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In the Path of Sennacherib, Oded Borowski, BAR 31:03, May-Jun 2005.

the-assyrian-king-sennacherib-in-relief“I laid waste the large district of Judah and made the overbearing and proud Hezekiah, its king, bow in submission,” boasts Sennacherib, monarch of Assyria, in a preserved cuneiform inscription.1 “I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities- … and conquered (them),” Sennacherib elsewhere claims, obviously hoping to secure his place in history. And indeed he has.

The Bible records this campaign in two separate accounts, once in the Book of Kings and again in Chronicles. “King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah and encamped against the fortified towns” (2 Chronicles 32-1). Sennacherib’s hordes attacked Judah, according to 2 Kings 18-13 “in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign,” probably 701 B.C.E. The Biblical texts conform to Sennacherib’s own description by admitting that “King Sennacherib of Assyria attacked and captured all the fortified towns of Judah.”

Both Sennacherib’s account and the Biblical accounts are clear, however, that Sennacherib (705–681 B.C.E.) was unable to capture the prize, although he had it under siege- Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Jerusalem was saved by a miracle. No explanation is given by Sennacherib—only that he “made [Hezekiah] a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Sennacherib apparently was unable to break into the birdcage, however.

But what of the 46 other cities that Sennacherib claims to have destroyed?

We most likely have found one of them at a site called Tel Halif, in the foothills of Judah.2 It is a prominent mound south of Jerusalem, about 10 miles northeast of Beer-Sheva. The tell overlooks the coastal plain and the Mediterranean Sea, 20 miles to the west. Tel Halif also guards the approach to the central hill-country from the famous Via Maris, the ancient coastal road from Egypt through Philistia and Judah, with one branch continuing north to Tyre and the other veering off at Megiddo to Damascus.3

The Iron Age city of Tel Halif was probably destroyed by Sennacherib. Gruesome and unfeeling as it may seem, archaeologists love destructions. They love swift destructions even more. When the conquest proceeds swiftly, the inhabitants have no time to flee and remove their belongings. Such is the case here.

The destruction of Tel Halif was not only swift, it was also intense. The fire was so hot that the mudbricks of which the buildings were constructed were baked hard.a A thick layer of ash covered the destruction.

That the fire was a result of a military action is evident from the numerous arrowheads, slingstones and other weapons uncovered in the destruction. Elongated arrowheads made of bronze and iron were found in the destruction debris of different rooms, on the floors and embedded within the collapsed mudbrick. They were accompanied by lance heads and numerous rounded slingstones 2 to 2.75 inches diameter, made of limestone with a flint core.

We even think we know the ancient name of the site—Rimmon (pomegranate).b It is mentioned twice in the Bible, once in Joshua and once in the book of the prophet Zechariah. In Joshua 15-21–32 Rimmon is noted at the end of a list of 29 towns at the “far end of the tribe of Judah near Edom.”4 In Zechariah, the prophet sees an eschatological vision of a time when the Lord alone will be worshiped from the northern border of the country “to Rimmon south of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14-10).

The identification of Tel Halif as ancient Rimmon is based on geographical considerations and toponomic studies (the study of the development and retention of names of ancient sites). Its identification is symbolically suggested by a unique piece of pottery found in a tomb cave at Halif. Sometimes, although rarely, an inscription is found at a site containing its ancient name. This is true, for example, at Dan, Arad and Gezer. We have no inscription, but we did find a strange and quite beautiful bowl with a pomegranate rising from the center. “Rimmon,” as we noted, means pomegranate. Is this shallow bowl with a pomegranate rising in the center unique to this site? So far, it is. Does it give us a hint at the identity of the site?

Oddly enough, the name Rimmon also designates a pagan deity. Is the name a holdover from an earlier population of the site? In 2 Kings 5, Na’aman, an Aramean general, seeks out the prophet Elisha to cure him of his leprosy. Elisha declines to see Na’aman but sends a messenger to tell him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River so that he will be cured. Na’aman, angered that the prophet would not even see him, contemptuously responds that Na’aman has available to him the rivers near Damascus- Why does he need the Jordan? His troops persuade him, however, to try the Jordan, and he is cured—and convinced that “there is no God in the whole world except in Israel.” He will henceforth bow down to no other god—with one exception. When the King of Aram, whom he serves, “enters the temple of Rimmon to bow low in worship there, and he is leaning on my arm so that I must bow low in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow low in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant in this (2 Kings 5-18).” Elisha tells Na’aman to go in peace. Is a memory of this pagan god preserved in the later Israelite town?

