Biblical Archaeology Review 32:2, March/April 2006

Where Is the Hazor Archive Buried?

By Sharon Zuckerman

An archive of clay tablets written in cuneiform signs has never been found in what was to be the Land of Israel, although at numerous other sites in the ancient Near East archives holding hundreds and sometimes even thousands of tablets have been discovered.

The illustrious Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who excavated Hazor for four seasons between 1955 and 1958 and a fifth season in 1968, was sure that a cuneiform archive was buried somewhere at the site, and he was determined to find it. But Hazor is a very large site.

In fact, it is by far the largest archaeological site in northern Israel. It consists not only of an upper tell of 30 acres, but also a lower city of more than 175 acres. The Bronze Age city of Canaanite Hazor occupied more than 200 acres. Yadin found 21 layers, or strata, of occupation at Hazor dating from the 24th century B.C.E. to the Hellenistic period (second century B.C.E.), but none was as large as the Canaanite city.

The Bible describes Hazor as “the head of all those kingdoms” that formed a coalition against Joshua (Joshua 11). By the Waters of Merom, Joshua attacked and defeated the coalition forces, pursuing them all the way to the Valley of Mizpeh. Then he captured Hazor and burned it to the ground, apparently because of its importance and leadership position: “It was Hazor alone that Joshua burned down” (Joshua 11:13).

The Late Bronze Age city of Hazor (16th-13th centuries B.C.E.) was indeed destroyed in a fiery conflagration. Whether this was the work of the Israelites is a much debated subject.1

Yadin had good reasons, however, for his confidence that a Canaanite cuneiform archive was waiting to be discovered at Hazor. Indeed, he thought there might even be two of them.

At Mari, on the Euphrates River, an archive of cuneiform letters from the 18th century B.C.E. and earlier was found. Nearly 20 of those letters refer to Hazor. Indeed, Hazor was the southernmost city in the Levant, and probably the only city in southern Canaan (today Israel and Lebanon), that is mentioned in the Mari archive. Those letters attest to the importance of Hazor in the lively international trade of the period, as well as its political and cultural relations over a wide area. A king of Hazor named Ibni Addu, for example, is reported to have sent Mari expensive gifts, including precious metals, textiles and even three musicians, in return for large shipments of tin. Other letters indicate that Mari and Hazor exchanged ambassadors. Given these relationships, if there was an archive at Mari, there must also have been a complementary archive at Hazor, at least with regard to those letters. So Yadin reasoned.

Another well-known cuneiform archive, this one dating to the 14th century B.C.E., was found in middle Egypt at the site of Tell el-Amarna. The Amarna archive consists of letters between two Egyptian pharaohs—Amenhotep III and the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)—and the subordinate rulers of Canaanite city-states. Two of the letters were sent to Pharaoh Akhenaten from Abdi-Tirshi, king of Hazor. A copy of these letters must have been kept at Hazor, Yadin deduced.a Two other Amarna letters refer to conflicts between the king of Hazor and the Canaanite rulers of Ashtaroth and Tyre. Perhaps there was a cuneiform archive at Hazor, not only from the period of the Mari archive (the Middle Bronze Age—19th-16th centuries B.C.E.), but also from the period of the Amarna letters (the Late Bronze Age—16th-13th centuries B.C.E.).

But this is not all. A couple of stray tablets have even been found on the surface at Hazor—by visitors! One, a fragment from a Sumero-Akkadian dictionary used for the translation of economic terms from Akkadian to Sumerian, was found by a young boy wandering over the site. This tablet belongs to a well-known group of cuneiform school texts, and its discovery suggests the existence of a scribal school at Hazor during the second millennium B.C.E.b If this was a dictionary, there must have been scribes at Hazor.

Another cuneiform tablet was found on the surface by a 22-year-old American tourist on his honeymoon.c The tablet records litigation over Hazor real estate, adjudicated by the king himself. And it actually mentions Hazor, thus confirming the identity of the site. The names of only a handful of ancient sites are evidenced in this way. But the most striking aspect of the tablet is its archival character: It was undoubtedly part of an archive.

In the ancient Near East, important documents (usually written on clay tablets in cuneiform writing) were kept in special rooms for the use of the king, his officials and priests. These archives contained different types of documents: letters, administrative lists, transactions and legal documents, as well as religious, scholarly and literary texts. They are found in important sites (such as Mari and Ugarit in modern Syria), usually in royal palaces, temples and elite residences. Unlike texts written on papyrus and leather, inscribed clay tablets do not disintegrate, especially if they were housed in a building that was destroyed in a fire.

