ancient reality.
We have seen how true this is for the Amarna period. It is equally true for the period of the United Monarchy (and the Babylonian and Persian periods in the highlands as well), but we don’t have the corrective of a contemporaneous archive for the period of the United Monarchy. In the absence of primary written sources from the tenth century B.C.E., we cannot put the archaeological evidence from this period to a documentary test that is similar to that of the Amarna period.