“It feels good to be back,” says David Ussishkin as we approach the impressive mound of Lachish, a major military outpost of the Judahite kingdom that fell to a massive Assyrian onslaught in 701 B.C. The Assyrian king Sennacherib celebrated his capture of Lachish with a series of reliefs in his palace at Nineveh, showing his forces laying siege to the town, running a huge battering ram up an assault ramp to the town’s tower and smashing through Lachish’s defenses.
Ussishkin looks a good decade younger than his 66 years. Quietly intelligent and formal, he tends not to speak until spoken to. As I would quickly learn, he is also a very methodical man. He led the Lachish dig on behalf of Tel Aviv University for 11 seasons between 1973 and 1987 and then continued at the site until 1994, working with Israel’s National Parks Authority on restoring the city’s gate. At its peak, Ussishkin’s dig at Lachish involved 150 people. “It was the busiest dig in the country,” he tells me.
There is no mistaking the tell (mound) of Lachish when you see it: As you come around the bend of a modern road, the sides of the nearly square mound rise almost straight up for 50 feet. With a summit of 20 acres, Lachish is one of the largest ancient sites in Israel; it is bigger than Megiddo, for example (though far smaller than ancient Jerusalem, which during the time of King Hezekiah encompassed about 150 acres).
The ancient city of Lachish was a heavily fortified garrison town. It guarded Judah on the southwest, where the coastal plain ends and the gently curving hills of theShephelah rise before giving way to the taller hills of the Judahite highlands.
In a cuneiform inscription, Sennacherib boasted of having destroyed Lachish and 46 other cities during his campaign against Judah. The Bible tells us that after capturing Lachish, Sennacherib sent to Jerusalem an emissary, called the rabshakeh, to urge King Hezekiah to surrender rather than meet the same fate. In his inscription, Sennacherib claimed he imprisoned Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” But he never claimed to have captured Jerusalem. The Bible (2 Kings 19:35–36) records that during the siege of Jerusalem, an angel of God slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian troops, decimating their ranks and forcing Sennacherib to withdraw his remaining forces.
On our visit to Lachish, Ussishkin leads us first to a spot outside the tell’s southwest corner. Here a topographic saddle makes the tell approachable—and vulnerable. The Assyrians chose this spot to build their siege ramp. Its remnants rise 40 feet in front of us, bisected by a huge gash left by James Starkey, who excavated Lachish in the 1930s. Not recognizing the ramp for what it was, Starkey mistook it for part of the city’s defensive fortifications.
As we face the tell from this vantage point, Ussishkin notes, “This is the view seen on the [Assyrian] reliefs.” Turning around, he points to a spot 20 or 30 yards behind us. “That’s where Sennacherib sat to watch the battle.” It’s a bracing thought: We’re standing almost at the same spot as the ruler of the greatest superpower in the world in the eighth century B.C., the man who devastated Judah and nearly conquered Jerusalem.
The ferocity of the Assyrian attack was concentrated on this corner of the tell; as the Assyrians built up the siege ramp, the city’s defenders desperately sought to raise the level of the ground inside the wall opposite the ramp and to erect new defenses on the higher ground. The intensity of the assault can be gauged from the number of arrowheads found in this part of the tell—more than 800.
The Assyrians were not the only ones to recognize the strategic importance of Lachish. As Ussishkin leads us up a sloping path to the city gate, on the west side of the site, we encounter remnants of a higher level of occupation, level II, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. It was destroyed during part of the same campaign in which Jerusalem was put to the torch; with that destruction the Babylonian Exile began. Just inside this gate was the Letters Room, so named because in it Starkey discovered seven letters written on pottery sherds. They describe a deteriorating military situation and plead for help. Scholars disagree, though, on where these letters originated. Several, including Ussishkin, believe they were copies of correspondence written in Lachish and sent to Jerusalem; most scholars, however, believe they were original letters sent to Lachish from another Judahite site facing the Babylonians.
Turning to the right, Ussishkin leads us into the earlier level III gate, the one destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. “This gate is the largest found in Israel,” Ussishkin explains. It measures 27 by 27 yards (25 by 25 meters), compared to 17 by 17 yards (16 by 16 meters) at Megiddo. The Lachish gate is a classic six-chambered gate, with three chambers on each side of the path into the city. Ussishkin excavated only the northern three chambers (on the left as you enter). “I’m a great believer in not excavating everything,” he explains; that way, future excavators, presumably armed with more sophisticated methods, will have something left to uncover. Inside this six-chambered area, Ussishkin found two storage jar handles bearing the inscription l’melekh (“belonging to the king”), the name of a city and a winged scarab or a winged sun disc. In all, Lachish yielded 430 l’melekh handles, more than any other site in ancient Israel. Scholars have suggested that the l’melekh handles were part of Hezekiah’s efforts to prepare for the Assyrian invasion—that he had many storage jars made and stamped with the royal seal to indicate official contents or an approved amount of grain, olive oil or other essential materials needed to withstand an anticipated siege of Judahite cities.
