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The Yarwhosians?

You may not have heard of them, but the civilized Neolithic Yarmukians created some of the world’s earliest clay sculptures.

By Yosef Garfinkel and Michele Miller

Prepare to fall in love—with our friends the Yarmukians. Since they lived almost 8,000 years ago, about 3,000 years before people began communicating in writing, you can’t ask them who they were. And even if you could, it’s doubtful you would understand their answer; we don’t even know what language they spoke. But we don’t need to speak to the Yarmukians to know something about their intricate and interesting lives. We only have to look at the material they left behind—the buildings they lived and worked in, the tools they used to produce and cook their food, the objects they traded with others, and the items they used to adorn themselves and their homes. We also haveobjects that today we’d call “art”; expressions of their humanity and perhaps even of the belief in something beyond the human.

One of us (Yosef) has lived with Yarmukians for over a decade now; together we’ve spent innumerable hours studying their material remains, thinking about their lives, even dreaming about them. The more we get to know about them, the more we see how much we have yet to learn. We visit the Yarmukians every year at our site, Sha‘ar Hagolan (the Gate to the Golan). It lies in the fertile Jordan Valley, about two miles south of the Sea of Galilee, on the bank of the Yarmuk River—which explains the name we have given them.

The site was discovered by members of Kibbutz Sha‘ar Hagolan, when they were constructing fishponds in the late 1930s. For 60 years, school kids and their families have been walking the fields of the kibbutz during afternoon leisure hours and on weekends searching for antiquities.

Between 1949 and 1952 Hebrew University archaeologist Professor Moshe Stekelis dug at the site. Recognizing the unique nature of the ancient material culture, Stekelis designated it “Yarmukian.” The kibbutz’s residents were also aware of the importance of what had been found: In 1952 they opened an exhibit of their antiquities collection in a bomb shelter. This became Israel’s first museum of prehistory. This early museum is mentioned by the anthropologist Robert Ardrey in his pathbreaking book The Territorial Imperative (1966):

    You may visit a kibbutz called Sha‘ar Hagolan, near the Sea of Galilee and within gunshot of the Jordan border. You may inspect the Neolithic antiquities which in their spare time the members have dug from their fields and which they display in a convenient bomb shelter; and you will have no need to examine the beaver to confirm the enhancement of energy in a territorial defender.

In the 1970s the kibbutz put up a new larger building to house the collection.

In 1989 we began to investigate the site, 37 years after Stekelis completed his excavations. A few years later, the fishponds went out of service and a nearby olive grove was uprooted; thus, for the first time, it was possible to undertake a large-scale excavation. In 1999 we completed our sixth year of this projected 10-year expedition, but we have found enough exciting new material to justify this preliminary report.

One of our most culturally and sociologically important discoveries is that Sha‘ar Hagolan was a permanent settlement with stone houses, paved streets and even alleys. At Sha‘ar Hagolan we can witness a major historical change in social organization: A culture based on small nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers was being replaced by a new lifestyle in which people lived in permanent villages based on an agricultural economy. This universal process seems to have first occurred here in the Jordan Valley; then it spread to other parts of the Near East.

This view of Sha‘ar Hagolan is quite different from earlier understandings. Stekelis excavated a large number of pits but found no permanent architecture. From this he concluded that “the Neolithic settlers of Sha‘ar Hagolan apparently lived in circular huts, half sunk below ground level.” This conclusion was buttressed by the fact that rounded pits, without solid architecture, have been reported from other sites with Yarmukian pottery. These pits created the false impression that the Yarmukians were seminomadic and pastoral, inhabiting the sites only part of the year.1

In our excavations we have uncovered three monumental building complexes with rectangular rooms. Between the structures were streets from which one entered the courtyards of the buildings. Small roofed rooms surrounded the courtyard and opened onto it. These complexes are the earliest examples in Israel of the so-called courtyard building, which later became very common in the ancient Near East and persists to this day in traditional village communities.

These building complexes are quite large: One is 3,600 square feet; another complex, which we have been excavating for ten years, is at least twice as large. The buildings’ walls were made of stone or mudbrick. Most walls consisted of a combination of stone and mudbrick—with the bottom layers (or socle) made of stone and the upper layers made of mudbrick. The mudbricks are unusual—circular, flat on the base and rounded on the top, like a round loaf of bread. Some of the rooms were paved with flat basalt river pebbles.

The street we uncovered was straight, about 10 feet wide and paved with small river pebbles and mud plaster. We have exposed over 100 feet of this street. A smaller alley, which we have exposed to a length of 50 feet, is curved and is only about 3 feet wide.

Although only a small part of the site has been excavated, various survey techniques have enabled us to estimate the entire area of land that was occupied during the Yarmukian period. An intensive field survey lead by Michele—in which teams of archaeologists walked in equal-sized “transects” of land, picking up every piece of cultural material they found on the ground—enabled us to determine where the Yarmukians lived and where they did not. A magnetometer survey, conducted by Sonya Itkis, permitted us to detect walls beneath the ground surface in some of these areas. We estimate that the ancient town covered nearly 50 acres, making Sha‘ar Hagolan one of the largest Neolithic settlements in the Near East.

The abundance of finds gives us an intimate glimpse of daily life in ancient Sha‘ar Hagolan, where we estimate about 3,000 people once lived. As usual in an excavation in the ancient Near East, pottery was very common. But here the appearance of pottery has a special significance. The Neolithic era is subdivided into four periods, as shown in the sidebar to this article. The first three periods are designated Pre-Pottery periods. Pottery was first introduced toward the end of the Neolithic era, in the middle of the seventh millennium B.C.; this is the period represented at Sha‘ar Hagolan. The pottery we uncovered here—all handmade, rather than wheel-made—is the earliest ever discovered in Israel. It represents a technological innovation of the greatest importance.

