A recent issue of Qadmoniot, a Hebrew periodical, has published, in preliminary form, a unique cuneiform inscription found while archaeologists were clearing excavation debris on Tell Bethshean. While its original location is unknown, its contents are a new and genuine addition to our knowledge of the historical-political situation in Israel during the Late Bronze Period.
Tell el Amarna Tablets
Thus far our knowledge of this period has come to us solely from Tell el- Amarna in Egypt where the imperial archives of Amenhotep III and Akhnaton were found. The 350 cuneiform “Amarna tablets” reveal that Canaan was ruled by Egypt but in fact run by kings of regional city-states with differing degrees of power. The most famous was Labaya, king of Sheckheni. He rebelled frequently against Egyptian rule and attracted neighbouring city-states until he was finally assassinated. The newly-discovered letter is in the relatively rare shape of a cylinder seal, 21 nlnl high and 40 mm thick. It may have been worn on the messenger’s neck, like a necklace. Its contents read as follows: ‘TO Labaya, master of Emor, a message from Tagay: ‘To the king, my master. I have heard your message to me…”‘
A Biblical Coanection
Tagay is known to us from the Amarna tablets as the king of Gintithe Camel (known in the Bible as “Gath-Carmel”, a site near Mt Carmel) and described as an ally of Labaya in his policy of rebellion and local aggression. Evidently an internal message, Tagay updates Labaya on a letter he has sent to the king of Egypt.
An Archaeological Puzzle
But why was the letter found in Bethshean and not in Labay’s capital of Sheckhem?. Wayne Horrovits assume Labaya was given the letter while visiting Bethshean. It is not known whether Labaya ruled Bethshean, although the Amarna tablets (255-256) indicate that his successor, Muth-ba’al, ruled over “Pichilu”, identified as Pehcal, a site 15 km east of Bethshean Another suggestion is that the letter was intercepted by the “intelligence unit” and brought to the Egyptian governor who lived in Bethshean (as both archaeological and historical sources confirm). It may have been used as evidence that Tagay and Labaya were collaborating for an upcoming revolt. The revolt did take place as the later Amarna letters testify. Continuing excavations on Tell Bethshean are being conducted by the Hebrew university archaeological institute and it is hoped that more evidence will illuminate the story behind the unique letter.
Editor’s Note: Danny is a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and works for the Israel Antiquities Authority. From this month on he will be our “Diggings” representative on the spot in Israel