Do Hundreds of Lachish Letters Await Publication?

Even if only blank ostraca were discarded in 1935 among the piles of rubbish that accumulated during the excavations, they should be properly documented and labeled as such.

See Also:Considering the Rejoinder to LMLK Chronology

By G.M.
July 2012

When scholars celebrated the New Year transition from 1934 to 1935, the only complete sentences they had in Hebrew handwriting before the Persian era were on the Siloam Inscription (originally located inside of Hezekiah’s Tunnel).1 The various readings during the first year of its discovery led to some unpleasant exchanges concerning its translation and preservation. When publishing the first detailed drawing of the inscription, A.H. Sayce (1881, p. 282) lamented that some of the letters had been “injured” by the application of hydrochloric acid by Conder (1881, p. 285) or made “indistinct” by “Dr. Guthe’s repeated washings.”

On January 29th, 1935 someone (probably an Arab archeologist named Hasan Awad [Hanajreh Bedawy]2 ) working for the British expedition led by James L. Starkey discovered a cache of ostraca (pottery shards bearing inscriptions) at Tell ed-Duweir, ancient Lachish.3 Besides a few bland lists similar to the Samaria ostraca, the Lachish archive documented historic events and personal interactions, primarily between two men named Jaosh/Yaush and Hoshaiah/Hoshayahu. The former is considered to be the commander or leader of the subordinate latter. Also noteworthy are several specimens bearing the 4-letter name of God (יהוה, also known as the Tetragrammaton or Hashem [The Name] out of reverence).

In his “Introduction to the Texts” section, Torczyner wrote excitedly:

“We now know how the ancient books of Kings and Prophets were written, according to the script, the division between the words, their splitting at the end of the lines, and their spelling; knowledge of these facts will from now on be the basis for any work on textual criticism of the Bible. … [A]ny work upon the text will have to start from the original conditions as shown in the Lachish Letters. At least in his mind the scholar must visualize the Biblical text recopied in this original form. … The Lachish Letters are the first personal documents found, reflecting the mind, the struggles, sorrows and feelings of ancient Judah in the last days of the kingdom…” (Torczyner et al. 1938, pp. 15, 18).

After the formal editio princeps of the original 18 specimens, another 3 were found as the excavation continued, then another from Aharoni’s excavation (Aharoni 1975, p. 22-4), and 11 during Ussishkin’s. Andre Lemaire (2004) published the most recent interpretation of all 33, and the following list shows some of the textual highlights, contrasted with others that remain illegible:4

1)  Five personal names with patronyms.

2)  Unnamed servant (obed) to lord (adonai) Yaush; includes Tetragrammaton (2x).

3)  Servant Hoshayahu to lord Yaush; includes
Tetragrammaton (2x); mentions an army commander named Konyahu ben Elnatan going to Egypt (cf. Jeremiah 26:22), “the king,” and a warning from “the prophet.”

4)  Unnamed servant to unnamed lord;
Tetragrammaton (1x); mentions signals from Lachish and Azekah (cf. Jeremiah 34:7).

5)  Unnamed servant to unnamed lord; includes
Tetragrammaton (2x); mentions an unnamed king or royal item.

6)  Unnamed servant to lord Yaush; includes
Tetragrammaton (2x).

7)  (poorly preserved).

8)  (poorly preserved with the exception of the name Akhzib; possibly from an unnamed person to unnamed lord with Tetragrammaton [2x]; cf. ostracon #22).

9)  Unnamed servant to unnamed lord;
Tetragrammaton (1x).

10)  (poorly preserved).

11)   At least four personal names.

12)  Unnamed servant to unnamed lord;
Tetragrammaton (1x).5

13)  (poorly preserved, possibly from an unnamed

14)  (poorly preserved).

15)  (poorly preserved).

16)  (poorly preserved fragment from a larger
ostracon, possibly naming “[?]iah the prophet”).

17)  (poorly preserved fragment from a larger
ostracon, possibly from an unnamed person to unnamed lord).

18)  Fragment from a larger ostracon to an unnamed lord.

19)  At least five personal names.

20)  A date and two place-names.

21)  (poorly preserved).

22)  At least 10 personal names with quantities, the last being “the house of Akhzib” (cf. Micah 1:14 and ostracon #8).

23)  (poorly preserved, possibly an abecedary or
other school exercise).

24)  “Wine of ’Ashan” (Lemaire’s XXV).

25)  “To Neryahu” (Lemaire’s XXVI).

26)  “Libnah” (Lemaire’s XXVII).

27)  (Lemaire’s XXVIII; poorly preserved).

28)  A date, name with patronym, quantity
(Lemaire’s XXIX).

29)  “Extract of black raisins” (Lemaire’s XXX).