We are confident Tel Halif in the Iron Age II period (1000–587 B.C.E.) is Judahite for several reasons- Geographically, it lies within the boundaries of Judah in the eighth century B.C.E. The pottery assemblage in the destruction layer is similar to that of Lachish III (which we know was a Judahite city destroyed by Sennacherib). Also, the animal bone assemblage does not contain any pig bones, a mark of a Judahite site. Finally, we found several jar handles stamped LMLK (lamelek, “Belonging to the King”) typical of sites that allied themeslves with Hezekiah against Sennacherib.

There is no better site than Tel Halif to see how ordinary Judahites lived on the eve of Sennacherib’s destruction. In archaeological terms, this is the town during Iron Age II. Actually, 22 settlements are piled one atop the other to form the tell, ranging from the Chalcolithic period (c. 3500 B.C.E.) to the Modern Arab period (1800–1948 C.E.). But the greatest archaeological exposure of our excavation was that of the Iron Age II, our stratum VIB (900–700 B.C.E.) and stratum VIA (700–650 B.C.E.). In many places these strata are close to the tell’s surface and could be exposed easily. Stratum VIB was the town destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. Stratum VIA, above it, was probably inhabited by refugees from stratum VIB. (The pottery assemblages of these two strata very strongly indicate that the inhabitants of the two strata were related.) But these refugees, too, abandoned the town in haste, leaving the contents of the structures behind. Stratum VIA was probably abandoned in fear of another Assyrian attack about 50 years later. Together, these two strata disclose remarkable details of daily life in ancient Judah.

The inhabitants of ancient Tel Halif enjoyed a fairly prosperous life. This was no doubt partly because it was located on the heavily trafficked Via Maris. The site was also well-supplied with water. Caravans traveling along the route could stop at the nearby wells and water their beasts of burden and refill their own drinking supply.

The hills around the town served as a luxuriant grazing area for Halif’s sheep and goats.
Climatic conditions—and hence the flora and fauna—were very similar to those prevailing today. Wild animals such as gazelles and partridges still roam the area.

The town itself was fortified with a casemate wall that surrounded the crest of the mound. (A casemate wall is a double wall with perpendicular interior walls periodically dividing the space, forming what are called casemates.) Outside this wall, a stone-faced glacis (rampart) sloped down and outward at an angle of about 40 degrees. The water supply in case of siege would be provided by several cisterns carved in bedrock inside the town, which were filled by runoff water.

The houses in the town were so-called four-room houses typical of Israelite settlements in the Iron Age. The paradigmatic four-room house had two stories; the ground floor consisted of three long rooms and one broad room across the three long rooms. Sometimes residents would use a casemate in the town wall as the back broad room to their four-room house. Often the rooms were subdivided to define spaces and function. The space on the ground floor was used for food preparation, storage of commodities such as barley, and for activities such as weaving.

Some of the floors were made of crushed chalk, while others were made of beaten earth with cobbled areas. Although no second story survived at Tel Halif, the massive pillars and thick walls strongly suggest that they were used to support a heavy load, that is, a second story, which was probably used as the living space for the family.5

We know there was a second story for another reason, as well. When we excavate we find some items right on the floor but sometimes the finds are on top of or embedded within some destruction rubble. These finds must have fallen from above, from the second story.

We know that food was prepared on the ground floor of houses because it was there that we found grinding stones and pestles, bread ovens, cooking ovens, work areas and work benches. Moreover, the pottery from the first floor included large kraters, as well as individual bowls. Food was served in the large kraters; people would take a portion and eat from the individual bowls, probably using their fingers and flat bread as a scoop.

The diet was varied and healthful. It included meat, dairy products, fish and fowl. We know this from the zooarchaeological record, as well as from paleo-ethnobotanical remains. Samples found on the floors indicate that barley was a staple. Other remains—of broad beans, oats, wheat and olives—also survived on the floor. Other samples yielded carbonized remains of pomegranates, grapes and legumes such as peas and lentils.

Sheep and goats were the main source of meat. But there was also evidence of the consumption of beef.

Cattle bones indicate that in addition to the beef they provided, they were also used in agricultural work. The small number of equid remains—most likely donkey—and a camel bone suggest that these animals were used as beasts of burden. We know that the donkeys and camel did not provide meat for the humans because the bones bear no butchering or tooth marks. There were no pig bones, an expectable absence in a Judahite settlement. (That’s one way we know it was an Israelite settlement.)

Fish bones found in floor samples suggest a lively trade relationship with the coastal plain. Some of the bones belonged to fish native to the Nile; they were apparently brought from Egypt.

Most of the meals consisted of vegetarian and meat stew, gruel made of cereals and legumes, and an occasional roasted lamb, all of which were accompanied by lots of bread and olive oil. Dairy products (yogurt, butter and a variety of cheeses), fresh and dried fruit, wine and perhaps bee honey or thick fruit syrup were also available. In one of the houses we found what appear to be utensils used in wine production.