Once inside the city gate, we approach the center of the tell. Ussishkin brings us to a 80-by-250-foot building with pillars that he believes served as stables; other scholars have argued that the structure—and ones just like it at Megiddo and Hazor—served as a storehouse. Perpendicular to the stables is a 120-by-250-foot Judahite-era palace and fort. At the very heart of the tell is a 200-by-360-foot courtyard that may have been used for practicing chariot maneuvers. Its impressive size befits an important military outpost and reminds visitors of Lachish’s role as guardian of the Judahite kingdom’s southwestern flank.
At the end of our visit, Ussishkin leads us to the west side of the tell. Here his team has literally left its mark—a deep gash two excavation squares wide and seven squares long running from the city wall to a corner of the palace/fort complex. Each square measured 5.5 by 5.5 yards (5 by 5 meters). Ussishkin chose to excavate extensively on the western side of the tell because (along with the north side) it’s where ancient sites tend to have their most extensive remains. “It was the best part of town because you get the breezes here,” Ussishkin explains.
Gazing over this huge excavated area leads Ussishkin to reminisce about the dig. He tells me that what are called by some “Josh cloths” were first used at the Lachish excavation. These large black cloths provide the diggers with shade and are named in honor of Joshua, the Biblical hero who made the sun stand still (Joshua 10:12–14). Another innovation at Lachish: the use of sandbags atop the balks between excavation squares to keep the balks from collapsing, especially between excavation seasons. (When excavators lay out their squares, they leave a meter-wide strip of earth, called a balk, between them to preserve the stratigraphy of the area.) Ussishkin got the idea for the sandbags after seeing them used to protect army trenches during his service in the Sinai Desert in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The excavation area reminds Ussishkin of an incident during the dig, one that reveals a great deal about his methodical nature and his discipline. Ussishkin insisted on staying within the square—he didn’t want to be tempted to pursue things further and further away from the square. On one occasion, his team found a vessel that was sticking partly into the square, but was embedded in the balk that bounded it. The excavators debated about whether to leave it alone, excavate it or, Solomon-like, cut it along the balk and keep only the part sticking into the square. They finally decided to excavate it from the balk. As it turned out, the vessel was not whole, so it was not of great use. But to keep his team from being drawn to dig further into the balk at that point, Ussishkin covered the spot with concrete.
After our tour of Lachish, Ussishkin and I stop at a roadside diner in a nearby town for lunch. I ask him to tell me how he came to dig at Lachish. Ussishkin had been a student and assistant of Yigael Yadin at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, working with him at Hazor, Megiddo and in the Cave of Letters, in the Judean Desert.a By the early 1970s Ussishkin was a young lecturer at Tel Aviv University and eager to take on a major dig. “I was interested in a long-term dig at one site,” he explains.
Typical of his methodical nature, Ussishkin composed a list of attractive sites. Megiddo and Lachish were on top of his list. But Megiddo was already being reexcavated by his mentor Yadin. In the end, Ussishkin settled on Lachish for three reasons: its importance during the Iron Age, its role in Biblical history and because of the Assyrian reliefs. “I never regretted my choice,” he says.
Ussishkin was then faced with the problem of obtaining financing for the dig. Again, he went about the issue methodically. He had heard of a work called The Foundation Book, a listing of philanthropic organizations. “I made a list of ten and marked their addresses on a map of Manhattan. I put on a jacket and tie and began knocking on doors. I was thrown out of eight immediately. Two were more cooperative. One was the Andrew Mellon Foundation, but they had stopped supporting archaeology. They told me, ‘Archaeologists are terrible people. They take more and more money and never finish their work.’”
At the tenth foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Ussishkin’s persistence paid off. Deputy President Mary Davies came out to meet him; she listenedto his plan to excavate Lachish and eventually arranged the funding that made the dig possible. “Mary Davies later told me that she also would have turned away a cold-caller,” Ussishkin says, “but she was told that I was visiting from Jerusalem and decided to let me in.”
Ussishkin is finishing his distinguished career much like how he started: Since 1992, he has been reinvestigating his old mentor Yigael Yadin’s site, Megiddo, with his Tel Aviv University colleague Israel Finkelstein and American scholar Baruch Halpern. “Like at Lachish, we are coming back to a site that was previously excavated. We are faced with the problem of how to accommodate ourselves to an old dig.”
Most importantly, Lachish and Megiddo are central to understanding the chronology of the Iron Age—the heart of the Biblical period. “The two sites are pivots,” Ussishkin explains. “Megiddo marks the arrival of the Philistines [in the 12th century B.C.] and the end of the Canaanite period. Level III at Lachish fixes the Assyrian destruction.”
Ussishkin says he had no agenda at Lachish. “I had no questions to solve, no thesis to protect. I didn’t mind what I found.”
Summarizing the dig, Ussishkin says, “The key to our success was that we were systematic. We aimed at quality, not quantity. We did not have theories about the Bible to protect.”