Biblical Archaeology Review 31:4, July/August 2005

Why Lachish Matters

A Major Site Gets the Publication It Deserves

By Philip J. King

The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish

David Ussishkin (Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology, Tel Aviv Univ., 2004), 5 vols, 2,754 pp., $250 for the set, plus $50 air mail postage (available from the publisher at

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.

Perhaps more is known about Lachish than any other Near Eastern site, thanks to more than 25 Biblical references and extra-Biblical references in Egyptian and Assyrian records, as well as commemorative releifs carved on stone panels in Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik, in northern Iraq). And we have a world of information from three excavations of the site.

From 1932 to 1938 James Starkey, ably assisted by Olga Tufnell and G. Lankester Harding, led the first expedition to Lachish. With careful attention to architectural units, Starkey was able to distinguish more than seven occupation levels. Starkey produced only brief preliminary reports, however. The Lachish excavation came to a sudden end in 1938 when Starkey—on the road to Jerusalem to attend the opening of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum)—was murdered by bandits. After his death, Olga Tufnell assumed responsibility for the final publication, bringing it to completion in 1958.1 Yohanan Aharoni led a second, limited, excavation at Lachish in the 1960s.

From 1973 to 1994 (the excavation proper ended in 1987), David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University undertook renewed excavations at Lachish to complete Starkey’s unfinished work. He continued the excavation of a Judahite palace-fort and the city-gate complex previously investigated by Starkey. Ussishkin’s special interest was in the Late Bronze (1550–1200 B.C.E.) and Iron Ages (1200–587 B.C.E.). The chronology of the Iron Age at Lachish had been left unresolved by Starkey and his team. Ussishkin’s work at the city-gate complex is outstanding for resolving knotty problems associated with the pottery chronology of Iron Age II (1000–587 B.C.E.). Ussishkin deliberately left areas only partially excavated so that future archaeologists could test his conclusions with fresh concepts and newer techniques.

Ussishkin appreciated the methods and accomplishments of his predecessors at Lachish and said so publicly. Starkey’s excavation was a model by the standards of its time. Except for the Assyrian siege ramp, which he had mistaken for collasped stones from the upper fortifications and which he largely removed, few of Starkey’s conclusions had to be revised by the renewed excavation. Though Ussishkin’s methodology was a combination of two excavation approaches—the horizontal, which concentrates on architecture, and the vertical, which focuses on strata—he emphasized mainly the vertical, in the spirit of Kathleen Kenyon (“the Queen of Stratigraphy”). In addition, Usshishkin and his team paid close attention to pottery forms.

Ussishkin introduced numerous practical devices to aid excavation, including sunshades (awnings) over excavation areas to protect workers from sunstroke, and sandbags to preserve the edges of the excavation areas (balks) from being destroyed in the off-season. Adopting a technique Aharoni had introduced at Arad, pottery at Lachish was dipped in water before scrubbing to reveal writing that may have been inscribed on the potsherds.

Lachish was occupied from the Pottery Neolithic (5500–4500 B.C.E.) and Chalcolithic (4500–3300 B.C.E.) periods, and from the beginnings of the Early Bronze Age (3300–3000 B.C.E.) to the Persian and Hellenistic periods (538–37 B.C.E.).

In the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E. (Level VII, the Late Bronze Age) Lachish was a large, prosperous Canaanite city before being destroyed by fire. A shrine called the Fosse Temple, constructed in three major phases, dates to this period. It was built within a filled-in moat (hence the name) at the northwest corner of the mound, outside the city, and was in use throughout the Late Bronze Age.

Level VI, which followed stratigraphically and chronologically, reflected cultural continuity with the Level VII city. Level VI represents the last prosperous Canaanite city, then under Egyptian control, however. It was built shortly after the destruction of Level VII and eventually met the same fate; at whose hands is uncertain, although it may have been the Sea Peoples—tribes from the Aegean, among them the Philistines, who entered Canaan in the 12th century B.C.E.