Surprisingly, Yarmukian pottery includes not only coarse undecorated vessels with thick walls and rough surfaces, but also fine vessels with smooth surfaces and elaborate decoration. The coarser ware was probably used for storing grain and liquids, as well as for cooking.

The finer ware was incised and painted. The paint is always a shade of red and either covers the whole vessel or follows the incised lines. The incisions include horizontal lines, zigzag lines and herringbone patterns. The decorated pottery was probably used for serving food.

A large assemblage of bi-conical clay spindle whorls provides evidence of textile manufacture. The garments themselves, however, would have disintegrated long ago in this moist climate.

The only thing more common than pottery at Sha‘ar Hagolan is flint—the most characteristic material found at prehistoric sites in the Near East. Over the years, by sieving all the sediment from the excavation, we have recovered hundreds of thousands of flint flakes, though only a small number are tools produced for specific tasks. Most of the flint is waste from flint knapping (the chipping away of flint flakes in making tools or weapons).

The three most prevalent flint artifacts at Sha‘ar Hagolan are arrowheads, sickle blades and axes. The arrowheads represent a triumph of flint technology. About an inch long with symmetrical aerodynamic points, they were fastened to the tip of an arrow shaft and shot with a bow. The sickle blades and axes are characteristic of the period. The former have coarse denticulation (toothlike projections) on the working edges, commonly fashioned by knapping the flint on both sides. The axes are of two types: broad and narrow.

Other tools were also made of stone, either hard volcanic basalt or limestone. Both were locally available. Some were used by ancient Yarmukian cooks to prepare food—either as mortars and pestles or as grindstones. The cook would slide the grinding stone back and forth across the surface of a stone slab, pulverizing the grain. Some of the stone implements, heavy stone bowls, seem reminiscent of an earlier time when pottery bowls were not available. And we even found a rare spoon made of limestone. Clay spoons are well known, but this is the only extant example in stone.

We also found a large variety of stone weights. Most had a hole drilled through the center or near the edge. Those without holes usually had a notch at the center, allowing a string to be securely tied around the weight. The largest weights were probably boat anchors. The smaller ones look like fishing weights, evidence of marine activity both in the Yarmuk River and the Sea of Galilee.

Many articles of daily life did not survive, such as wooden objects and baskets. Yet we can still see the impression of some straw mats on the bases of pottery; the pottery was either fashioned on the mats or set upon them to dry.

Some of the rarer objects are especially interesting because they provide evidence of extensive trade routes and lively commercial activity. Various types of seashells—cowries, columbellas and cockles—came from the Mediterranean Sea, nearly 40 miles west of Sha‘ar Hagolan. About ten obsidian artifacts, including one arrowhead, were found in the buildings. They are tiny but of fine quality—gray, translucent and very sharp. The nearest obsidian deposits are in Anatolia (and Armenia), about 450 miles north of Sha‘ar Hagolan.

Previous excavation reports on Yarmukian sites make no mention of either seashells or obsidian. As a result of our finds, however, we now know that the Yarmukian people did not live in isolation but maintained contact with neighboring regions.

Our most tantalizing find is a rich collection of anthropomorphic figurines. We have now recovered almost 200 of them, although many are mere fragments. A few of the figurines are zoomorphic rather than anthropomorphic.

Why were they made? Who made them? Who used them? Do the anthropomorphic figures represent humans or divinities? What are the sources of the Yarmukian iconographic tradition? Why are there so many of these objects? Why have so many of them been discovered at one site, Sha‘ar Hagolan, and so few at other Yarmukian sites? The questions are many, the answers few.

The most common—and engaging—human figurines are seated clay figurines with cowrie-like eyes. We have five complete, or nearly complete, examples, along with 70 fragments of various body parts. Each body part was made separately—head, torso, right leg, left leg. The components were assembled to create the basic figurine. Then small details were added: Eyes, ears and nose were put on the head; a veil was placed over the nape of the neck; arms, breasts and clothing were added to the body; fingers and fat folds were created by using different incision techniques; and the navel was depicted by a puncture mark. Remaining patches of paint on the figurines indicate that sometimes the entire figurine was painted red, while at other times only specific parts of the body were painted with red lines. The use of the color red—which is often associated with blood, and thus with life and fecundity—on these figures is intriguing.

With one exception, all the anthropomorphic figurines represent women. All also share certain aesthetic qualities. Most notably, the head is elongated—to suggest, we believe, a tall hat, since the hair is modeled at the back of the head but not at the top. The eyes, too, are elongated, set diagonally and created by sticking clay lumps on the face and incising them lengthwise with a deep slit. To some viewers, the eyes resemble coffee beans, while others believe they mimic cereal grains, such as wheat. The evidence, however, suggests that they were meant to imitate cowrie shells. Due to their resemblance to female genitalia, cowrie shells have been considered fertility symbols in many societies around the world.

On some of the figurines we can also see earrings, made of rounded lumps of clay appended to the ear. This is the earliest evidence of the use of earrings in the ancient Near East.

The figures are clothed in such a way that part of the abdomen and the navel are exposed. The breasts, too, are often exposed, but they are small and not emphasized (this is in stark contrast to other Neolithic figurines, in which the breasts are exaggerated). It appears that the clothing consists of two overlapping capes, possibly made of animal skins. On a couple of figurines, we see a scarf consisting of a horizontal clay ribbon circling the area of the throat. The pelvis is the most heavily emphasized part of the figurine and marks its maximal circumference. The enlarged pelvis may represent an excessive development of fat on the buttocks known as steatopygia, which is in fact common among some peoples around the world. The female sex organ is not indicated in these figurines. The male sex organ is present in one example.