It would therefore seem logical to attempt to locate the archive of Hazor in a royal building. In 1958, Yadin uncovered the corner of a monumental building he interpreted as the royal palace of Bronze Age Hazor,d contemporaneous with the Mari letters from Mesopotamia. Yadin was convinced there would be an archive in this building. He was determined to return to Hazor and excavate the “palace.”

But he felt he must first finish his translation and study of the Temple Scroll, the longest and one of the most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before finishing that, however, he entered Israeli political life. He served as deputy prime minister from 1977 to 1981. In 1982, he expressed the hope that he would be able to go back to Hazor soon afterward, but he died suddenly of a heart attack in June 1984. He was 67 years old.e

In 1990, one of the area supervisors of Yadin’s excavation, Amnon Ben-Tor, now the Yigael Yadin Professor at Hebrew University, did go back to Hazor. He has now completed 16 seasons of excavation. One of Ben-Tor’s goals was to find the archive(s) of Hazor. Like Yadin, Ben-Tor thought it would be in the “palace” whose corner Yadin had found.

There was a problem in deciding whether to excavate this “palace,” however. Yadin himself had faced it: Above the “palace,” from a later period, were a beautiful Israelite so-called “Four-Room House” (with rooms divided by pillars) and an imposing tri-partite building of three parallel rooms. Yadin did not want to destroy these impressive Iron Age remains, so he planned to move them, lock, stock and barrel, to another location on the site about a hundred yards from where they were found. Ben-Tor, of course, faced the same problem—and he did just what Yadin would have wanted: He moved them, stone by stone, to another area on the site.

When this was done, Ben-Tor was prepared to excavate the “palace.” With the completion of its excavation, however, a surprising picture emerged: Ben-Tor found that the building was not a palace after all.

Instead of a multi-roomed palatial building, similar to the palace at Mari on the Euphrates and other royal residences in the Near East, the building at Hazor is a solid rectangular structure, with ashlar stone incorporated into its thick walls and a pebble-paved floor with a recessed niche located in the inner rear wall of the building. Perhaps this niche once contained a statue of a deity. In the exact center of the building was a deep round favissa, a stone-lined pit used for the disposal of sacred objects. The favissa was filled with bones and ashes, and accompanied by dozens of clay vessels, most of which were cultic—incense burners, chalices and votive vessels. This favissa and the rear cultic niche seem to indicate that this building functioned as a temple.

We now call this the “Southern Temple” to distinguish it from another temple to the north of it. The latter building, excavated by Yadin in 1968, was a rectangular building with an elaborate basalt threshold and a cultic podium attached to its rear wall. That temple we call the “Long Temple.”

South of the “Southern Temple” was a large, paved courtyard of an important Late Bronze Age building made of thick mud and brick walls, with an elaborate pillared entrance, basalt orthostats (large, well-dressed stones, usually of basalt in northern Israel) lining the walls and wooden floors. It was initially defined as the core of the “Canaanite Palace” of Hazor, based on its size, architectural details and its similarity to other Syrian palaces, especially at Alalakh in north Syria.2 However, after 16 excavation seasons, it is thought more probable that this “palace” is also a temple. Unlike contemporaneous residential palaces, it has no subsidiary wings, rooms or courtyards attached to the “core” of the building. Instead, it has a symmetrical, confined plan typical of Canaanite temples and religious buildings of the period. We call it the “Royal Sanctuary.”

The wealth of finds in this building consists of basalt and limestone statues; bronze figurines of Canaanite gods and kings; bone and ivory objects incised with human and animal motifs; bronze weapons including a sword, a dagger and an axe; armor scales; and some gold and silver earrings, pendants and rings. Most important of all were eight cuneiform tablets found in and around the building—a further indication that a cuneiform archive must be buried somewhere on the site.

The pottery from this sanctuary consisted mostly of huge store-jars (pithoi), probably used for storing oil, and hundreds of large, shallow bowls. These bowls were probably the serving vessels at public feasts held in the courtyard. Cultic, or votive, vessels were also found scattered around the building. They included incense burners, miniature vessels and “house models,” which are small, house-shaped ceramic objects, probably representing temples. Similar containers to those discovered in this sanctuary have been found at other temples, for example, at Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Closer to home, a “house model” housed the famous silver calf from Ashkelon.

