Monday, March 05, 2018

Précis: Nadav Naʾaman 2011 “The Shephelah according to the Amarna Letters.”

Nadav Naʾaman 2011 “The Shephelah according to the Amarna Letters.”

pp. 281-299 in I. Finkelstein and N. Na'aman (eds.), The Fire Signals of Lachish. Studies in the Archaeology and History of Israel in the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Persian Period in Honor of David Ussishkin, Winona Lake 2011, 281-299.
available at 


This article is important with respect to the relationship of archaeology and the claims made about the past based on archaeology over against what can be learned from textual evidence.

Nadav Na’aman is Professor of Jewish History, Emeritus of Tel Aviv University, where he served from 1975 to 2007. He is a renowned authority on the Amarna Letters with long experience in Archaeology, the Ancient Near East, and the history of the Amarna Period, and other topics.

His CV is available at

In 1887 the first 358 tablets of the Amarna Letters were discovered in Amarna, Egypt. Another 24 tablets were recovered later in the 20th century. The tablets are written in Akkadian cuneiform and consist mostly of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its subject kings in Canaan and Amarru. The correspondence covers about 30 years during the XVIIIth Egyptian Dynasty, starting in the last few years of Amenhotep III’s life. This period is now thought to start just before 1350 B.C. and extend down to the 1320s, though there are enough perplexities in Egyptian chronology which could argue for as much as 30 years earlier for the beginning of this period.

Précis by Joseph Abrahamson

Na’aman’s article presents a test case concerning the intersection of archaeology and documentary history through the examination of the political, geographical, and personal references in a small set of letters from the Amarna tablets which deal with a rebellion in the Shephelah called the Qiltu Affair. This grouping of letters is called the Shephelah correspondence.

In “Egyptian sources of the New Kingdom” the Shephelah is strikingly absent, except for the city of Gezer. “The Shephelah is also absent from all other Egyptian topographical lists that enumerate the cities in the Land of Canaan...and from Papyrus Anastasi I which describes various regions and towns in Canaan…” And the envoy list of “Amenophis II’s 18th year lists the envoy of Lachish apart from” other envoys. This lack of mention is “remarkable when it is compared with other districts in Canaan.” “[T]he Shephelah … is the least mentioned region among the districts of Canaan. [This absence] calls for an explanation.”

Na’aman’s procedure is to 1) the textual evidence concerning the features of the City-States in the Shephelah as recorded in the Amarna Letters, 2) the archaeological evidence for those cities/city states during the period of the letters; 3) “examine in detail the documentary evidence for the Shephelah in the 14th century B.C.E.” And 4) draw “an overall picture of the Shephelah in light of the documentary and archaeological evidence.”

For the first section Na’aman delineates the selection of which Amarna Letters are relevant giving explanation to the features with respect to authorship and location. He cautions that one must realize that this corpus represents only a fraction of the number of letters which would actually have been written. From these criteria he discusses how he intends to make only the most clear and empirical description of probable city-states and rulers in the Shephelah from these documents. This section contains detailed explanation of the preservation of the particular tablets, their content, and the weight of any relevant reconstructions in the texts. His result is that along with “Gezer, Gath, and Lachish…[i]t is clear that about six/seven different city-states existed in the time of the Amarna archive, and that large mounds, such as Tell !Aitun and Tell Beit Mirsim, might have been the seats of city-states’ rulers…” In addition “each of the identified city-states stood near one of the main rivers of the Shephelah.” Which may mean “that the territories of the city-states stretched along the main rivers and their tributaries, each dominating a number of villages and hamlets in its district.”

In his second section Na’aman investigates the archaeological evidence for the Shephelah in this period. But his results poze a puzzle. He explained some typical assumptions about what an archaeologist might expect to find with respect to governing centers. He asks; “Can archaeological research produce evidence for differentiating the centers of city-states from secondary towns in their territories?” “Upon reading the seven letters sent from Jerusalem, scholars would expect the excavations to reveal a medium-sized, thriving city in the Late Bronze Age, but these expectations were totally dashed.” There is a huge discrepancy which he believes can be explained “by the state of preservation of the settlement strata from the Amarna period.” Similarly with the archaeological record at Gezer Na’aman states: “If our knowledge of the place were based entirely on the archaeological findings, we would have concluded that Gezer was, at most, an unimportant city-state, and no one would have thought that it was one of the leading city-states in the array of Canaanite city-states during the Amarna period.” Regarding Lachish he writes: “We may state with certainty that, without the historical documentation, scholars would have assumed that Late Bronze Lachish became an important city-state only in the 13th century” after the Amarna period.

His conclusion to this section is that archaeology is inherently unreliable without textual evidence. “[W]ith regard to the cities’ political status and strength vis-à’vis their neighbors, especially in periods of decline, archaeology is severely limited. We may conclude that the number of Canaanite city-states in the Shephelah should be established on the basis of the documentary evidence alone, whereas archaeology, useful as it is in many aspects of the urban and material culture, cannot supply concrete data for the investigation.”

For the third section Na’aman focuses a “prominent feature in the ‘Shephelah correspondence.’” These are the problems of rebellion and political and social unrest reported in the letters. These features “require elucidation.” He focuses on one particular event called the “Qiltu affair” to demonstrate how significantly careful study of the textual evidence fills in our information about the events of this region which are invisible to archaeology. This section contains careful analysis of the relevant Amarna letters which speak of this event. Na’aman also draws a political parallel with similar events of 1 Samuel 23:1-13 during Saul’s reign.

In Na’aman’s fourth section he analyzes the record of “rebellions in the Shephelah in the Late Amarna Period.” This section also contains careful analysis of relevant Amarna Letters “in order to establish the identity of the social groups that operated in the related events.” Several letters are scrutinized, and Na’aman draws a relatively clear historical but tentative reconstruction of these rebellions and their causes.

In his conclusion, Na’aman points out that there “is a marked contast between the Egyptian inscriptions, which entirely ignore the Shephelah region (except for Gezer) and mention only toponyms located outside its area, and the Amarna letters, which show that the Shephelah played an important part in the Egyptian administration of Canaan.” Na’aman highlights some of the main insights given by the Amarna letters. “The archaeological excavations and surveys supply important data that is not illuminated by the documentary evidence.” And the archaeological evidence must be used in light of the textual evidence. And the Egyptian topographical lists from the time period need to be reevaluated with respect to both their purpose and meaning rather than concluding that they would mention issues based on the expectations of historians or archaeologists.