How were these figurines used? Probably for some cultic function. Were they fertility talismans, made to assure the fruitfulness of flocks and fields? Did they represent some sort of deity to be worshiped, perhaps a mother goddess? Or were they representations of beloved ancestors, used in an ancestor cult? No one knows. What we can say is that they appeal to our modern aesthetic sense.

Parts of a larger clay statues were also recovered, from which the missing parts could be plausibly reconstructed. Like the figurines just described, it is seated. The half life-size head, one leg and a few fragments were found intentionally buried in a very shallow pit, perhaps as part of a cultic ritual. Although in several respects this larger statue resembles the seated figurines with cowrie-like eyes (such as in its greatly elongated head), in other respects it is distinctive: The facial features are barely outlined, for example, and the nose was made simply by pinching and shaping the clay.

Two other types of figurines complete the repertoire from Sha‘ar Hagolan: four pillar figurines (so named because the artist concentrated on facial features, omitting body parts) and 105 pebble figurines.

By engraving the oblong river pebbles with just a few lines, the ancient artists depeicted a whole range of human characteristics. They vary considerably in size, from a mere ounce to over 13 pounds, although most weigh about a pound. Traces of red pigment on some of the figurines may indicate that they were also painted, but now we have only these spare carvings to indicate their features. Some show details of body and dress while others show only a face. And still other only have eyes.

Do these motifs have some special symbolic significance? Many of the same features appear on these pebbles as on the clay figurines, such as oblique eyes, heavy thighs and a symmetrical three-part garment. Clearly there is some relationship between the two figurine types, and we suggest they were meant to convey the same symbolic message, although what exactly that was, we may never know.

While the figurines cannot tell us much about Neolithic religion, it appears they were used by individual households . Only the large clay statue and the largest pebble figurine suggest a communal aspect.

While Yarmukian culture is known at 20 other sites on both sides of the Jordan and in Lebanon,2 none of the other sites appears to be as large as Sha‘ar Hagolan, which may have been a center for the entire Yarmukian people and the home of the Yarmukian elite.

For so far it appears that only at Sha‘ar Haglolan did the Yarmukians build large structures, separated by streets and alleys. And it is here they lived in great numbers, and here that trade routes came together. And it is at this site we find so many of the arresting little sculptures that perhaps show us the Yarmukians as they saw themselves.

    The excavations at Sha‘ar Hagolan are being conducted on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with grants from the Curtiss T. and Mary G. Brennan Foundation and the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Biblical Archaeolog

Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 03:03.

The Last Days of Hattusa

The Mysterious Collapse of the Hittite Empire

By Trevor Bryce

How We Know What We Know: The Hittite Archives

From his capital, Hattusa, in central Anatolia, the last-known Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II (1207 B.C.-?), ruled over a people who had once built a great empire—one of the superpowers (along with Egypt, Mittani, Babylon and Assyria) of the Late Bronze Age. The Kingdom of the Hittites, called Hatti, had stretched across the face of Anatolia and northern Syria, from the Aegean in the west to the Euphrates in the east. But now those days were gone, and the royal capital was about to be destroyed forever by invasion and fire.

Did Suppiluliuma die defending his city, like the last king of Constantinople 2,600 years later? Or did he spend his final moments in his palace, impassively contemplating mankind’s flickering mortality?

Neither, according to recent archaeological evidence, which paints a somewhat less dramatic, though still mysterious, picture of Hattusa’s last days. Excavations at the site, directed by the German archaeologist Jürgen Seeher, have indeed determined that the city was invaded and burned early in the 12th century B.C. But this destruction appears to have taken place after many of Hattusa’s residents had abandoned the city, carrying off the valuable (and portable) objects as well as the city’s important official records. The site being uncovered by archaeologists was probably little more than a ghost town during its final days.1

From Assyrian records, we know that in the early second millennium B.C. Hattusa was the seat of a central Anatolian kingdom. In the 18th century B.C., this settlement was razed to the ground by a king named Anitta, who declared the site accursed and then left a record of his destruction of the city. One of the first Hittite kings, Hattusili I (c. 1650–1620 B.C.), rebuilt the city, taking advantage of the region’s abundant sources of water, thick forests and fertile land. An outcrop of rock rising precipitously above the site (now known as Büyükkale, or “Big Castle”) provided a readily defensible location for Hattusili’s royal citadel.

Although Hattusa became the capital of one of the greatest Near Eastern empires, the city was almost completely destroyed several times. One critical episode came early in the 14th century, when enemy forces launched a series of massive attacks upon the Hittite homeland, crossing its borders from all directions. The attackers included Arzawan forces from the west and south, Kaskan mountain tribes from the north, and Isuwan forces from across the Euphrates in the east. The Hittite king Tudhaliya III (c. 1360?-1350 B.C.) had no choice but to abandon his capital to the enemy. Tudhaliya probably went into exile in the eastern city of Samuha (according to his grandson and biographer, Mursili II, Tudhalia used Samuha as his base of operations for reconquering lost territories). Hattusa was destroyed, and the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390–1352 B.C.) declared, in a letter tablet found at Tell el-Amarna, in Egypt, that “The Land of Hatti is finished!”