The Royal Sanctuary is approached through a large, paved courtyard, in the center of which, aligned with the entrance, is a large, square podium built of well-dressed stones. Especially in the area close to the podium, the courtyard was covered with animal bones and broken pottery sherds, reflecting that some sacrificial rituals or feasts were held there. A large number of the bones were from bulls, although the assemblage also included sheep, goats and pigs. All of these animals are well known to have been sacrificed to the Canaanite gods in their temples. Indeed, we know of similar courtyards dedicated to ritual activities in other Bronze Age temples, including one in the so-called Orthostat Temple in the lower city of Hazor, uncovered by Yadin.3

It thus seems that this entire complex of buildings on the acropolis is not the core of the palace of the kings of Hazor, but a ceremonial religious precinct. The whole complex uncovered in our Area A (see plan), including the Long Temple, the Southern Temple and the Royal Sanctuary, should be viewed as a cultic and ceremonial precinct for Hazor’s ruling elite. This complex was probably the locus of religious rituals and conspicuous public feasts held by the king of Hazor and his entourage during the Late Bronze Age (contemporaneous with the Amarna letters).

But to the point: If there was an archive at Hazor, it is most probably in the king’s palace, not the temples in the cultic precinct I have just described. So where is the palace? That an archive does not exist is unacceptable, taking into account the well-documented political and social order of Canaanite city-states. Syria and Canaan in the second millennium B.C.E. were divided into local kingdoms, ruled by local kings and managed by ruling elites. This situation is vividly reflected in the Amarna archive. The lavish lifestyles of these kings and their sometimes-extravagant palaces are often mentioned. The king of Hazor held a special position among his Canaanite peers. Abdi-Tirshi of Hazor is the only Canaanite vassal to be called “king” by other rulers and by himself. He aspired to acquire additional territories from his neighbors, the rulers of Tyre and Ashtaroth. He must have had a palace. And that is where the archive is likely to be.

Ben-Tor’s excavations have concentrated in two areas. One (Area A), just described, is on the acropolis of the tell. The other (Area M) is on the slope of the tell, facing the lower city.

Excavations in this area were already begun by Yadin in 1968 and were resumed by Ben-Tor in 1990. This area apparently provided the passage point between the two parts of the Bronze Age city: the lower city, that included the main residential area of Hazor, and the tell, where the ruling elite lived. Someone wishing to enter the upper city would need to ascend a road winding upward along the northern slope of the tell. The course of this road is indicated by a drainage channel leading down the slope in Area M. Halfway up the slope, the visitor would come to an impressive building with thick walls that served as part of an outer circuit wall of the upper tell. The entrance to the structure was lined with orthostats, stones that similarly lined the walls and entrances of temples and palaces in Bronze Age Syria and Anatolia. Inside, the floor was paved with orthostats. This floor is unique not only in Hazor but in the entire Near East. Basalt orthostats were often laid as thresholds to public buildings, such as palaces and temples, but were not used to pave the whole floor.

Once inside, a person would find himself facing an impressive basalt podium or platform set into a niche in the rear wall. Four depressions were drilled into the basalt top of the podium, probably for the legs of a throne or chair for the king, or perhaps a statue of a deity.

An envoy approaching Hazor would take this route to the upper city. Before the throne, he would perform some kind of ritual of obeisance. A horseshoe-shaped installation was incorporated into the basalt floor in front of the podium above a drainage channel. Close to it was found half of a large basalt basin. Apparently the ritual involved a liquid libation or ablution (cultic washing). Dozens of “scoops” (“twisted” bowls with two handles) found strewn around the podium were probably used as part of this cultic activity.

The envoy would probably then proceed up five basalt stairs, through an orthostat-lined entrance and into a large pebble-paved courtyard. This courtyard led into an area that has not yet been excavated.

The cultic podium area paved with orthostats would have been the first feature encountered by anyone climbing up from the lower city to the acropolis. It thus served as an enlarged symbolic threshold to the acropolis of Hazor. This space carries the clear architectural message of a passage between opposite spheres: the lower city and the acropolis, the common people and the ruling elite—and possibly also the secular and the divine.

In previous publications, this area has been interpreted as a gateway leading into a paved street, protected by a citadel. The podium room was understood as a cultic area within the gate, corresponding to the well-known Israelite concept of a bamah, often translated “high place,” for religious rites. Bamot have been found at the entrance gates of many Israelite cities, for example at Tel Dan.f

For Hazor, I believe this is an erroneous interpretation, as this is not a gate complex, but actually the northern part of the residential royal palace of the Late Bronze Age king of Hazor that extends south and west, to areas that lie outside the present boundaries of Area M.

