Area S is located on the western edge of the tell. This area was originally opened in order to document the entire stratigraphic sequence of the tell, but it was prematurely closed upon reaching the Late Bronze Age strata due to the termination of the project and safety concerns (Barkay and Ussishkin 2004a; 2004b). The area originally consisted of fourteen squares (10 × 35 m), arranged in two rows along an east–west transect. The renewed excavations were restricted to twelve of the original squares (C–D/8–13), in the western part of the area, and expanded this area to include two additional squares (B12, E12), together constituting c. 200 sq m.
Work in this area has so far focused mainly on further exposing Stratum S-3 of the LB IB and LB II, which was first exposed by the Tel Aviv University expedition. The present excavation revealed mainly remains of a monumental building (W1027) and related structures of this period, several of which were partly exposed in previous excavations. A few remains of later Strata—S-2 and S-1 (LB II) and VII (LB IIIA)—were exposed in the two newly opened squares and during the dismantling of old balks and the trimming back of sections.
Stratum S-3 (Fig. 2). Most of the remains attributed to this stratum belong to three use-phases (c–a), indicating that this stratum extended over a rather lengthy period of time. Some of the walls were first exposed by the Tel Aviv University expedition, while others are newly uncovered. An especially long east–west wall extending across Sqs C/9–12 (W1027=TAU-W1075/W1077; width 1.2 m, length 17 m, surviving height 1.7 m) appears to have been the southern wall of a monumental building. The southeastern corner of this building was exposed in Sq C9, indicating that it extended northward, while its southwestern corner, which seems to have been located at the very edge of the tell, may have disintegrated over time or was built over in a later phase of construction (see below, W1220). The monumental building existed for the entire duration of Stratum S-3 (Phases c–a) and seems to have been an elite or public structure. Another wall segment found in Sq D12 (W1127) may have also existed throughout the duration of this stratum.
Wall remains that may be interpreted as a fortification system at the western edge of the tell represent the earliest of the three use-phases of Strum S-3 (S-3c). These remains comprise a north–south wall (W1220) connecting to a structure, possibly a tower (W1127, W1163, W1221, W1227). Wall 1163 abuts abovementioned W1127, which continued in use for the duration of the stratum, suggesting that the monumental building to which W1027 belonged may have also been part of this fortification system; however, the relationship between these structures remains to be clarified. A possible buttress (W1219) and a wall (W1222) may have also belonged to the fortification system, although they were uncovered in a rather poor state of preservation, and their relationship with other remains of this system remains tenable.
Remains of more modest architecture abutting W1027 on its southern side variably belong to the three use-phases of Stratum S-3. Additional walls ascribed to Stratum S-3c were found in Sqs C–D/11 (W1232 and W1215, forming a corner, and W1130). A floor (L1223) abutting W1130 from the east and W1027 from the south was exposed. The fills overlying Floor 1223 yielded significant finds, among them two scarabs (Fig. 3) and two pieces of worked bone (L1200/B11314, L1201/B11294), all found less than 0.15 m above the floor. Another wall ascribed to Stratum S-3c (W1081) was uncovered in Sq C9. In a previous publication (Streit et al. 2018:262–263) this wall was provisionally assigned to an earlier stratum, Stratum S-4, because its foundation was set in deposits that were deeper than those of W1027, uncovered in the same square. However, this assignment has been since revised, as the foundation of W1027 in Sq C12 was found in deeper deposits than those observed in Sq C9. Only further excavation of the foundation of W1081 will clarify whether it might predate W1027.
Two walls ascribed to Phase S-3c—W1163 of the tower(?) structure and W1130—seem to have remained in use in the next use-phase (S-3b), continuing to function alongside W1027 and W1127. During this phase, three walls were erected: W1192, W1199 and W1161, which blocked a passageway between W1130 and W1027. A tabun (L1141) was installed between W1027 and W1192 after the adjacent passageway was blocked. Also belonging to this phase is a lens of burnt sediment (L1150) found in Sq C12, close to the level where a floor of Phase S-3b was expected to be found but was not detected. Near this lens, at roughly the same elevation, an ostracon bearing writing of an early alphabetic system was discovered (L1114/B10969; Höflmayer et al. 2021).