Usshishkin discovered another temple, totally different from the Fosse Temple, which had been built on the summit of the mound and that reflected Egyptian architectural style. A large bronze shoe for the city’s gate socket bore the cartouche of Pharaoh Ramesses III (1182–1151 B.C.E.), undoubtedly the builder of the city gate. The finds in Level VI suggest that Lachish was firmly under the control of Egypt. Without Egyptian protection Lachish was vulnerable to attack.

Archaeologists disagree about the date of the destruction of Level VI. Ussishkin maintains that it could not have been before 1130 B.C.E. because there is evidence of Egyptian occupation at Lachish until that time. Because no Philistine pottery was found in the level of Egyptian occupation, Ussishkin thinks that the Philistines could not have settled along the nearby coast before 1130 B.C.E.; surely had the Philistines settled before them, their distincitive painted pottery would have reached Lachish during Level VI. (In this view, Ussishkin is joined by his colleague at Tel Aviv University, Israel Finkelstein, as this date of 1130 B.C.E. has become the early anchor point for the “low chronology.”)

Harvard’s Lawrence Stager, who is excavating the Philistine city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, Hebrew University’s Amihai Mazar and Trude Dothan and others, on the other hand, favor a date of about 1175–1160 B.C.E. for the arrival of the Philistines. Stager has argued that there is nothing odd about two cultures living side by side for decades but maintaining cultural boundaries between them. Although Stager does not disagree with Ussishkin’s date of 1130 B.C.E. for the destruction of Level VI at Lachish, based on the archaeological sequence at the Philistine sites of Ashkelon, Ekron and Ashdod and the sequence of Mycenaean IIIC pottery in the Aegean, he argues strenuously against that being the date of the Philistines’ arrival in Canaan.

After the destruction of Level VI, Lachish was abandoned for two centuries. In the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.E., during the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, Lachish was settled by the Israelites; the Israelite city is contained within Level V. Little is known about Lachish at this time except that it was unfortified. It may have been destroyed by Pharaoh Sheshonq (Biblical Shishak) about 925 B.C.E.

In Level IV, dating to the reign of King Asa (908–867 B.C.E.) or King Jehoshaphat (870–846 B.C.E.), Lachish was a strongly fortified, royal Judahite city with two massive city walls, one on the middle of the slope and the other along the top, with a glacis (an artificial, sloping rampart) in between intended to protect against undermining the city walls. The higher wall was constructed of mud brick and laid on a stone foundation. In this period a massive six-chamber gateway controlled entrance to the city. A large palace-fort on a raised platform occupied the center of the mound.

During the reign of King Hezekiah (715–687 B.C.E.) Judah enjoyed great prosperity. Level III at Lachish was a densely populated city with a rebuilt and enlarged palace-fort, enclosure wall and city-gate complex. However, a turning point in the history of Judah came with Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyrian hegemony. Hezekiah headed a coalition against Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.E.), the Assyrian king, but he could not withstand the superior forces of Assyria. Lachish and dozens of other towns in Judah (46, according to Sennacherib’s account) were destroyed by the Assyrian forces in 701 B.C.E. This was Sennacherib’s greatest military victory, which he portrayed on grand reliefs in his palace in Nineveh. With the destruction of Level III at Lachish, the palace-fort ceased to exist, and the platform on which it stood fell into disuse until a residency was built on it in Level I (Persian period).

The Annals of Sennacherib are in substantial agreement with the Biblical account regarding Sennacherib’s devastating campaign in Judah: “As for Hezekiah of Judah, who did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to forty-six of his strong cities, walled forts, and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered them ... I drove out 200,150 people” (see 2 Kings 18:13–16). The prophet Micah (1:10–15) lists the towns of the Shephelah, including Lachish, that Sennacherib devastated. Lachish was Sennacherib’s field headquarters at the time of its destruction: “After this, while king Sennacherib of Asssyria was at Lachish with all his forces, he sent his servants to Jerusalem to King Hezekiah of Judah” (2 Chronicles 32:9).