In a series of brilliant campaigns, however, largely masterminded by Tudhaliya’s son Suppiluliuma I (1344–1322 B.C.), the Hittites regained their territories, and Hattusa rose once more, phoenix-like, from its ashes. During the late 14th century and for much of the 13th century B.C., Hatti was the most powerful kingdom in the Near East. Envoys from the Hittite king’s “royal brothers”—the kings of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria—were regularly received in the great reception hall on Hattusa’s acropolis. Vassal rulers bound by treaty came annually to Hattusa to reaffirm their loyalty and pay tribute to the Hittite king.*

The most illustrious phase in the existence of Hattusa itself, however, did not come during the floruit of the Hittite empire under Suppiluliuma, his son Mursili II (c. 1321–1295 B.C.) or grandson Muwatalli II (c. 1295–1272 B.C.). At this time Hattusa was no match, in size or splendor, for the great Egyptian cities along the Nile—Thebes, Memphis and the short-lived Akhetaten, capital of the so-called heretic pharaoh Akhenaten (1352–1336 B.C.). Indeed, during Muwatalli’s reign Hattusa actually went into decline when the royal seat was transferred to a new site, Tarhuntassa, near Anatolia’s southern coast. Only later, when the kingdom was in the early stages of its final decline, did Hattusa become one of the great showplaces of the ancient Near East.

This renovation of the city was the inspiration of King Hattusili III (c. 1267–1237 B.C.), though his son and successor, Tudhaliya IV (c. 1237–1209 B.C.), did most of the work. Not only did Tudhaliya substantially renovate the acropolis; he more than doubled the city’s size, developing a new area lying south of and rising above the old city. In the new “Upper City,” a great temple complex arose. Hattusa could now boast at least 31 temples within its walls, many built during Tudhaliya’s reign. Though individually dwarfed by the enormous Temple of the Storm God in the “Lower City,” the new temples left no doubt about Hattusa’s grandeur, impressing upon all who visited the capital that it was the religious as well as the political and administrative heart of the Hittite empire.

Tudhaliya also constructed massive new fortifications. The main casemate wall was built upon an earthen rampart to a height of 35 feet, punctuated by towers at 70-foot intervals along its entire length. The wall twice crossed a deep gorge to enclose the Lower City, the Upper City and an area to the northeast; this was surely one of the most impressive engineering achievements of the Late Bronze Age.

What prompted this sudden and dramatic—perhaps even frenetic—surge of building activity in these last decades of the kingdom’s existence?

One is left with the uneasy feeling that the Hittite world was living on the edge. Despite outward appearances, all was not well with the kingdom, or with the royal dynasty that controlled it. To be sure, Tudhaliya had some military successes; in western Anatolia, for instance, he appears to have eliminated the threat posed by the Mycenaean Greeks to the Hittite vassal kingdoms, which extended to the Aegean Sea.* But he also suffered a major military defeat to the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta, which dispelled any notion that the Hittites were invincible in the field of battle. Closer to home, Tudhaliya wrote anxiously to his mother about a serious rebellion that had broken out near the homeland’s frontiers and was likely to spread much farther.

Within the royal family itself, there were serious divisions. For this, Tudhaliya’s father, Hattusili, was largely responsible. In a brief but violent civil war, he had seized the throne from his nephew Urhi-Teshub (c. 1272–1267 B.C.) and sent him into exile. But Urhi-Teshub was determined to regain his throne. Fleeing his place of exile, he attempted to win support from foreign kings, and he may have set up a rival kingdom in southern Anatolia.

Urhi-Teshub’s brother Kurunta may also have contributed to the deepening divisions within the royal family. After initially pledging his loyalty to Hattusili, he appears to have made an attempt upon the throne when it was occupied by his cousin Tudhaliya. Seal impressions dating to this period have been found in Hattusa with the inscription “Kurunta, Great King, Labarna, My Sun.” A rock-cut inscription recently found near Konya, in southern Turkey, also refers to Kurunta as “Great King.” The titles “Great King,” “Labarna” and “My Sun” were strictly reserved for the throne’s actual occupant—suggesting that Kurunta may have instigated a successful coup against Tudhaliya.

Kurunta had every right to mount such a coup. Like Urhi-Teshub, he was a son of the legitimate king, Muwatalli. Urhi-Teshub’s and Kurunta’s rights had been denied when their uncle, Hattusili, usurped royal power for himself and his descendants. If Kurunta did indeed rectify matters by taking the throne by force around 1228 B.C., his occupancy was short-lived, for Tudhaliya again became king, and he remained king for many years after Kurunta disappeared from the historical record.

Nevertheless, the dynasty remained unstable. In an address to palace dignitaries, Tudhaliya made clear how insecure his position was:

    The Land of Hatti is full of the royal line: In Hatti the descendants of Suppiluliuma, the descendants of Mursili, the descendants of Muwatalli, the descendants of Hattusili are numerous. Regarding the kingship, you must acknowledge no other person (but me, Tudhaliya), and protect only the grandson and great grandson and descendants of Tudhaliya. And if at any time(?) evil is done to His Majesty—(for) His Majesty has many brothers—and someone approaches another person and speaks thus: “Whomever we select for ourselves need not even be a son of our lord!”—these words must not be (permitted)! Regarding the kingship, you must protect only His Majesty and the descendants of His Majesty. You must approach no other person!

Another serious problem confronted the last kings of Hatti. There may well have been widespread famine in the Hittite kingdom during its final decades. The Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203 B.C.) refers to grain shipments sent to the Hittite king “to keep alive the land of Hatti.” Tudhaliya himself sent an urgent letter to the king of Ugarit, demanding a ship and crew for the transport of 450 tons of grain. The letter ends by stating that it is a matter of life or death! Was the Hittite kingdom being slowly starved into oblivion?

The Hittite economy was based primarily on agriculture, requiring a substantial labor force. At the same time, the annual Hittite military campaigns were heavily labor-intensive—draining off Hatti’s strong young men from the domestic workforce. To some extent this was compensated for by captives brought back to the homeland and used as farm laborers. Even so, the kingdom faced chronic shortages of manpower.