The latest use-phase of this stratum, S-3a, is represented by wall remains (from west to east: W1162=TAU-W1105, L1043, W1071=TAU-W1103/W1097, W1028=TAU-W1089, W1032=TAU-W1087), which appear to form orderly spaces along the southern side of W1027, comprising two or three closed rooms. Most of these walls were first exposed during the Tel Aviv University excavation, when they were ascribed to Stratum S-3. In situ ceramics found in association with these walls indicate that at the time of Stratum S-3a this was a predominantly domestic area. No clear floors of this phase were identified during the excavation.
Strata S-2, S-1 and VII. Remains of Strata S-2 and S-1 were encountered in several locations, although it was not always possible to unequivocally attribute them to one or other of these two strata. Stratum S-2, characterized by a sequence of dense laminations of burned material rich in ceramics and organic remains, was previously described as devoid of architecture (Barkay and Ussishkin 2004b:337–342). Such laminations were encountered in the balks of Sqs C–D/10–11 and D12. Although they were previously interpreted as threshing floors (Barkay and Ussishkin 2004b:342), here it is suggested that these laminations more plausibly represent areas of waste disposal that underwent consecutive intentional burning for hygienic reasons. The latter interpretation is in better agreement with the high quantity of ceramics found within the laminations (for a description of similar features at other sites, see Webster et al. 2019a:90). Also ascribed to Stratum S-2 are several pits (e.g., L1110 in Sqs D/11–12) and fills (L1204, L1205 and L1212 in Sq B12). Fill 1212, below Fills 1204 and 1205, yielded a sherd bearing a hieratic inscription (Fig. 4). As this find was discovered less than 0.5 m from the slope edge and was not sealed from above by a well-defined context, its stratigraphic attribution is somewhat ambiguous; it most likely belonged to Stratum S-2, although an attribution to Stratum S-3 cannot be ruled out.
Remains of Stratum VII include a c. 0.5 m thick accumulation of orange-colored mud-brick debris and burnt material (L1197), exposed in the eastern section of Sq B12; this accumulation was also described by Ussishkin in the adjacent Sq C12 (Unit 3783). This accumulation overlay a possible earthen floor (L1228) and yielded two restorable vessels, one of which was decorated, along with a part of another vessel and a stone pestle. The decorated bowl bears several markings on its side, provisionally interpreted as alphabetic letters. A concentration of ceramics (L1172), apparently in situ, was detected in the northern section of Sq E12. A pit (L1036=TAU-L3950; diam. 2 m), uncovered in the western section Sq C8, was also ascribed to Stratum VII. It produced two fragments of a stone pillar base or capital (Streit et al. 2018: Fig. 5), reminiscent of architectural elements previously found in the acropolis temple of Stratum VI (Ussishkin 2004c).
Area P is located in the northwestern part of the tell; the previously unearthed and dismantled northwestern corner of the Judean Palace-Fort of the ninth–eighth centuries BCE occupies the southeastern end of the area (Ussishkin 2004e). Also uncovered in Area P were a temple (Ussishkin 2004c) and domestic structures (Ussishkin 2004b), both from the Late Bronze Age, and a Middle Bronze Age palace structure (Fig. 5; Ussishkin 2004d; wall nos. in the 200s and 300s were exposed by the Tel Aviv University expedition; the oddly shaped wall terminations of some of these walls are due to limited access given the overlying Judean Palace).
The present project continued the excavation in three of the squares opened by the Tel Aviv University expedition (E8–9, F9) and opened seven additional squares to the east of the original area (D–G/10, E–G/11). The newly opened squares yielded remains from all the strata that were previously documented in Area P: an Iron Age II retaining(?) wall in the easternmost squares (Strata V and IV); Late Bronze Age domestic structures (Strata P-2/1); and the eastern continuation of the Middle Bronze Age palace structure (Strata P-4 and P-3). Beneath a plastered floor of Stratum P-4 were remains of earlier phases of the palace, of which the precise stratigraphic attribution (Stratum P-6 or P-5) is still uncertain.
