The Lachish Letters in Jerusalem

By Abigail Zammit

In May 2015, I made a short research visit to Israel, made possible by a student travel grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund. This trip will feed into my doctoral research, entitled The Lachish Letters: A Reappraisal of the Ostraca discovered in 1935 and 1938 at Tell ed-Duweir.

I’d examined seventeen of the so-called “Lachish Letters” held in London, with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum, in February 2015.  I then set out to visit Israel to examine the remaining four Lachish Letters held there, discovered during the Lachish excavations which took place between 1932 and 1938 during the British Mandate period.  The “Letters” are ostraca – inscribed pottery sherds, in this case bearing handwriting in Palaeo-Hebrew script, written in iron carbon ink.   Alongside the other seventeen, there were three ostraca from 1935 (Lachish 3, 4 and 6) and one ostracon from 1938 (Lachish 19) in Jerusalem. I hoped to obtain a well-rounded first-hand examination of all twenty-one ostraca from the Mandate period.  This I did, with satisfying results.

With the permission of the respective curators of the Israel Museum (IMJ),  the Rockefeller Museum (RMJ),  and the Bible Lands Museum (BLMJ) in Jerusalem,  I examined and photographed the four ostraca in question: Lachish 3, held at the IMJ, is a long letter by one servant Hoshaiah (hwš‘yhw), which mentions “the prophet” (hnb’) (Fig. 1); Lachish 4 and 6 are displayed on a current exhibition, entitled “By the Rivers of Babylon”, at the BLMJ.

Figure. 1 Examining ostracon Lachish 3, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

Figure. 1 Examining ostracon Lachish 3, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

Both Lachish 4 and 6 comprise a long message giving reports of an apparent military nature, but both remain controversial in their interpretation (Fig. 2). Lachish 19 is a rather faded list of personal names and hieratic numerals, held at the RMJ (Fig. 3).

Figure. 2 Examining ostraca Lachish 4 (in hand) and Lachish 6 (on the table), at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

Figure. 2 Examining ostraca Lachish 4 (in hand) and Lachish 6 (on the table), at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

Figure. 3 Photographing ostracon Lachish 19, at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

Figure. 3 Photographing ostracon Lachish 19, at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

With these examinations and the newly acquired data, I will be able to confirm, revise or debunk my palaeographic readings of the Lachish Letters where possible, and add additional observations to my hand drawings of the ostraca, to be ultimately presented in my thesis. I was amazed to look upon these ostraca for the first time in Jerusalem. Prior to my visit I had only seen them in published black and white photographs or low quality colour images on the internet. I guess it is true in my case that “Seeing is believing”. Having the opportunity to examine these inscriptions and the ceramic sherds themselves in hand changes one’s outlook and perception completely, and at times for the best!

Lachish 3 particularly struck me, as I realized upon close examination that the burnished obverse of the ceramic sherd helped preserve most of the writing in iron-carbon ink. I also carefully scrutinized certain readings of all four inscriptions to confirm or dismiss any suspicions I may have had, especially wherever the ink is fading or has faded badly.

It’s also worth mentioning the sheer size of each individual ostracon. All four vary in size – similar to the variations in size of the average smartphones. It made me appreciate and mull over the scribes’ conveniently chosen sizes and shapes of pottery sherds (as writing surfaces) for easy hand-held use, regardless of whether one was right- or left-handed.

To be continued…

Semi-Precious Stone Beads at the PEF

By Geoffrey Ludvik

For over a century, archaeologists with the PEF have dedicated their academic lives to understanding the economic, political, and ideological development of Palestine. My project uses an unlikely lens through which I study questions of socio-economic interaction: semi-precious stone beads (Fig. 1).

Image 1: carnelian beads from Gezer, mixed contexts, R.A.S Macalister excavations, PEF #3224.

Figure 1: Carnelian beads from Gezer, mixed contexts, R.A.S Macalister excavations, PEF #3224.

Semi-precious stone beads, such as the carnelian beads from Gezer pictured above, represented objects of great value in the ancient Near East and are among the most common finds uncovered in tombs, palaces, and as offerings in temples. The raw materials from which the stones originated are geographically limited and trade networks were necessary to acquire them. Moreover, bead styles and production technology varied regionally, as different workshops made beads in different ways. I seek to define regional canons of manufacture techniques and styles that archaeologists in Palestine can use to identify the source of beads we discover, be they Egyptian, Anatolian, Greek, Mesopotamian, or even the Indus Valley.

At the PEF, I have analyzed the semi-precious stone beads excavated from the important site of Gezer, Israel, by R. A. S. Macalister in the early 20th century. I was able to identify imports at Gezer that have their best parallels in 3rd millennium BC Indus-style beads made in Mesopotamia and the 3rd millennium BC Persian Gulf.  Most imports seem to have come from Egypt and Anatolia. It seems that Gezer was well-connected and an important node in regional economies that linked societies of the ancient Near East. As I continue analysis, I hope to identify even more evidence for Gezer’s interactions.