Increasingly, the Hittites came to depend on outside sources of grain, supplied by vassal states in north Syria and elsewhere. After 1259 B.C., when the Hittites signed a treaty with the Egyptians,* Hatti began importing grain from Egypt.

In times of peace and stability, foreign imports made up for local shortfalls. But once supply routes were threatened, the situation changed dramatically. Grain shipments from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean were transported to Ura, on the Anatolian coast, and then carried overland to Hatti. The eastern Mediterranean was always a dangerous place for commercial shipping, since it was infested with pirates who attacked ships and raided coastal ports. As conditions throughout the region became more unsettled toward the end of the 13th century B.C., the threats to shipping became ever greater.

This provides the context for the Hittite military operations around the island of Cyprus during the reigns of Tudhaliya and his son Suppiluliuma II. The operations were almost certainly aimed at destroying enemy forces that were disrupting grain supplies. These enemies were probably seaborne marauders who had invaded Cyprus to use its harbors as bases for their attacks on shipping in the region. Dramatic evidence of the dangers they posed is provided by a letter from the last king of Ugarit, Ammurapi, to the king of Cyprus, who had earlier asked Ammurapi for assistance:

    My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? ... Thus the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: The seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.2

So, while a grave crisis was mounting in the land, with periods of famine, unrest and war aggravated by a dysfunctional royal dynasty, the Hittite kings decided to rebuild Hattusa!

This project obviously required enormous resources. Where did the workers come from? It would have been dangerous to deplete the ranks of the army during a period of conflict with Assyria in the east, rebellion near the homeland’s frontiers (the one Tudhaliya described to his mother) and attacks by marauders in the Mediterranean. The construction workers had to be recruited from among the able-bodied men working the farms—yet another strain on the already taxed Hittite economy.*

How do we explain this?

The new city was the brainchild of Tudhaliya’s father, Hattusili, who was always conscious of the fact that he was not the legitimate successor to the throne. Hattusili thus made great efforts to win acknowledgment from his royal peers: the kings of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria. It was also important for him to win acceptance from his own subjects. His brother and predecessor King Muwatalli had transferred the royal seat to Tarhuntassa. Very likely Hattusili decided to win favor from his people—and the gods—by reinstating Hattusa, the great ancestral Hittite city, as the kingdom’s capital, and to do so on a grander scale than ever before. In this way, Hattusili-the-usurper could assume the role of Hattusili-the-restorer-of-the-old-order.

Did this provide a compelling motive for his son, Tudhaliya, who actually undertook the project? Or was Tudhaliya’s commitment to rebuilding the capital as a city of the gods an expression of religious fervor,* especially as his kingdom was beginning to crumble around him? Or was he engaging in a gigantic bluff—creating a spectacular mirage of wealth and power in an attempt to delude subjects, allies and enemies into believing that the fragile empire he ruled was embarking upon a grand new era? Dramatically appealing as such explanations may be, they do not square with the picture we have of Tudhaliya as a level-headed, responsible and pragmatic ruler.

In short, the massive rebuilding of Hattusa at this time remains a mystery, one of the many mysteries attending the collapse of the Bronze Age.*

Only a handful of texts survive from the reign of Tudhaliya’s son Suppiluliuma II, and these tell a mixed story. On the one hand, some texts point to continuing unrest among his own subjects, including the elite elements of the state, and to acts of outright defiance by vassal states. On the other hand, military documents record conquests in southern and western Anatolia and naval victories off the coast of Cyprus. These conflicting documents from Suppiluliuma’s reign bring our written records of the Hittite kingdom abruptly to an end. Suppiluliuma, the last known monarch to rule from Hattusa, was almost certainly the king who witnessed the fall of the kingdom of Hatti.

What happened at the royal capital? The evidence of widespread destruction by fire on the royal acropolis, in the temples of both the Upper City and Lower City, and along stretches of the fortifications, suggests a scenario of a single, simultaneous, violent destruction in an all-consuming conflagration. The final blow may have been delivered by bands of Kaskan peoples from the Pontic zone in the north, who had plagued the kingdom from its early days.

As we have seen, however, recent archaeological investigations indicate that by this time the city had already been largely abandoned. The Hittites saw the end coming!

Perhaps Suppiluliuma arranged for the departure of his family while it was still safe, and ordered the evacuation of the most important members of his administration, including a staff of scribes (who carried off the tablets), and a large part of his troops and personal bodyguards. The hoi polloi were left to fend for themselves. Those who stayed behind scavenged through the leavings of those who had departed. When Hattusa was little more than a decaying ruin, outside forces moved in, plundering and torching a largely derelict settlement.

This raises an important question. If the elite elements of Hittite society abandoned Hattusa, where did they go? Did Suppiluliuma set up a new capital elsewhere? That is not beyond the realm of possibility, for we know of at least two earlier occasions when king and court left Hattusa and re-established their capital in another place (Samuha and Tarhuntassa). We know, too, that at Carchemish on the Euphrates River, which had been made a vice-regal seat in the 14th century B.C., a branch of the Hittite royal family survived for perhaps several centuries after the fall of Hattusa. In fact, northern Syria became the homeland of a number of so-called neo-Hittite kingdoms in the early part of the first millennium. Did Suppiluliuma and his entourage find a new home in Syria?

It may be that the final pages of Hittite history still exist somewhere. In the last few decades, thousands of tablets have been found at sites throughout the Hittite world. This inspires hope that more archives of the period have yet to be found, including the last records of the Hittite empire. If Suppiluliuma II did in fact arrange a systematic evacuation of Hattusa, taking with him everything of importance, the stuff had to go somewhere. Maybe it still lies beneath the soil, awaiting discovery


The Hittites were perhaps the world’s first historians. On numerous clay tablets recovered largely over the last century by archaeologists, they wrote down what we today recognize as history, rather than merely relating myths or the acts of the gods.* Much of what we know about the Hittites, therefore, comes from the pen (or stylus) of the Hittites themselves.