30)  Fragment of a larger ostracon with at least three patronyms (Lemaire’s XXXI).

31)  Fragment of a larger ostracon with at least four names and quantities (Lemaire’s XXXIII).

32)  List of two names and quantities (Lemaire’s XXXIV).

33)  List of three names (Lemaire’s XXXV).

Figure 1: Replicas of ostraca #3-5 made by artist, Kris Udd
Figure 1: Replicas of
ostraca #3-5 made by
artist, Kris Udd









Several problems hinder full/certain translations:

A) Abrasion/erasing (ostraca #12 and #22). Portions of the ink have been removed through natural forces prior to excavation, and/or by improper conservation methods (e.g., excessive scrubbing to remove macroscopic debris, as with the Siloam Inscription).

B) Breakage/fragmentation (ostraca #16-18, 30-31). The existing shard only represents a portion of the original shard.

C) Condition/quality. In some cases, even with a complete artifact properly conserved, the inscription may be obscured due to it having been poorly written, or due to it having been transformed in appearance (as by fire or extreme heat during a catastrophe).

Not much can be done about problem B except additional excavation or post-processing data collected from other shards to facilitate reconstruction. However, hope exists for problems A and C.

After finding the initial 18 ostraca, members of the British team made an effort to clean and enhance the legibility of the inscriptions, all to little avail. Alkin Lewis chose Ostracon #18 for a battery of immersion tests involving “benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, chloroform, ether, carbon disulphide, aniline, oil of cedar, Canada balsam in xylene, camphor in toluene and many mixtures of these” (Torczyner et al. 1938, p. 196).6 Ostraca #4 and 6 were also immersed in ether, again without improving their legibility. He performed more drastic/detrimental experiments on imitation ostraca, still with negative results.

Several people examined the ostraca under infrared and ultraviolet lights, and photographed them using panchromatic film and a red filter (Torczyner et al. 1938, p. 14). The photos published in Torczyner et al. 1938 remain the best representation of the inscriptions.

Fast-forwarding to modern times, in an attempt to recover the famous-but-faded ink inscription on the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon (excavated in 2008), Gregory Bearman photo-graphed it using modern equipment and techniques at four U.S. laboratories (Bearman & Christens-Barry 2009, p. 9). Though the results appear interesting and could be of great assistance in extracting better images of the Lachish ostraca and other artifacts still awaiting excavation, they did not provide any dramatic new visual data to improve the Qeiyafa inscription’s legibility compared to the original color and infrared photography conducted by Clara Amit of the Israel Antiquities Authority.7

Bearman has continued studying alternate methods to enhance ostracon inscriptions, and awaits additional artifacts upon which to experiment (Bearman et al. 20118 ). If I’m correct in what I’m about to highlight in the following quotation, plenty of material already exists:

"[I]n the upper zone ... fragments of 16 of the Lachish Letters were found. These inscribed potsherds are only a small proportion of hundreds of jar fragments found in this room. As so many had been affected by fire, it is impossible to know how much correspondence may have been destroyed in this way” (J. L. S. in Torczyner et al. 1938, p. 11; emphasis mine).

I can imagine such a prodigious quantity of ostraca if the original letters were part of the city's archive rather than belonging to a personal library or place temporarily used for a military tribunal. I believe “destroyed” was a premature, pessimistic conclusion based on technology available in 1938, without consideration for scientific progress. The big question of course is: Where are they now?

While studying jar handles from Lachish, I learned that the collection has been divided and relocated several times, not just among more than a dozen institutions on multiple continents (Magrill 2006, pp. IX-X), but also among people affiliated with the various excavations.9 I’m hopeful that these blackened (“affected by fire”) ostraca remain in storage at the Israel Antiquities Authority or British Museum where they can be ana-lyzed and documented using 21st-century technology. Even if only blank ostraca were discarded in 1935 among the piles of rubbish that accumulated during the excavations, they should be properly documented and labeled as such. But if any of them once contained ink, their words might be recoverable using new techniques. Even if a renewed evaluation proves fruitless, they should still be recovered and kept safe for future generations who might find a way to make them legible.10


Aharoni, Yohanan. 1975. Investigations at Lachish: The Sanctuary and the Residency (Lachish V). Tel Aviv: Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University.

Bearman, Gregory and William A. Christens-Barry. 2009. Spectral Imaging of Ostraca. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology 6(7), pp. 1-20 (full text available at

Bearman, Gregory, Mark S. Anderson, Kenneth Aitchison. 2011. New Imaging Methods to Improve Text Legibility of Ostraca. Palarch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology 8(2), pp. 1-7 (full text available at

Harding, G. Lankester. 1959. The Antiquities of Jordan. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Lemaire, Andre. 2004. “Ostraca and Incised Inscriptions” in chapter 29, section A of The Renewed Archaeological Excavations at Lachish (1973-1994) volume IV, ed. David Ussishkin. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University.

