Visiting Azekah, Lachish and J. L. Starkey’s resting place

By Abigail Zammit (continued from The Lachish Letters in Jerusalem)

Apart from my museum visits, my next important objective for the trip was to dedicate an entire day to scouting two particular sites. With four litres of water, sun lotion, hat, scale rods, a compass, a GPS, north-points, photographic equipment, and a tripod, I travelled south-west of Jerusalem to visit the archaeological sites of Azekah (Tel Azekah) and Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir/Tel Lachish), to photograph key features and points of interest at both tells. These sites were, after Jerusalem, the two most important and last remaining strongholds during the Babylonian invasion of Judah, in the early 6th century B.C.E. (Jeremiah 34:7).

Fig. 1. The author standing outside the park entrance to Tel Azekah.

Fig. 1. The author standing outside the park entrance to Tel Azekah. Photo: A. Zammit.

My first stop was Azekah (Fig. 1). The name of this ancient fortress features in ostracon Lachish 4, the writer of which expressed that he and his men could not see Azekah, but were looking for the beacon or fire-signals of Lachish. At Azekah, I could see fenced-off open trenches and general work-in-progress from the Lautenschläger Azekah Archaeological Expedition, a joint project between Tel Aviv University and the University of Heidelberg, which has been underway since 2012. Azekah is fairly large in size, but not as massive or imposing as Lachish, which dominates its surrounding countryside and vineyards.

Lachish was, of course, my next and last stop. For my research purposes, the main point of interest there is the so-called “guardroom”, the eastern room or tower upon entering the outer-gate to the fortress. The guardroom yielded sixteen of the Lachish Letters in the excavation season of 1935. Like Azekah, Lachish has now been turned into an Israeli National Park; the guardroom and most of the gateway area, also highly relevant to my research, have been lately reconstructed or restored by incorporating stone material, cobbles and gravel to the original walls and ruins in situ.

As a nod to Rev. Charles Bernard Mortlock’s 1935 photo of British archaeologist James Leslie Starkey at Lachish (Fig. 2) I took a similar photo of myself on site to indicate the findspot of the Lachish Letters inside the guardroom (Fig. 3). Other points of interest at the tell include the inner gate, which is partly fenced off, the palace ruins at the centre of the mound, and the saddle area at the southwestern corner of the tell.

Fig 2. James Leslie Starkey at the Lachish letters find site,  photograph taken by Rev. Charles Bernard Mortlock in 1935 (PEF-P-Portrait-Starkey). Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Fig 2. James Leslie Starkey at the Lachish letters find site, photograph taken by Rev. Charles Bernard Mortlock in 1935 (PEF-P-Portrait-Starkey). Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Fig 4. The author standing in the reconstructed guardroom at Lachish and pointing to the findspot of the Lachish Letters, view south.

Fig 3. The author standing in the reconstructed guardroom at Lachish and pointing to the findspot of the Lachish Letters, view south. Photo: A. Zammit.

In the late 7th and early 6th centuries B.C.E., a series of domestic units or storerooms was built alongside the east wall of the ruined Palace C. Two of the Lachish ostraca (Lachish 20 and 21) were recovered from one of these rooms (L12:1065) in 1938, among the ashes of the destruction left by the Babylonian army. Most of these areas are today covered by lush overgrowth. Around different parts of the tell, I came across fenced-off areas which are currently excavated by the Fourth Expedition to Lachish, a joint project between The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Southern Adventist University, which commenced in 2013.

Back in Jerusalem, I didn’t miss the opportunity to visit the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) headquarters at the Rockefeller Museum, namely the Archives and the Library. Moreover, I went to the National Library of Israel to access two articles on the Lachish Letters, by H. Torczyner (later N. H. Tur-Sinai) and A. Bergman respectively, that appeared in the daily journal Ha-‘aretz of 1936, today preserved on microfilm.

Nearing the end of my research trip, I toured the Old City and took the opportunity to visit the resting place of none other than archaeologist James Leslie Starkey (mentioned above; Fig. 2), who was buried at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery in Jerusalem on January 11th 1938 (Fig. 4). Starkey directed the British Mandate excavations of Lachish from 1932 until his murder on January 10th 1938. While at the Cemetery, I walked a few paces and climbed a few steps to an eastward upper field, to visit the grave of Starkey’s teacher, British Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie. This meaningful visit was a fitting conclusion to a most rewarding academic experience in Israel.

Fig 4. The author standing next to James Leslie Starkey’s tombstone, at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery, Jerusalem.

Fig 4. The author standing next to James Leslie Starkey’s tombstone, at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery, Jerusalem. Photo: A. Zammit.

I returned from my productive journey with 5GB of data, which scream “Well worth the trip!”. I also took with me fond memories of Jerusalem and of the several places of archaeological interest I explored. My heartfelt thanks and appreciation go to the Palestine Exploration Fund for providing me with financial support to conduct my research in Israel, which proved to be a truly enriching and worthwhile opportunity.

Cite this article as: [Author], "Visiting Azekah, Lachish and J. L. Starkey’s resting place," in Palestine Exploration Fund Blog, 1 July 2015, http://www.pef.org.uk/blog/visiting-azekah-lachish-and-j-l-starkeys-resting-place/.

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…