In August 2013–April 2014, an excavation accompanied by conservation work, was conducted in the Tel Lakhish gate plaza (Permit Nos. A-6896, A-7073; map ref. 185586/608110; Fig. 1). The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and funded by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Prime Minister’s Office Heritage Program and Tel Aviv University, was conducted by S. Ganor (field photography), with the assistance of R. Shoaf (architect), F. Abu Ta‘a and his team (conservation), A. Hajian and M. Kunin (surveying and drafting), Sky View and CopterPIX (aerial photography), and Y. Israel, S. Gal, S. Lender and D. Varga.
The Iron Age city of Lakhish (Tel Lachish) was the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah, after Jerusalem. The tell is located on the banks of Nahal Lakhish in the Judean Shephelah, and controls the main road that ran from the coastal plain to the Hebron and Jerusalem Hills. This location evidently granted it strategic importance, as attested to by a settlement sequence extending from the Middle Bronze Age to the Persian period. The tell’s summit commands a view of important Iron Age sites, such as Tel Maresha and Tel Goded. The many excavations conducted on the tell make it a pivotal site for understanding the material culture in the region during Iron Age II–III. Tel Lakhish was first excavated in the 1930s by the Wellcome Marston Archaeological Research Expedition headed by J.L. Starkey, when extensively dug areas yielded finds including the gate plaza, Stratum II from the seventh–sixth centuries BCE in the inner gate, and the Lakhish Letters in the guardroom to the east of the gate plaza entrance (Tufnell 1953:93–126). Excavations from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, headed by D. Ussishkin, exposed the Stratum II gate plaza, the northern side of the six-chambered gate from Strata IV–III and part of the gate’s entrance and passage (Ussishkin 2004:504–523). Excavations undertaken by the IAA in 2015–2016 exposed the southern side of the inner city gate (Ganor and Kreimerman 2018).
The gate plaza and the main gate of the city, built on the western side of the tell, were dated by the previous excavations to the Iron Age (Stratum II; seventh–sixth centuries BCE; Figs. 2, 3). The plan of the gate plaza and its finds, including the Lakhish Letters, were published and became firmly established in the annals of archaeological research in Israel. In 2013–2014, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the IAA undertook excavation, conservation and development work in the gate plaza as part of a larger project whose ultimate goal is to transform Tel Lakhish into an innovative national park, able to accommodate large numbers of visitors.
During the conservation and development work, a balk extant since Ussishkin’s expedition in the northeastern part of the plaza (L7001) was removed, as were collapsed stones from a room to the east of the guardroom where the Lakhish Letters were found (Room of the Letters). The meager pottery sherds retrieved in the current excavation contribute no additional knowledge to the dating already established for Stratum II at Tel Lakhish.
The removal of the balk (L7001) previously carried out in the northeastern part of the plaza revealed broken mud bricks and medium-sized stones that belonged to two previously exposed walls (W429, W497) enclosing the eastern and southern sides of a room (Fig. 4). During the conservation work, another wall (W5000) closing the room’s western side, was discovered.
The removal of large piles of collapsed stones from the room east of the Room of the Letters and the outer gate revealed a square room (3.9 × 4.1 m; Fig. 5) surrounded by four walls. The room’s floor (L7003) was made of stones, some flat and others lying on their side. Inside the room, poorly preserved iron fragments, possibly once arrowheads, were found between the collapsed stones.
The limited excavation joins previous excavations conducted in the gate plaza at Tel Lakhish. It provides new data by uncovering another room to the east of the Room of the Letters and completing the excavation of the walls in the room in the northeastern part of the plaza. The new data enables the reconstruction of a plan of a symmetrical gate fortress (22 × 36 m) that includes a paved plaza surrounded by rooms. Access to the plaza is from the southwest, between two towers. Iron Age fortresses have previously been excavated mainly in the south of Israel, as at Tel ‘Arad (Herzog et al. 1984; Aharoni 1986; Herzog 1997), Horbat Radum and Horbat ‘Uza (Beit Arieh 2007), Kadesh Barnea (Cohen and Bernick-Greenberg 2007) and Haẕeva (Cohen and Israel 1996). No other Iron Age II–III fortresses have been excavated to date in the Judean Shephelah. A recent study in the Jerusalem Hills has found evidence for many other fortresses with a similar plan (Ganor 2016). A comparative research between the fortresses in the Jerusalem Hills and Judean Shephelah, and the gate fortress at Tel Lakhish points to the existence of a similar architectural plan consisting of a square or rectangular fortress containing casement rooms arranged around an inner plaza. The Stratum II gate fortress at Tel Lakhish was consequently probably part of a series of Iron Age fortresses in the region.
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