The part of the structure we have already exposed shares many architectural features with royal Canaanite palaces: for example, cedar-of-Lebanon beams incorporated into the mudbrick walls, well-dressed basalt orthostats lining the walls, basalt slabs serving as stairs and recessed corners creating a zigzag in the entrances to the main spaces.

A comparison with the royal palaces of Ugarit and Megiddo further substantiates the contention that this is the entry complex to the royal palace of Hazor.

Ugarit was an important political, commercial and religious center on the northeastern Mediterranean coast at about the same time as Hazor. The visitor to Ugarit would enter the palace through a courtyard and an “official entrance” into a throne room. The size of the entrance area and the courtyard outside the throne room, as well as architectural details such as guard-rooms and liquid-related installations at Ugarit, are similar to those at Hazor. Moreover, the royal palace at Ugarit is located on the outskirts of the city, close to the city gate so as to control and regulate traffic into the city, analogous to what I believe is the location of the royal palace at Hazor. There are two monumental temples at Ugarit, one to Ba’al and the other to Dagan, but they are located far from the royal palace, on the highest point of the tell. The temple towers possibly served as landmarks meant to be seen from afar. Similarly at Hazor, the cultic precinct is on the acropolis of the tell, away from the royal palace and at the entrance to the upper city.

A similar arrangement can be found in the Late Bronze Age palace at Megiddo, at the entrance to Israel’s Jezreel Valley. A unique shell-paved room with a large stone basin and drainage channel leads over an orthostat threshold into the main courtyard, and from there to the other wings of the palace. As at Ugarit and Hazor, the Megiddo palace is located near the city gate, and the highest point of the tell is reserved for the monumental, so-called Migdal Temple.

A major feature of these Canaanite palaces is the royal portals where ablution or libation rituals took place. Architectural features connected to the use of liquids, such as drainage channels, “wells” and stone basins, in all three sites lend support to this interpretation. At Hazor, we also have the “scoops,” dozens of which were found scattered around the podium in the entrance complex. (These unique bowls have also been found in Late Bronze Age royal buildings at Megiddo and Ugarit and in the temples at Lachish, Beth-Shean and Tel Sera.)

The shared architectural features and related ritual activities at Hazor, Ugarit and Megiddo should be viewed within the framework of the lively international connections between ruling elites during the Late Bronze Age. These “royal portals” were probably not open to the public, but served royal emissaries, foreign merchants and other privileged functionaries who were welcomed there by the king or a high official. The visitor would participate in a series of ritual activities, such as libation or ablution, and then proceed into the royal palace itself.

Two inscriptions found in the entrance complex at Hazor grippingly support this interpretation. One is a fragment of polished stone originally belonging to a statue or an offering table. The fragment was inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, constituting a fraction of an original dedicatory inscription. The remaining hieroglyphs represent the title of an important Egyptian personage, probably a vizier to Pharaoh Ramesses II (13th century B.C.E.). The other object is a broken part of a huge vessel made of polished black stone; several rows of cuneiform signs are inscribed on the outside of the vessel. The inscription refers to the dedication of a large basin (maybe the original object itself) to an unknown god by a high-ranking official.

If, as I believe, the entrance complex at Hazor is actually the northern part of a large, multi-roomed royal palace, the long-sought archive of Late Bronze Age Hazor will, I think, be found inside. Several archives were found inside the Ugarit palace, one of them in the vicinity of the official entrance described above. If the two buildings—at Ugarit and Hazor—prove to be as architecturally similar as I have suggested, then there is a very good chance of locating an Amarna-period archive in the area lying just south of the current excavated area at Hazor. I believe five more excavation seasons will be needed to dig down below the overlying Persian and Iron Age remains to reach the Late Bronze Age level.

The first issue of BAR in 1975 contained a review of Yadin’s Schweich lectures to the British Academy on Hazor. The review discussed the possibility of finding a cuneiform archive at Hazor. It ended with these words: “Such an archive, if uncovered, could well rival the libraries of Amarna and Nuzi. Anyone want to volunteer to return with Yadin to Hazor?”g

Now, 30 years later, the archive has still not been found, but we have even stronger evidence that it exists, and we think we know where on the tell of this magnificent Canaanite city it is located. Anyone want to return to Hazor to help us find it?