The earliest excavations on the site of Hattusa were conducted by the German archaeologist Hugo Winckler in the first decade of the 20th century. They brought to light thousands of tablets, often fragmentary, from Hattusa’s palace and temple archives. A total of eight languages are represented in the tablets, all inscribed in the cuneiform script developed in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.

Many of the tablets found at Hattusa are written in Akkadian, a Semitic language used by the Babylonians and Assyrians. During the Late Bronze Age, Akkadian also functioned as the international language of diplomacy; many of these tablets are thus correspondence between Hittite kings and their vassal states in Syria or foreign kingdoms (such tablets have also been found, for example, at Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, site of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s capital).

Most of the tablets, however, are written in a language that was unknown to Hattusa’s first excavators. This language turned out to be Hittite, the language of the Hittites themselves (though they called it Nesite). The Hittite language was deciphered during the First World War by a Czech scholar named Bedršich Hrozný, who concluded (correctly) that it was a member of the Indo-European family of languages and thus related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.

The tablets vary widely in content: historical annals, treaties and diplomatic correspondence, collections of laws and prayers, ritual texts, lists of festivals, literary and mythological texts, and lists of towns with ties to the Hittite empire, such as the 13th-century B.C. tablet shown. In 1986, an intact bronze tablet—the first metal tablet from the Hittite world—was discovered near Hattusa’s Sphinx Gate. This tablet is inscribed with the text of a treaty between the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (1237–1209 B.C.) and his cousin Kurunta, ruler of the Hittite appanage kingdom of Tarhuntassa.

On seals and in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, the Hittites used a hieroglyphic script written in the Luwian language. Luwian is an Indo-European language closely related to Hittite. The only writing found so far in Late Bronze Age Troy, for example, is a bronze seal inscribed with Luwian hieroglyphics.*

Hittite archives have also come to light in outlying parts of the Hittite empire (at Emar on the Euphrates River in modern Syria, for instance) and at administrative centers in and near the Hittite homeland. Archaeologists recently found over 3,000 tablets at the site of ancient Sapinuwa (modern Ortaköy), northeast of Hattusa. Although these tablets have not yet been published, provincial archives from other sites have taught us much about the day-to-day administration of the kingdom’s provinces and the lives of local officials. —T.B

Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2006). Archaeology Odyssey 08:01.

Lachish—Frontier Fortress of Judah

G. Ernest Wright

In this issue we depart from our usual custom of presenting short accounts of several different items and confine ourselves to the important discoveries at a single site. This site is a deserted mound known today as Tell ed-Duweir—ancient Lachish. From its geographical situation Lachish was one of the greatest cities of its district, a cultural as well as a military center for over a thousand years.

In many of our handbooks and on many of our maps of Palestine, Lachish is still identified with the modern Tell el-Hesi (or Hesy) not far from Gaza, which was excavated in the early eighteen nineties by Petrie and Bliss. In 1929 Professor W. F. Albright, then Director of the American School in Jerusalem, came to the conclusion that Lachish could not have been at Tell el-Hesi, but was probably at Tell ed-Duweir, a few miles northeast in the Shephelah (foothills between the plain and the Judean plateau). This opinion has been proved correct by the recent excavations at Tell ed-Duweir, carried on since 1932 by the Wellcome-Marston Research Expedition to the Near East.*

Figure 1 is a view from the north of the imposing tell (mound), largely made up of the ruins of the successive cities which were built upon it and then destroyed.* On top of the mound can be seen the remains of the district governors residence-fort of the Persian period (6th-4th cents. B.C.). At the left, on the west, is a pile of debris, thrown out from the excavation of the city gate. Part way down from the summit is the line of the outer fortification wall of the last city, as it was cleared by the expedition.

Early History of the City

Only further exploration is made we cannot be sure just when the city was founded, and we know little about the people who first settled there. It is clear, however, that before the time when the great pyramids were built in Egypt (between the 27th and 24th cents. B.C.), people were living in caves around the edges of the mound. Figure 2 shows one of these caves, the roof of which has since collapsed. Later most of the caves were abandoned and became popular as burial places.

Figure 3 is a grave of a Lachish inhabitant about the time of Abraham (20th cent. B.C.). At this time Palestine was rather thinly populated, and we do not know a great deal about the civilization, but this grave along with a number like it can be dated by the pottery deposited with the bodies.

About 1700 B.C. Palestine and Syria were over-run by a foreign horde which the Egyptians called “Hyksos” (so the Greeks inform us), meaning “Rulers of Foreign Territory.” Some of the rulers were Semitic, as we know from their names, at least one of which was compounded with the Biblical name “Jacob.” Many believe that Joseph rose to power in Egypt during the days of these foreign rulers.

At Lachish, as elsewhere, the Hyksos built a great rectangular enclosure of beaten earth on the top of the mound. This served not only as protection but also as a place to put their horses and chariots, both of which they were introducing into Syria, Palestine, and Egypt for the first time. Around the outside of this enclosure was a great fosse, or dry moat, to make it easier to defend. At one point a tunnel was noticed, beginning in the fosse and ascending to the top of the mound. The manner of its construction convinced the excavators that it was a sapping tunnel to enable attackers to get inside the fortress for hand-to-hand conflict.

