Late Bronze Lachish and the Chronology Debate

Initially, the fosse temple stood alone. A city developed on the tell above in the first half of the 14th century, the time of the Amarna letters,In 1887 a peasant woman at el-Amarna in Egypt discovered 379 clay tablets in the ruins of the Pharaoh Ikhnaton's palace. These included letters in Akkadian from princes of city-states in the land of the Bible, such as Megiddo and Jerusalem, as well as some from Babylonia and Assyria. Written in the 14th century BC, they convey an impression of unstable conditions in the land at that time in which Lachish appears.  

Under Egypt's protection and control, Lachish prospered in the late 13th and 12th centuries. Buildings covered the summit and spread down the slopes. In its wider orbit were 25 sites, so we can talk about as many as 6000 people in the city and its territory. "It appears that Lachish was one of the largest Canaanite cities in the land during the period" (Ussishkin,)Ussishkin, D. 2004. "A Synopsis of the Stratigraphical, Chronological and Historical Issues," in Ussishkin, D. The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994) (Monograph Series of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University No. 22). Tel Aviv, p. 60.. It traded - via the port at Ashkelon - with the whole eastern Mediterranean world. Ussishkin found items that originated in Egypt, Anatolia, Mycenae, Crete, Syria, and Lebanon. It suffered a bad fire in 1200 BC but was then rebuilt in an even grander style. The renewed city - distinguished by Ussishkin as Level VI - had an Egyptian-style temple in its center, apparently part of a royal acropolis.   

While Late Bronze Lachish was prospering, however, the perpetrators of the Great Upheaval were wiping out urban centers in a line of devastation spreading from Greece to Anatolia and southward through the Levant, reaching Hazor (destr. ca. 1230 BC) and Megiddo. A statue base turned up at Megiddo containing the name of Pharaoh Rameses VI, which indicates that the Egyptians managed to hold on there until his time, ca. 1130 BC. They probably also held on at Lachish, which stands between Megiddo and Egypt (although the last Egyptian find at Lachish is a scarab from 1150 or so). Impoverished and pressured by the Sea Peoples, especially the Philistines, Egypt at last retreated from Canaan, abandoning its protegé cities to their fates. Megiddo succumbed, followed by the Canaanite coast and Lachish. 

Now, suppose we date the Philistine entry into the land at around 1200 BC, as is customary. In that case, the presence of the Philistines on the coast would overlap the existence of Lachish for about 70 years, so we would expect to find Philistine pottery in its ruins: at least the distinctive Monochrome pottery, if not the subsequent Bichrome. But not one Philistine sherd has turned up. 

"Bichrome pottery has been found at sites even further inland than Tel Lachish.... Considering the geographical position, size, trade connections and prosperity of Lachish Level VI [the last Late Bronze city - SL], it is difficult to imagine that the nearby prosperous Philistine cities could have coexisted with Lachish at a time when Philistine pottery was being diffused inland from the coastal region without an appreciable quantity of it reaching Lachish. Can it be imagined that supplies of fresh marine fish were regularly brought from the coast of Ashkelon to Lachish but not a single Philistine [pottery] vessel found its way there....[T]he negative evidence from Lachish is so absolutely negative that it constitutes a sound argument for dating the appearance of Philistine Monochrome and Bichrome pottery anywhere in the country to after the destruction of Level VI in ca. 1130 BCE" (Ussishkin)Ussishkin, D. 2004. "A Synopsis of the Stratigraphical, Chronological and Historical Issues," in Ussishkin, D. The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994) (Monograph Series of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University No. 22). Tel Aviv, p. 73. (my italics - SL). 

Ussishkin is saying, in other words, that no Philistine pottery has turned up at Lachish because Lachish no longer existed when the Philistines arrived. On the grounds mentioned earlier, we can date the destruction of Lachish to 1130 BC. The significance is that "anywhere in the country," archaeological strata containing Philistine pottery must be dated after 1130 - and not after 1200 as previously thought. This conclusion is one of two considerations that led archaeologist Israel Finkelstein to propose the so-called Low Chronology:     

"The first [consideration] is ‘the snowball effect’ of the lowering of the dates of the Philistine pottery. The second is a new understanding of the stratigraphy and chronology of several key Iron Age II sites, mainly Megiddo, Jezreel and Beth-shan in the north, and Lachish, Arad and Beer-sheba in the south" (Source).

The Ussishkin-Finkelstein proposal has touched off a debate that lasts to the present day (2018). It affects the question of the United Monarchy under David and Solomon, for if we lower the date for the appearance of Philistine Monochrome pottery to 1130 BC, the effect is to lower the dates for all the strata that came afterward. This "snowball effect" leaves the 10th century, the century of David and Solomon, without monumental architecture at all - that is, without indications of a kingdom. The first monumental building occurs in the 9th century, at the time of a different father-and-son pair, Omri and Ahab of Samaria. The Low Chronology nourishes the suspicion that the biblical United Monarchy was a propoganda myth concocted at the time of Josiah (late 7th century) as part of an attempt to forge a unified nation out of Judah and refugees from the defeated Northern Kingdom. Tour groups find themselves caught in the crossfire between feuding scholars hurling Carbon 14. I shall not discuss the Chronology Question here; for examples of the opposing views see pieces by Finkelstein with Eli PiasetzkyIsrael Finkelstein and Eli Piasetzky, "The Iron Age chronology debate: Is the gap narrowing?" Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 74, No. 1 (March 2011), pp. 50-54. and, in support of a Modified Conventional Chronology, Amihai Mazar.Amihai Mazar, "The debate over the chronology of the Iron Age in the Southern Levant," in T. E. Levy and T. Higham (Eds.), The Bible and radiocarbon dating: Archaeology, text and science. Routledge, 2005. pp. 13-28. Let me cite one point, though, that is often made in response to the observation on the absence of Philistine pottery at Late Bronze Lachish: "Tel Miqne VII (Ekron) has produced vast quantities of Philistine monochrome pottery, while contemporary Stratum XIII at Gezer - 7 miles away as the crow flies - has not produced a single [Philistine] sherd in twenty seasons of excavations" (Dever)William G. Dever, Beyond the texts: An archaeological portrait of ancient Israel and Judah, SBL Press, 2017, p. 262. Yet all agree that Ekron and Gezer both existed during the period in question, namely, the very late 12th century (enlarge the map above on the right).    We move to another question: Who destroyed Late Bronze Lachish? During the Great Upheaval there were peoples on the move, among them Israelites and Sea Peoples, including Philistines. In Joshua 10: 31-32, we read:  

"Joshua passed from Libnah, and all Israel with him, to Lachish, and encamped against it, and fought against it. Yahweh delivered Lachish into the hand of Israel. He took it on the second day, and struck it with the edge of the sword, with all the souls who were in it, according to all that he had done to Libnah."

Joshua is also said to have destroyed Hazor (Joshua 11: 10-11), which was burned and leveled, most agree, around 1230 BC. The idea that Joshua's campaigns lasted a century doesn't fit the biblical impression of a sudden Israelite conquest. Admitting the lack of direct evidence, Ussishkin espouses the notion that it was the "Sea Peoples" - a term which includes the Philistines themselves - who destroyed Lachish and left it empty for 200 years (Ussishkin)Ussishkin, D. 2004. "A Synopsis of the Stratigraphical, Chronological and Historical Issues," in Ussishkin, D. The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994) (Monograph Series of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University No. 22). Tel Aviv, p. 71-72.