The fourth excavations at Lachish


This summer, the fourth excavations at Lachish have started in earnest. Previous expeditions have already uncovered parts of the site and found important evidence of the siege of the city, life during the Iron Age, the general stratigraphy, and temples from the Late Bronze Age and the Hellenistic Period. A few years ago I summarized the excavations in this blog post.
The fourth excavations are directed by Yossi Garfinkel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Three areas have been opened, one under the direct supervision of Yossi Garfinkel, one under the supervision of Michael Hasel from the Southern Adventist University, Chattanooga, and one under the supervision of Hoo-goo Kang from the Seoul Jangsin University in Korea.

The main research question is whether Lachish was fortified in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, relating to levels 4 and 5 of Lachish. This might explain when the kingdom of Judah spread into the low hill country, the Shephelah. Excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, also under Yossi Garfinkel, have shown that a fortified city was built in the early 10th century in the Shephelah, but abandoned after a few years. If fortifications are found at Lachish, it might indicate that such fortified cities also occurred further from the core Judahite hill country and maybe existed for a longer period. If no fortifications are found from that time, it might indicate that Lachish was just a small village and maybe the “state” of Israel or Judah was not quite as strong in the 10th century as was often thought. Fortifications are seen as an indication of the activity of a well-organized state.

It is not certain whether previous excavations uncovered such fortifications. Those by Aharoni and Ussishkin did not. The excavations led by Starkey in the 1930s may have uncovered such fortifications, but the documentation is not detailed enough to identify them.

Two weeks into the excavations, no such clear fortifications have been found, but in fact, no parts of levels 4 and 5 have been found in the excavated areas. Levels 1 to 3 have been uncovered as well as levels 6 and maybe some earlier levels, but due to erosion and later use of the tell, the layers the excavators were targeting have not been found so far.

That is not an unusual occurrence in archaeology. For archaeology is always full of surprises and you never know what you will find, once you take away that layer of dirt. Research designs have to be altered, depending on what is found in the ground. Experts on one period suddenly have to deal with a totally different period. That’s why archaeologists need to be flexible.

What is interesting is that in the area supervised by Yossi Garfinkel several massive walls have been found or newly recorded. It seems that some of the most massive walls were built during the Middle Bronze Age, as they seem to run under Late Bronze layers. Nevertheless, if that is the case, the walls were probably re-used during the Iron Age, as a later wall seems to bond with the massive wall. This makes for a complicated picture.

While I certainly welcome renewed excavations at Lachish, so that we will know more about this fascinating city, I am disappointed with some of the methods used in the current excavations. I have no qualms about the research design. It seems to be valid. But the excavations, particularly in the main area, are quite sloppy. Large amounts of soil are removed with large tools. There is little spatial control. The recording system seems somewhat arbitrary. They do not dig clean, as we say. Then you go to the area under the direction of the Southern Adventist University. It’s totally different. The squares are kept clean and tidy. The excavation is meticulous and exact. Appropriate tools are used to remove the soil. The recording system is more exact, the balks straight. The current excavations at Lachish provide a perfect example of two different approaches to excavation methods, and why I prefer the slower American approach to the broad-brush Israeli approach.

We can place so much more reliance on finds from controlled excavations. And so much more information can be won from it. Of course, it is slower. But archaeology destroys the evidence, so it has to be careful, has to make the most of the information we are getting through destruction. We are not in a race to excavate as much as possible.

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