Lachish During the Israelite Sojourn

Between 1600 and 1200 B.C. Palestine was a province of the Egyptian Empire and many objects of Egyptian manufacture were imported into the country (cf. Fig. 6 ). It was during this period that the Israelites, having been in Egypt for some time, ran away from their taskmasters and entered “the land of milk and honey.” For the city of Lachish it represented one of the most important and prosperous times in its history. Of most interest to us here is the discovery of a temple built in the old Hyksos fosse. Its equipment helps us greatly to understand Canaanite religion in the time of Moses.

Figure 4 is a reconstruction of this temple as it stood in the 13th century B.C. The worshipper passed through a small vestibule to reach the sanctuary itself. Directly in front of him as he entered was the raised shrine with steps for the convenience of the officiating priests. On the top of the shrine there stood, probably, the figure of the god for whom the temple was built. Around three sides of the room were benches, on one of which the worshipper placed his offering. On the right side of the shrine or altar was a pottery stand on which once stood a bowl for libation. To the left was a large bin for meat or grain offerings. In front of the altar at its base was a small hearth, surrounded by a mud curb, which still contained charcoal from the last time it was used. By the libation stand was a niche for lamps. Possibly one of them was kept burning continually to provide fire for the burnt offering. At the rear were two rooms. To judge from their contents, one was probably a vestry for the priests, the other a storeroom for the offerings.

The floor of the building was hard clay. The stone walls were covered with a thick coat of lime plaster. The roof was probably of mud and straw, flat and supported by wooden beams. The general appearance seems to have been that of rustic simplicity, lacking the splendor which was characteristic of the contemporary temples at the Egyptian outpost of Beth-shan by Mount Gilboa.

Yet the inhabitants of Lachish were not lacking in certain of the luxuries of life. In and around the temple were many fine imported objects, mostly broken in many pieces. Figure 6 is a delicate perfume flask, carved from an ivory tusk. The head is a removable stopper, and a hole through it would admit the perfume into the spoon. Figure 7 is an ivory comb and a tapering ivory rod, examples of which were found in the temple. The rods were probably used to keep the elaborate priestly wigs in curl. Fragments of faience, alabaster, serpentine, glass, ivory and gold were found in quantities, having been portions of vases, toilet articles, amulets, and ornate necklaces.

Canaanite Writing at the Time of Moses

Two of the most important objects found in the temple were a bowl and jar, on which were letters in an early type of Canaanite script. Figure 8 shows a dagger with the same type of writing, though dating about 1600 B.C., some 300 years earlier than the bowl and Jar.

For years scholars have been wondering what Canaanite writing looked like during the time when the Patriarchs were settling the land, and Moses with the Israelites was wandering in the wilderness. They knew that the alphabet was already used by miners at Mt. Sinai about 1900 B.C. They also knew how the Phoenician kings of later periods wrote. But where was the connection; or was there any?

It is these Lachish inscriptions, together with a few others recently discovered elsewhere, which furnish the connection. The alphabet used was that adopted by the Israelites and used to write the Old Testament. It was borrowed by the Greeks from the Phoenicians, by the Romans from the Greeks, and by us from the Romans. Today the people of every country in the world, with the exception of China and Japan, write with a modified form of this same alphabet as a result of the remarkable activity of the Phoenician traders.

Lachish and the Conquest of Canaan

We are told in the Book of Joshua (Chap. 10) that Japhia, king of Lachish, was one of a number of five kings who objected so strenuously to Joshua’s rapid advance in the conquest of Canaan that a pitched battle was fought northwest of Jerusalem. The result was a great victory for Joshua which was celebrated in one of the great epics of Israel, preserved for a time in the book of Jashar, “for there was no day like that before it or after it when the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel.” We are also told that later on the Lord delivered the city of Lachish itself into the hand of Israel, who took it on the second day after it was besieged and “smote it with the edge of the sword.”

When did the event take place? Many volumes and thousands of pages have been written on the Conquest of Canaan, and there is yet little agreement upon the subject. If the date of the fall of Lachish could be established archaeologically, this would be a fact of great importance, and would eliminate many an argument. Fortunately, it can be so dated, almost to the very year.

There is certainly no lack of evidence that Lachish did fall. Excavation around the temple and other parts of the mound give ample witness to the terrific destruction which took place, just as at Jericho, Bethel and Debir. In addition there was found in the burned debris of the destruction a very ordinary bowl, shown in Fig. 5 , which turned out to be a remarkable object indeed. After it was reconstructed from some 25 pieces, it was found to have been used as a memorandum, apparently by an Egyptian tax collector. On it he had written in Egyptian a record of wheat deliveries from local harvests. Be was thoughtful enough to write down the dates of these deliveries, all of which were in the fourth year of a certain pharaoh.

Who was this pharaoh? Specialists in Egyptian say that the writing is to be dated about the time of Pharaoh Merneptah, not before; and Professor Albright has pointed out in an argument which is almost irrefutable that the “year four” on the bowl almost certainly refers to the reign of Merneptah and would therefore be about 1231 B.C. Since the fragments of the bowl were found in the burned debris of the destruction, the city could not have been conquered by the Israelites before that date, and since the fragments were all found together, the bowl was obviously broken in the catastrophe. We can therefore be confident that Israel smote Lachish “with the edge of the sword” not far from the year 1230 B.C.

Judean Lachish

After the story of Joshua, the next time we hear of Lachish in the Bible is in the story of Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam (II Chron. 11:5 ff.). This king did not possess the political dominance of his father and grandfather, but turned his efforts to the preservation of such territory as he had. To this end he fortified a series of cities along the Judean foothills to serve as frontier fortresses between Judah and Philistine territory. In each he put a commanding officer “and stores of victuals, and oil and wine. And in every city he put shields and spears, and made them exceeding strong.”

