Sharon Zuckerman was my advisor and teacher. This article is dedicated to her memory.
The Biblical city of Hazor in the Upper Galilee was—according to textual evidence from the second millennium B.C.E.—the largest and most important royal center in the southern Levant. It is also one of the most intensively investigated tells (archaeological mounds) in the Levant. One major discovery, however, still eludes us.
The first major excavations at Tel Hazor, between 1955 and 1958, were conducted by Yigael Yadin, one of the founding fathers of Israeli archaeology. Yadin did one more campaign in 1968, but passed away before he had the chance to return for more. Yadin believed that his finds were pointing to the existence at Hazor of two archives of cuneiform tablets that were yet to be discovered: one that would date to the first half of the second millennium (Middle Bronze Age) and the other to the second half of the second millennium (Late Bronze Age).
A decade ago, writing in BAR, the late Sharon Zuckerman showed why Yadin’s expectation of finding two archives is justified.a She pointed out that archives are typically found at important sites—usually in royal buildings056 (palaces and temples) or residences of local elites. Zuckerman even laid out the evidence for a possible location of such an archive in a royal building at Hazor, but passed away before she could prove it. The renewed excavations at Hazor, headed by Amnon Ben-Tor, have been focused on the suggested location for the past ten seasons. Though no archive has been found yet, we are confident that we are getting closer. Let us now review Zuckerman’s arguments, introduce the latest finds and outline our plans.
The textual evidence indicating Hazor’s importance in the second millennium B.C.E. comes from Hazor itself and from two major sites with large archives of cuneiform tablets, namely Mari and Amarna. The state archive of Mari on the Euphrates River in modern Syria is dated to the 18th or 17th century B.C.E. About 20 out of its thousands of tablets mention Hazor, the only southern Levantine city that appears in this archive. Some of these documents shed light on Hazor’s role in the textile industry and the city’s vigorous role in international trade and diplomacy. It is from this archive that we learn about Hazor being the southernmost royal center in Mari’s sphere.
The other large archive was found in Amarna057, Egypt. Dated to the 14th century B.C.E., this archive contains the correspondence in cuneiform Akkadian between Egyptian pharaohs and their vassal kings, as well as other rulers in the eastern Mediterranean basin. It includes two letters from the king of Hazor. Interestingly, the king of Hazor is the only vassal ruler in the southern Levant who refers to himself and is referred to as “king” (melek) in the Amarna correspondence with the pharaoh.
To these cuneiform documents we can add 15 previously known tablets from Hazor itself. None of these, unfortunately, was found in its original context. Since Zuckerman’s 2006 article, the Hazor corpus has been augmented by two more archaeologically obtained documents. One is an inscribed clay liver model used for divination. Two similar models were found by Yadin in a monumental temple in the lower city of Hazor. The other is a tablet with fragments of five laws, in topic and date similar to the well-known Law Code of Hammurabi. It represents the only cuneiform legal corpus found in the entire Levant (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). The subject of these laws is the renting of a slave and the compensation to the slave’s owner should the slave be physically hurt during the rental period. We already know that the king of Hazor acted as a judge, as is evident from a document concerning a woman named Shumulailum who is sued by three men for a number of assets in the cities of Hazor and Gilad. The king of Hazor ruled in Shumulailum’s favor. This tablet may indicate that Hazor had a “Hazorian Code.”
If there was a local law code, there also must have been a school of scribes who wrote the code. The existence of local scribes might be implied in an earlier find at Hazor of two other documents: a dictionary of words related to trade and a multiplication table written on a clay prism.1
To summarize: The more we excavate, the more certain we feel about the existence of the two archives at Hazor.
Zuckerman, who was Ben-Tor’s right hand,b was convinced that an archive would be found in the structure south of the Podium Complex. This Podium Complex is the entrance complex to the acropolis of Late Bronze Age Hazor. It comprises a courtyard paved with basalt orthostats, a large basalt058 podium at its southern end and a cultic installation in front of the podium. Four depressions drilled into the upper face of the Podium Complex suggest that it supported a chair for the king or his representative. Visitors to the acropolis had to pass through this entrance complex and probably would have to participate in some kind of ritual involving libation. This is indicated both by the cultic installation fixed in front of the podium as well as the scoops (distorted bowls) found scattered around the podium. Zuckerman believed that to the south of this complex lies a large royal building containing an archive.