The residents of Tel Halif at this time also engaged in textile weaving and dyeing. Herd animals supplied the wool and hair used in the weaving. We found numerous spindle whorls used to spin wool and hair into thread. The locally spun thread was then woven into cloth, as shown by the numerous donut-shaped clay loom weights used in the weaving process that were recovered from the site. Bone spatulas strongly suggest that some of the textiles had patterns. The elongated spatulas were made of cattle or other large animal rib bones.c

That the cloth was dyed can be surmised from the close proximity of the loom weights to a stone vat surrounded by such ceramic vessels as bowls and cooking pots, all of which could be used in the dyeing process.

Strangely enough, we found no evidence of pottery manufacturing at our site. Not only did we not find any kilns, but some of the ceramic kraters we did find had apparently been repaired- Rows of small holes along both sides of a crack had been drilled, in which leather thongs were possibly threaded to hold the vessel together. Other bowls have a hole made in the middle after firing. These measures would not have been necessary if pottery making was available.

It was not all work and no play at Tel Halif. Game pieces indicate what the local inhabitants did with their leisure time.

Some leisure time activities do not appear in the archaeological record, unless you can infer them from women’s cosmetic palettes and ivory combs found on floors. To these can be added objects of self-adornment- beads, rings, pins and fibulae (clothes pins).

Very little evidence concerning the local cult was uncovered. In one house, however, we did discover what can be considered a “house shrine.” In a room adjacent to the town wall, on a cobbled floor, we recovered an assemblage consisting of two beveled limestone stands (probably to place offerings on), a ceramic incense stand, and the head of a pillar figurine, so-called because of its pillar-shaped body. The head of these pillar figurines is usually made in a mold—though sometimes it is pinched by hand and looks like a bird’s face. The head is attached to the body—which has exaggerated breasts—cupped and supported by the hands. Pillar figurines were common in Iron Age II.

The inhabitants of Tel Halif buried their dead in a cemetery on a slope across a valley from the site. Typical of Iron Age II tombs, the tombs include a chamber with burial benches along the walls. The burial rooms have repositories in the corners for the deposit of bones when the benches were needed for successive burials. The number of benches and repositories varied from one to three. Each tomb was entered through a narrow opening that could be blocked with a large stone.

Although most of the tombs had been plundered or reused in later periods, many of their repositories yielded clay oil lamps, arrowheads, jewelry (including several silver earrings) and similar objects. A few unplundered tombs contained rich assemblages of numerous ceramic and metal objects, including rings, bracelets, toggle pins and fibulae. The bowl with the pomegranate was found in one of the tombs.

A final find- two so-called l’melekh handles. These are well-known emblems stamped onto the handles of a particular kind of jar from this period. (We found many jars of this type, but without the stamp.) L’melekh means “belonging to the king.” Most scholars consider them an official stamp of King Hezekiah.

The village of Tel Halif, whatever its ancient name, was clearly a Judahite town controlled by King Hezekiah that had allied itself with his revolt against the Assyrians. For this the town paid a ruinous price. For archaeologists 2,700 years later, however, it was a boon.

a. Some of these buildings had actually been constructed in an earlier town (stratum VIC) and continued to be used in the town that was destroyed (stratum VIB).

b. Other proposals, however, include Sharuhen, Ziklag, Hormah and Goshen.

c. The spatulas were used in a warp-weighted loom to introduce dyed weft (horizontal) segments to form patterns. Unlike the regular yarn used for the weft, these segments were woven with the help of the spatulas that enabled placing the segments in the proper place.

 

1. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 288.

2. Excavations at Tel Halif were conducted in three phases starting in 1976 by the Lahav Research Project (LRP), a consortium of American institutions led by a group of American scholars. The objective of Phase I, under the direction of Joe D. Seger, was to establish the stratigraphy of the site; this was carried out in four seasons (1976–1977, 1979–1980). Phase II (1983, 1986–1987, 1989), also under the direction of Seger, was mostly devoted to the study of the remains from Early and Late Bronze Ages. Phase III (1992–1993, 1999), under the co-direction of Paul F. Jacobs and Oded Borowski, concentrated on the remains from Iron Age II (eighth century B.C.E.)

3. Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (revised and enlarged edition, edited by A.F. Rainey) (Philadelphia- Westminster Press, 1979), p. 44.

4. Before its allocation to Judah, it may have been part of the tribe of Simeon. See Joshua 19-7 and 1 Chronicles 4-32. A reference to En-rimmon (En=spring) in Nehemiah 11-29 may also be the same site.

5. For more information on the Israelite house, see Oded Borowski Daily Life in Biblical Times (Atlanta- Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), pp. 16–21.

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