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The Origin of the Amarna Letters (1998)

In a recent Issue of BASOR a short announcement was made on a new research over the el-Amarna letters conducted by Y. Goren, N. Na’aman, and I. Finkelstein, all from the Institute of Archaeology in Tel-Aviv University.

The Amarna letters have been well-researched and are usually dated to the 14th century BCE, but these men examined them from an angle that no scholar had did before.

The Amarna letters are a group of cuneiform tablets found in Tell el-Amarna, site of ancient Akhetaten, the capital of Egypt during the reign of Akhenaton. Found in 1887 by a peasant woman in the ruins of Akhetaten’s palace, they were written in cuneiform characters, using the Akkadian language, the lingua franca of the time. Consisting of the diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its vassal states in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, they reveal priceless information on Egypt’s foreign policy with the southern Levant during the 14th century BCE. The tablets contain letters sent from different cities in the southern Levant (most of them in modern Israel), to the contemporary Egyptian king. However, previously only the textual information was studies, and no systematic investigation had been made to examine the source of the clay which makes up the tablets.

The new research examined about 50 selected Amarna letters, using the latest scientific method, SPA (Scattered Petrographic Analysis), which is almost non-destructive procedure since it requires only a few milligrams of the artifact’s surface. The purpose of this research was to identify the mineralogical contents of the clay and possibly attribute it to a specific clay quarry.

The results were innovative. In many cases, there was a good correlation between the written origin of the tablets and their provenance. In some cases the results finally identified the location of some of the cities, such as Gath, Carmel, and Yurza, Canaanite sites whose location had been debated until this research.

The other intriguing result of this research is that some of the tablets written by city rulers in Canaan were actually sent from Gaza. This is totally new information suggesting that some of the military aid requests were sent, not directly from the city king, but from the Egyptian administrative centre located in Gaza.

Tel el Amarna letters
Tel el Amarna letters