Excavations of the structure south of the podium began in 2006. As of now, we have revealed part of a royal building which was interpreted as the administrative palace of Hazor. The four halls excavated so far offer us glimpses of the rich finds that might059 await us in the course of further exploration.
Leaning against mudbrick and stone walls in the southwestern hall were 13 complete pithoi filled with charred grain, suggesting that this hall functioned as a large-scale storage facility. Near these large storage vessels lay several bowls and jugs.
On the other side of the mudbrick wall were dozens of scoops, a large pithos and several storage vessels. Two shallow basalt bowls about 1.5 feet in diameter lay smashed on the floor of this room, accompanied by a pile of seashells and a grinding stone. Although it is tempting to suggest that the seashells were ground in these bowls with this grinding stone, we don’t really know the purpose of the ground seashells.
In the northwestern hall, we uncovered a small round installation filled with ash. Dozens of pottery vessels, including a dozen miniature cooking pots and two large cooking bowls, were found around this installation. These probably fell from a wooden shelf and attest that this installation was used for cooking in the last days of the building’s occupation.
Incorporated in one of the monumental walls of this building we found a fragment of a unique statue—a sphinx of the Egyptian king Menkaure. It is the only known sphinx statue of the king, and it also represents the largest Egyptian royal statue found anywhere in the Levant in a second millennium B.C.E. context. This statue may have arrived at Hazor060 following the Hyksos expulsion from Egypt—sometime in the mid-16th century B.C.E.; alternatively, it may have come as a pharaoh’s gift to the king of Hazor sometime in the 15th or 14th century B.C.E.
Looking for the archive at the location suggested by Zuckerman, we have so far identified and partially excavated the administrative palace of Hazor. We can support this identification with a number of observations. First, the building’s location between the lower and upper cities points to administrative functions, and it also facilitated control over the access to the acropolis. Second, the structure apparently functioned as a large-scale storage facility, indicating that its use was public rather than domestic—the goods stored in this building might represent tax collections. Third, its monumental appearance, materialized in stone and mudbrick walls, suggests public character. Last but not least, we have to acknowledge the magnificent finds, such as the Egyptian statues introduced above or another fragment of Egyptian sculpture found in the Podium Complex and belonging to an offering table with Egyptian hieroglyphs mentioning an Egyptian officer, probably from the days of Ramesses II.
This administrative building was destroyed in a large conflagration, as is apparent from very thick layers of destruction that include ash, burnt wooden beams and burnt and collapsed mudbricks.c
Once we realized the historical importance of this building and its archaeological potential, we expanded excavations to the west, hoping finally to uncover an archive.
During our latest season, in 2016, we reached the destruction level in the western expansion of the building. Digging through this unusually massive layer of debris, we exposed several walls and defined more halls of this palace. Although we have not yet reached the floor levels, we can already get a sense of the richness of these halls. Some of the mudbrick and stone walls are coated with a light clay plaster. The walls are thick and well built; their preservation is extraordinary. We were also able to locate the entrance to one of the palace halls, marked by two pilasters.
Within the stones of a collapsed wall, we found an Egyptian statue of a male figure squatting on a square base inscribed in hieroglyphs identifying the070 person as Nebpu, a high priest of the Egyptian god Ptah. This is the largest known statue of this priest and the largest private statue found anywhere in the Levant. The fragment measures approximately 12 by 18 by 16 inches, which suggests that the statue was originally about 5 feet tall.
The destruction fill in these rooms consisted mainly of burnt organic material and collapsed mudbricks. In other words, the fill contained only a few finds, indicating that most of the original objects might still be lying intact on the floors. These rooms are scheduled for excavation in upcoming seasons, and we believe that Hazor’s Late Bronze Age archive will be found at last.
Biblical Hazor was the largest and most important royal city in the southern Levant in the second millennium B.C.E. Its continuing exploration has brought to light impressive architecture and unique objects. But, one major discovery remains elusive: Where are Hazor’s cuneiform archives?