Lachish is famous for having many examples of a special type of Judahite storage jar, stamped with the word lmlk (lemelech, or “belonging to the king”) on the handle. Of the approximately 4,000 examples of these stamped handles, more were found at Lachish than at any other site, and all are from Level III, definitively settling the earlier debate concerning the date of these handles. In addition to lmlk, the impression includes the name of one of four cities, Hebron, Socah, Ziph and MMST (the only one which has not been identified). Most of the lemelech handles found at Lachish bear the name of the city of Hebron. In addition to the inscription, each stamp features a four-winged scarab beetle or a two-winged sun disk. Neutron activation analysis on the clay of the Lachish specimens supports the conclusion that the storage jars with these seal impressions were produced in the region of Lachish. Jars with four-winged (predominantly) or two-winged symbols, as well as unstamped jars, were uncovered at Lachish beneath destruction debris in rooms dating to Level III. None was found in later levels. They must, therefore, have been produced exclusively during King Hezekiah’s reign. (This type of jar was used both before and after this period, but without the symbols.) According to Tel Aviv University historian Nadav Na’aman, Judahite officials produced these royal storage jars in preparation for the imminent Assyrian invasion.

The excavation of Level III at Lachish provides an excellent guide to eighth-century B.C.E. warfare. There is a remarkable correlation between what was found in the excavation of the 701 B.C.E. battle and the detailed commemoration of the Assyrian conquest depicted on reliefs carved on stone panels at Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh. These reliefs attest to the importance of Lachish in the eyes of the conquering Assyrians. They were excavated by British archaeologist Austen Layard from 1847 to 1851 and later transported to the British Museum in London, where they are permanently on exhibit.

In warfare, defenders have certain advantages over attackers. The Assyrians constructed a siege ramp, first identified by Yigael Yadin, to more effectively fight the Lachishites who manned the city tower. The siege ramp was constructed of tons of bonded cobbles and boulders, topped with a platform to accommodate the wooden siege engines, with frames covered with leather. The siege engines were rigged with battering rams that were mounted on wooden wheels. The reliefs at Nineveh depict five siege engines deployed on the siege ramp at Lachish.

The defenders at Lachish responded by constructing a counter ramp inside city wall, opposite the Assyrian siege ramp excavated by Ussishkin.

After the Assyrian victory the victors impaled some of their captives on the city wall and exiled others. Starkey uncovered a mass burial of 1,500 people in a nearby cave, an indication of the intensity of the fighting.

Remains at the foot of the city wall where the fighting took place included scales of armor, sling stones, iron arrowheads, firebrands, large perforated stones suspended from ropes, and fragments of an iron chain. The stones on ropes were used by the defenders to try to knock off the siege machine’s long wooden beam, which was topped with a metal blade to batter the city’s mud brick wall. The chain hung from the wall and rested on the ground. After the Assyrian ram was in place, the defenders would pull up the chain to deflect and dismantle the ram.

By the seventh century B.C.E. the kingdom of Judah had survived Sennacherib’s assault, but it still had to contend with the three principal international superpowers of Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia—all fierce antagonists. The traditional rivalry between Assyria and Egypt transformed into an alliance; Egypt supported waning Assyria against rising Babylonia. After Assyria’s collapse in 612 B.C.E., an imperial power struggle developed between Egypt and Babylonia, with Judah, as happened so often, caught in the middle. Eventually Babylonia replaced Assyria and Egypt as the dominant power in the region.

When Ussishkin began his execavation, the chronology of the destruction of Lachish’s superimposed city-gate complex (Levels III and II) had long been an unresolved problem. Starkey had detected little difference in pottery types between Levels III and II, so he assigned the Level III destruction to the powerful Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C.E., and the final destruction (Level II) to Nebuchadnezzar’s attack in 586 B.C.E. Olga Tufnell, on the other hand, using ceramic typology, detected a difference between the two levels. She identified the Level III destruction with Sennacherib’s conquest in 701 B.C.E. and then distinguished two phases in the gate area of Level II, one dated to 597 B.C.E. and the other to 586 B.C.E. However, all the greats—William Albright, G. Ernest Wright, Kathleen Kenyon and Yigael Yadin—dated Level III to 597 B.C.E. and Level II to 586 B.C.E. They were wrong: Tufnell (later joined by Yohanan Aharoni) was correct, as Ussishkin conclusively demonstrated with his careful stratigraphic excavation. At the conclusion of his excavation, Ussishkin undertook the reconstruction and preservation of the city-gate complex in preparation for the conversion of Lachish into a national park—an objective not yet realized.