Magrill, Pamela. 2006. A Researcher’s Guide to the Lachish Collection in the British Museum. London: The British Museum (full text available at

Reisner, George Andrew, Clarence Stanley Fisher, David Gordon Lyon. 1924. Harvard Excavations at Samaria (1908–1910) volume 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (full text available at

Sayce, A.H. and Claude R. Conder. 1881. The Ancient Hebrew Inscription in the Pool of Siloam. Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (October), pp. 282-292.

Shaus, Arie, Israel Finkelstein, Eli Piasetzky. 2012. Bypassing the Eye of the Beholder: Automated Ostraca Facsimile Evaluation. MAARAV: A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures 17.1 (“2010”), pp. 7-20.

Torczyner, Harry, Lankester Harding, Alkin Lewis, J. L. Starkey. 1938. Lachish I (Tell ed Duweir): The Lachish Letters. Oxford: The Oxford University Press.

Wright, G. Ernest. 1956. The First Campaign at Tell Balatah (Shechem). Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research #144 (December), pp. 9-20.


1 The Gezer Calendar, found in 1908, merely contains a list of months and activities. The 60+ Samaria ostraca excavated in 1910 preserve economic receipts (i.e., lists bearing dates, names, and commodities; Reisner et al. 1924, pp. 227-246).

2 Based on the photo caption in Torczyner et al. 1938, p. 222. For additional information on the work of Mr. ’Awad, see Wright 1956, p. 9 and Harding 1959, p. viii. John Richmond supervised the excavation of the region I’m discussing.

3 See Joshua 10, 12, 15; 2Kings 14, 18, 19; 2Chronicles 25, 32; Nehemiah 11; Isaiah 36, 37; Jeremiah 34; Micah 1.

4 Lemaire published two others (numbers XXIV and XXXII), but I'm excluding them from this discussion since they are of a completely different genre, being pre-fired incisions rather than post-fired ink-writings. Lemaire labeled 4 other incised inscriptions from the British excavations as XXI-A through XXI-D, so his article actually covered 39 texts.

5 Lemaire (2004, p. 2109) notes that his reading is based on an early photo because “the entire inscription is now almost completely blurred after cleaning.” Torczyner said the same in 1938, p. 153.

6 Lewis also removed sub-millimeter portions of the ink from ostracon #18 in an effort to understand its chemical composition. Previously someone else (possibly Sir Robert Robertson of the Government Laboratory, London; Torczyneret al. 1938, p. 14) had heated it to 600° Celsius using a Bunsen flame, and exposed it to ammonium sulphide, tannic acid, thiocyanate, and chloroform (Torczyner et al. 1938, p. 189).

7 For a full diary of operations beginning with the ostracon’s discovery, see; for Amit’s photos, see David Willner, who escorted the ostracon to the labs, posted a comment (January 18, 2010 at 3:20 PM) on Dr. Christopher Rollston’s Epigraphy blog ( stating “the imaging techniques were helpful but not earth-shattering in their clarity. Clara’s (IAA) infrared image was nearly as good (and in some ways superior).”

8 Disregard, however, their p. 2 statement concerning the ink’s composition: “The inks of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been shown to be carbon based, not iron-gall, as in later texts. Since the shift to iron-gall inks began about the 3rd century CE, it is pretty safe to argue that the ink of ostraca excavated in the ancient Near East are carbon based.” Alkin Lewis reported in 1938 that “the Lachish Letters differ considerably from all other ostraca examined in London. It is possible, but unlikely, that the iron has been deposited preferentially where once was a simple carbon ink. It is more reasonable to suppose that this iron was an original constituent of the ink. … [T]he ancient world was very well acquainted with iron inks and with the various combinations that could be made with carbon, copperas, oak galls, and gum; and it was with such an iron and carbon mixture that the Lachish Letters were written” (Torczyner et al. 1938, pp. 190, 193).

9 For example, Olga Tufnell and Donald Brown (who both worked on the original British excavation) each kept at least one souvenir jar handle (I maintain a corpus of these handles at I also own two pieces of Lachish pottery, which I published informally on the ASOR Blog (

10 Shaus et al. (2012) highlight a computerized method for comparing manually drawn ostraca inscriptions to their respective photos, yet another advanced technology not contemplated back in the 1930s.

Comments (1)

Ah! So the article had nothing to do with the NW corner of Lachish, but, rather, the potential inscriptions that could be hiding in its excavation dump, which just happens to be in its NW corner!

#1 - E. Harding - 07/03/2012 - 22:06

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