Stratum P-6 or P-5: Early Phase of Middle Bronze Age Palace (Fig. 5). The Tel Aviv University expedition noted isolated remains of a structure that was postulated to be an early phase of the Stratum P-4 palace and attributed to Stratum P-5 (Ussishkin 2004d:146–151). Additional remains of this phase may have been uncovered in the present excavation in Sq E9, below a plastered floor of Stratum P-4 (TAU-L5010). A southwest–northeast stone wall (W2128; width c. 2 m), preserved to a height of at least seven courses, was uncovered 0.2 m beneath the floor. Although large quantities of Early Bronze Age ceramics were found in a fill overlying the wall (L2110), the fills abutting it from the north (L2131) and south (L2130=L2142) point to a Middle Bronze Age date. It is unclear whether W2128 was part of Stratum P-5 or of an even earlier phase of the Middle Bronze palace structure, Stratum P-6. As its elevation is 0.22 m lower than that of an adjacent wall of Stratum P-5 (W2003), exposed in Sq E8, it more likely belongs to Stratum P-6.
Strata P-4 and P-3: Middle Bronze Age Palace (Fig. 5). The palace structure of Stratum P-4, which in this phase was either first built or considerably expanded, comprised two wings—southern and eastern—that flanked a courtyard. The structure was subsequently destroyed and partly restored shortly thereafter (Stratum P-3), but it eventually suffered a second and final destruction (Ussishkin 2004d). It has been previously suggested that the large stone slabs lining parts of the palace structure of Stratum P-4 were in secondary use and originated from the building of Stratum P-5 (Ussishkin 2004d:155).
Part of the eastern wing was further explored during the renewed excavations, revealing what seems to have been a segment of the eastern facade of the structure (W2013B/W2057, W2026). This facade enclosed two large rooms and most probably a third one, to their south. The southern of the two clearly identified rooms was somewhat larger, extending over most of the area encompassed by Sqs E–F9 and G9–10. A buttress abutting W2057 (W2117) is the counterpart of a buttress identified on the opposite side of this space in the former excavations (TAU-W371); these buttresses separated the two rooms. The walls, buttresses and floors of these rooms were plastered with white lime-based plaster (Fig. 6). The existence of a previously undocumented room is indicated by a doorway in the southern wall of this space (W2025, W2032). This room, which also had lime-plastered walls, could not be excavated, as it lies beneath the Judean Palace-Fort. The eastern face of the eastern facade walls (W2026 and W2013B/W2057) was not plastered, while the floor to their east was lime-plastered. A drainage channel (L2151) ran parallel to and east of these two walls, possibly protecting them from rainwater damage. This area, to the east of the façade and accessed via a doorway between the two façade walls, should be interpreted as an open courtyard.
Ample traces of the destruction of the Stratum P-4 palace structure were uncovered. Large patches of lime plaster with imprints of wooden beams were found in the corner enclosed by W2025 and W2026 (L2146). These plaster remains were surrounded by burnt mud bricks, and thus appear to be the remains of a ceiling that collapsed during a fierce conflagration. Similar remnants of a destruction layer were encountered east of W2026 and W2013B/W2057 and south of W2025; also uncovered south of W2025 was a large, charred beam (L2084). The debris from this destruction was generally devoid of finds.