Lachish was one of the finest of this string of fortresses. The outlines of the defensive system which Rehoboam established have been uncovered by the excavators, and Fig. 12 is a restoration of the city as it must have looked at that time. A double wall encircled the mound, buttressed at intervals by towers. The lower portion of the wall was of stone, as shown in Fig. 10 the upper portion was brick, long since toppled over as a result of time and conquerors.

The double gateway was approached from the south. To reach the city one entered the outer gate, turned abruptly right, ascended the hill, and entered the inner gate, whereupon he found himself in the center of the shopping district. Below the towers of both gates were guardrooms and outside were benches on which guards and townsmen could sit. As in all ancient towns In western Asia, the city gate wee the center for all important legal business and political transactions. (cf. Ruth 4:1 and 11; Deut. 21:9, 22:24, etc.)

In the center of the city stood a large building which must have been the palace-fort of the commanding Officer. To the east of this mansion (on the left in Fig 11) was a large paved court, presumably for military assembly and for horses and chariots. To enter the mansion one ascended a flight of steps (Fig. 11 , looking north). By the side of the steps was a block or podium, probably for the purpose of mounting chariots and horses.

By the city walls, southeast of the governors mansion, was another large building with Five long parallel chambers, the purpose of which is not certain. Almost exactly the same arrangement of a large central mansion and neighboring long-chambered building has been found in Judean Beth-shemesh, a few miles north of Lachish; and it is probable that the long buildings were district store houses for grain, wine, and oil, collected as taxes and for military purposes.

Foreign Conquerors

The kingdom of Judah met disaster repeatedly by its refusal to pay the yearly tax or tribute levied upon it by Assyrian and Babylonian rulers. Lachish as one of the strongest fortresses was always one of the chief points of attack when these foreign rulers sought to subdue the rebellious country.

Undaunted by the fate which had befallen Israel in 782 B.C., Hezekiah with the support of Isaiah, rebelled against Sennacherib, who promptly sent his army in the year 700 B.C.* Both the Bible (II Kings 18 ff. and Isaiah 36 f.) and Sennacherib himself tell us of the campaign. In addition Sennacherib had artists carve a relief on the walls of the palace at Nineveh showing his army storming the fortifications of Lachish (Fig. 9 ). Siege guns or rams are against the wall. Arrows and rocks are flying. Captives are impaled; and though the defenders are still fighting valiantly in the towers, both women and men are filing out of the city, carrying their belongings on their shoulders. Other parts of the relief show Judeans being carried away into captivity, or brought before Sennacherib who is shown seated on a throne.

Close examination of Fig. 9 will furnish a good idea of the dress of Judean men and women at that time. Figure 15 is a crest of a helmet found at Lachish, very similar to that on some of the helmets in the Nineveh relief.

Not far from the city gate there was found a large pit into which had been thrown the bodies of at least 1600 people. Since the date of this deposit was Sound to be about 700 B.C., it is probable that the bodies were those of the warriors who died in Sennacherib’s siege. Some of the bones were partly burned, indicating that they had been gathered up from the burnt town.

A number of the skulls from this pit are exceptionally interesting in that they show head injuries received in battle. Three are most important because they had been operated upon in a manner known as trephining. Figures 13 and 14 are two of these skulls. A square hole has been cut in the middle of each, and so crude was the operation in Fig. 18 that the patient must have died immediately. On the other hand, in Fig. 14 it appears that the bone had started to grow again, so that the patient may have survived the operation for a short time. Though operations on the skull seem to have been well known to the ancients, only the Incas of Peru are at present known to have used the same method as the surgeons at Lachish.

The excavators have confined a large portion of their time, thus far, to the city gates and the streets leading to them. Throughout this area there was ample evidence of two terrific destructions of the city in the early 6th century, from the last of which the city never recovered. From Babylonian sources and from the Bible we know of two campaigns which Nebuchadnezzer made against Judah: one in 597 B.C. and the other in 589–87 B.C. (see II Kings 24:10 ff. and 25:1. f.). The archaeological evidence indicates that the two destructions of Lachish are to be connected with the two campaigns of which we know from literary sources.

At the time of the first attack in 597 B.C., the city was crowded with houses and very strongly fortified. But the army of the Babylonians razed it more or less completely and the inhabitants of the city who remained, after many had been taken into captivity, were never able to rebuild it entirely. During the reign of the weak and vacillating Zedekiah in Jerusalem, Lachish, a key frontier city, was thinly populated and protected by makeshift defenses. We can imagine the despair of Jeremiah in 580–88 B.C. when “the king of Babylon’s army was fighting… against Lachish and against Azekah; for these alone remained of the cities of Judah as fortified cities.” (Jer. 34:7).

In both destructions the whole city seems to have been set on fire and completely destroyed. Great portions of the city wall and gate-towers collapsed. So hot was the fire that much of the mud-brick work was burned a bright red throughout. Around the wall by the roadway leading to the outer gate were many arrowheads and pikes used in the battles, as well as the Assyrian helmet crest shown in Fig. 15 .

In the ashes of the destruction and elsewhere in the city were found several personal seals. Figure 16 is that of Gedaliah, described in the B.A. I, No. 2, pp. 11–18. Figure 17 , belonging to a certain Ahimelek, is interesting because it was made in the form of an Egyptian scarab and used Egyptian symbols.

With the final fall came the Exile of thousands of people from all parts of Judah, and Lachish never regained its former importance. A few of the exiles later straggled back to the site (Jer. 11:3), and the Persian government seems to have had local headquarters there for a tine. The excavators have found three Persian buildings, the only large buildings thus far found in Palestine which belong to that period. Soon, however, even this occupation came to an end (in the 4th cent.?), and the mound was deserted even as it is today.

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 1(electronic ed.).