The most significant single discovery from the last days of Judah was the Lachish Letters, a series of Hebrew-inscribed potsherds (called ostraca), found by Starkey. Eighteen lay sealed beneath a pile of debris in a guardroom of the gate area of Level II; three additional ostraca were uncovered in the vicinity of the palace-fort (all were published by N. H. Torczyner).2 These 21 ostraca are military correspondence written in black ink and relate to the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah (about 589 B.C.E.). Needless to say, these “letters” have occasioned debate about their origin and purpose. Were they sent to Yaosh (Yaush), military commander of Lachish, by a subordinate named Hoshiah (Hoshayahu) stationed between Lachish and Jerusalem just before the Babylonian destruction of Lachish? Or did they originate at Lachish? Are they originals or copies? Yadin, following Tufnell, was inclined to think the ostraca were drafts or copies of letters sent from Lachish to Jerusalem. Ussishkin finds Tufnell’s ideas “indeed convincing.”

There is a reference in Ostracon III to “the prophet” (unnamed); Jeremiah comes to mind because the circumstances of the letters resemble the tragic times of the Biblical prophet, who warned King Zedekiah of Nebuchadnezzar’s imminent destruction of Jerusalem. Azekah (11 miles northwest of Lachish) and Lachish are mentioned in the letter as cities that held out during the assault, recalling the Biblical passage, “Then the prophet Jerermiah spoke all these words to Zedekiah, last king of Judah, in Jerusalem, when the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left, Lachish and Azekah; for these were the only fortified cities of Judah that remained” (Jeremiah 34:6–7). Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and Lachish in 586 B.C.E. and exiled most of Judah’s inhabitants.

Level I at Lachish includes the Babylonian, Persian and the Hellenistic periods (sixth-first centuries B.C.E.). The excavators report that from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C.E. there was no sign of violent destruction. A residency was the main building, erected on the summit of the mound, which had been the podium of the destroyed Judahite palace-fort. In the post-Exilic period, during the governance of Nehemiah, Jewish returnees from Babylonian captivity settled at Lachish (Nehemiah 11:30).

In about 200 B.C.E. the inhabitants of Lachish built a cultic center in the eastern sector of the tell consisting of two main rooms and a court with an altar. Because its entrance faces the rising sun, it is called the Solar Shrine. It was abandoned during the Hellenistic period. Yohanan Aharoni conducted a limited excavation of the Solar Shrine in 1966 and 1968.

I have surveyed only the most salient features of David Ussishkin’s magisterial 5-volume final report on his renewed excavations at Lachish. No one in Near Eastern archaeology has ever published concurrently an excavation report of this magnitude (2,754 pages). It is a tour de force: five attractive volumes, reader- and user-friendly. A detailed table of contents of all five volumes appears at the beginning of each volume for the convenience of the reader; helpful indices of personal names (ancient and modern), place names (ancient and modern), selected structures, archaeological features and artifacts follow the end of Volume V. Every section within each volume (and there are many of them) ends with a selected bibliography. This feature alone makes the volumes invaluable.

David Ussishkin produced the lion’s share of this magnum opus, with the help of assistant editor Jared Miller and with contributions by more than 60 specialists from all over the world. Volume V contains their supplementary studies: chipped stone assemblages, archaeobotanical and palynological studies, archaeozoological studies, skeletal remains from Level VI, studies in pottery, petrography, geology, environment and technology, and metallurgical analyses. These specialized studies, however, would be even more valuable had they been integrated into the overall text.

The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish is an enormous achievement in archaeology and Biblical studies. Archaeologists may not agree with all of the author’s conclusions, but they certainly will have to take them into account. David Ussishkin has performed a great service that deserves to be emulated.

Uncredited photos are courtesy of the Lachish excavation.