At the time of Stratum P-3, debris from the first destruction of the palace structure was levelled in situ and covered by a plaster floor of poor quality, 0.22–0.40 m above the level of Stratum P-4. Isolated patches of this floor were detected in many locations throughout the excavation area, while a better-preserved stretch of this floor (L2083) was identified in Sq G10, where it abutted the plastered wall of the Stratum P-4 palace and a wall of Stratum P-3 (W2025 and W2065, respectively); W2065 was only visible in the section, adjacent to W2025. Mud-brick benches constructed along the walls seem to have been associated with the palace during its two periods of use (Strata P-4 and P-3; as the benches were mostly poorly constructed and often difficult to identify in the excavation—visible only when cut vertically—they are not shown on the plan); the purpose of these benches remains unclear. Elements added to the palace structure at the time of Stratum P-3 include a mud-brick feature, either a bench or a wall, built against the corner formed by the plaster-coated walls of Stratum P-4 (L2025, L2026), and W2065 cut by the southern section of Sq G10.
Fills of burned mud-brick debris uncovered in the rooms of the palace structure attest to its final destruction. Only a few finds were retrieved from the debris of Stratum P-3; these included an almost complete alabaster falcon figurine and a partly restorable Cypriot Red-on-Red bowl (Fig. 7), uncovered in the southernmost of the eastern rooms of the palace structure, near W2025.
Strata P-2/1: Late Bronze Age Domestic Structures and Pits (Fig. 8). The Tel Aviv University expedition described these two strata as poorly preserved remains of Late Bronze Age domestic structures, arranged in a northwest–southeast alignment. Similar remains uncovered in the renewed excavations are generally assigned to Strata P-2/1, as no direct connections were yet detected between the recently and formerly uncovered remains of these strata, and none of the finds associated with the walls allowed a more fine-tuned stratigraphic attribution.
Two abutting walls (W2015, W2031) and a series of adjacent walls (W2008, W2011, W2013A/W2022) denote the presence of two rooms. Two other walls (W2012 and W2018) seem to belong to a different phase of this structure, although it is unclear whether they represent an earlier or a later phase due to their poor state of preservation. Most of the damage suffered by the Stratum P-2 walls was caused by pits (e.g., L2126 and particularly L2049) of a later phase within the Late Bronze Age, possibly Stratum P-1. Pit 2049 (diam. 1.9 m, depth 1.6 m) was particularly rich in finds, including dozens of seashells, seventeen beads, a complete jug, a bowl crushed in situ and a Mycenaean straight-sided alabastron (Fig. 9; Mountjoy 1986:73–74, Fig. 84, Furumark Shape 94), dated to two phases of the Late Helladic period (LH IIIA2 and LH IIIB); a close parallel of this latter vessel is known from Tel Batash, Stratum VII (Steel 2006:156, Photo 75; see also, Greener 2015:218–219).
Strata V and IV: The Iron Age. Only flimsy remains of Stratum V were identified by the Tel Aviv University expedition in Area P (Ussishkin 2004e). Above them were remains of Stratum IV, comprising the Judahite Palace-Fort, the Northern Annexed Building and a courtyard that were collectively referred to as ‘Palace B’. These structures were subsequently rebuilt after the Assyrian onslaught of 701 BCE—remains which were referred to as ‘Palace C’ (Ussishkin 2004e:774–776).
The recent excavations in Area P retraced only a part of the Northern Annexed Building, comprising nearly square platforms at the eastern end of three parallel walls (TAU-W9511, TAU-W282, TAU-W281), dismantled in 2019. A north–south row of three wall segments (W2101, W2102, W2072; Sqs E–G/11; hereinafter W2072) were uncovered running parallel to the Northern Annexed Building and forming a rounded corner with an east–west wall (L2042). Wall 2072 was most probably a retaining wall, shoring up the mud-brick debris of the destruction of the Strata P-4–3 palace structure, upon which the Northern Annexed Building was built. This is indicated, among other features, by its considerable height (c. 2.5 m); its slight westward inclination, toward the interior of the Northern Annexed Building; and the fact that it had only one proper face—on its eastern side. Wall 2072 is abutted from the east by short, poorly built mudbrick walls, apparently buttresses, with homogenous fills between them. These walls were barely discernable, and they were identified only in a section cut through them (e.g., W2118; Fig. 10), indicating that they and the retaining wall (W2072) were part of an underground substructure. These buttresses of sort were overlain by two consecutive floors and a c. 0.2 m thick accumulation rich in bitumen chunks. Future exposure of a larger horizontal area will clarify whether these remains belong to Stratum V or IV.
Throughout all the excavation seasons, intensive sampling of well-stratified organic material for radiocarbon dating was conducted in Areas S and P, retrieving material from both newly opened excavation squares and old sections. The analysis focused on material from short-lived plants in order to obtain a highly precise chronology suitable for Bayesian analysis. The analysis was conducted in the radiocarbon laboratories at the University of Groningen and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich. The radiocarbon sequences put together by this project took into account both recent determinations and older dates obtained by the Tel Aviv University expedition (Carmi and Ussishkin 2004). A discussion of the results and their implications was published elsewhere (Webster et al. 2019a; 2019b).
The radiocarbon sequence established for Area S (Strata S-3c–a, S-2, S-1, VII, VI) suggests that Strata S-3 and S-2 date from a period significantly earlier than that surmised by the previous excavators: instead of a date in the late fourteenth century BCE for both these strata (Ussishkin 2004a:57–60), the date of Stratum S-3 is pushed back to the second half of the fifteenth century BCE (c. 1450–1420 cal BCE), and that of Stratum S-2 to the first half of the fourteenth century BCE (c. 1420–1350 cal BCE). This revised chronology eliminates an apparent discrepancy that was previously noted between the archaeological evidence from Tel Lakhish and the written sources: Ussishkin (2004a:58) pointed out a lack of occupation at the tell during the second half of the fifteenth century BCE, when Papyrus Hermitage 1116A verso from the reign of Amenhotep II mentions the dispatching of envoys to Egypt from several cities in the southern Levant, including Lakhish (Epstein 1963). The revised radiocarbon sequence ascribes Stratum S-3 to this very period, thus attesting to the existence at that time of a well-organized settlement at the site, capable of dispatching an envoy to the king of Egypt (Webster et al. 2019a). A similar radiocarbon sequence has been developed for Area P and is awaiting publication.
The three seasons of renewed excavations in Areas S and P at Tel Lakhish have significantly added to our understanding of the archaeology and chronology of the Late Bronze Age layers at the site.
A base of a stone pillar or capital found in a pit in Area S possibly attests to a previously undocumented temple or elite structure in the vicinity of this area. Reconsideration of the laminated structure of the Stratum S-2 sediments points to their interpretation as the intentional accumulation of disposed remains rather than threshing floors, although this requires further study. The Stratum S-3 monumental building is interpreted as an elite residence or a public structure based on its large size the associated small finds, which include scarabs, bone implements and inscriptions bearing hieratic and proto-Canaanite scripts. These inscriptions will allow researchers to reassess the development of writing in the region. A revised chronology for Area S, based on intensive radiocarbon dating, provides an absolute date for Stratum S-3 in the second half of the fifteenth century BCE. This establishes a correspondence between this occupation layer and the mention of an envoy from Lakhish in Papyrus Hermitage 1116A verso. Furthermore, the dates from Tel Lakhish are in agreement with radiocarbon evidence from other Levantine and Egyptian sites mentioned in support of a high Middle Bronze Age chronology, with a Middle–Late Bronze Age transition possibly occurring as early as 1600 BCE (Höflmayer 2015; 2019; Höflmayer et al. 2016a; 2016b).
Excavations in Area P have contributed to an understanding of the architectural layout of the Middle Bronze Age (Strata P-4 and P-3) palace structure by exposing additional parts of its eastern wing and a courtyard to its east. Excavations beneath the floor of Stratum P-4 revealed remains of an earlier phase of this palace (P-5 or P-6), mainly a wall of monumental proportions. East of the Middle Bronze Age remains, excavations have unearthed what appears to be a retaining wall from the Iron Age, shedding light on the layout and architecture of the Judean Palace-Fort complex. Further investigations of these remains—possibly part of a large substructure—will clarify whether this complex belongs to Iron Age IIB or IIA.