The Lachish Reliefs: Biblical Archaeology in Contested Lands

by Hooda Shawa


The Lachish Relief. Museum Number 124911 © 2020 The Trustees of the British Museum.

Growing up in Gaza, my grandmother once told me about a horde of gold that was unearthed somewhere near Gaza’s coastal shore. She described mummies, gold jewellery, ornaments and a golden diadem that once adorned an ancient Queen’s head. Many years later, I read about the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s excavations in Tell Al-Ajjul, in a mound located some five kilometres south of Gaza in 1933. The gold horde my grandmother had described, included what was called the Astarte pendant, but it was never to be seen by her or anyone in Gaza, for it was to be part of Petrie’s Palestinian exhibition in London in 1930. Pieces of the horde were later sold to the British Museum in 1949 by his widow Hilda Petrie, where they remain today. But my forthcoming podcast will not be about the Tell Al-Ajjul horde, rather, it concerns the Lachish Reliefs, one of the of the British Museum’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ project. Both digs, however, and their finds are connected to the archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s lifelong pursuit of biblical archaeology in contested Palestine.

As the leader of Palestine Exploration Fund fieldwork during his many decades of excavations in Palestine, Petrie initially believed that he had found biblical Lachish in Tell el-Hesi in 1890, east of the city of Gaza. However, later excavations in the 1930s by his former students, James Leslie Starkey and Olga Tufnell proclaimed that a nearby site, Tell el-Duweir, was the biblical Lachish. Locating biblical Lachish, as well as other biblical sites mentioned in the bible, such as Ekron, Gath, Jericho and Megiddo, was a fervent pursuit for archaeologists like Petrie; biblical scholars, missionaries, colonial officers, and trailblazer adventure seeking women like the founder of the Egyptian Exploration Society, Amelia Edwards, who was the chief financier and sponsor of Petrie’s extensive excavations in Egypt (Ucko, Sparks 2016).

Situated in a room in the British Museum, the Lachish reliefs depict an ancient and animated scene of conquest, occupation, depopulation, and deportation that took place around 700 B.C. These large stone panels excavated and removed from the Palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib in Nineveh in northern Iraq show a heated battle scene of a bloody siege of a fortified hill town. The stone carvings show the mass transfer of men, women, children as well as beasts of burdens, wretched refugees, carrying their worldly possessions, fleeing their homes while a triumphant King Sennacherib, sitting on an elaborately carved throne, is seen receiving tribute from his prostrated subjugated hostages. 

The narrator of the British Museum podcast, Neil MacGregor, explains the historical context of this work, saying that the scene takes place in heavily fortified Lachish, some 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, what is today known as Tell el-Duweir. At the time of the siege, Lachish, MacGregor says, was the second most powerful city after Jerusalem, in the Kingdom of Judah.

MacGregor then, reflects on the warfare tactics of the ancient world and the plight of refugees both in the past and the present day. Commenting on the Lachish Reliefs, guests on the program included British politician Paddy Ashdown, who described his anguish and tears as a witness to the sight of refugees during his role in the NATO army in the Balkan War. Another guest speaker, military historian Anthony Beevor, drew a modern parallel to the efficacy of ancient warfare tactics as carved in the reliefs to Stalin’s ruthless deportation of people in the 1930s including the Crimean Tartans, the Chechens and Kalmucks.

In his poignant tribute to the misery of war and its brutal and devastating consequence in modern times, MacGregor chooses not to acknowledge the deportation, depopulation and destruction of Palestinian towns and villages in 1948 on the very landscape where the Lachish siege allegedly took place. Lachish, a biblical name that comes from the Hebrew Bible was superimposed on the Palestinian landscape during British Mandate colonialism in Palestine, another subject MacGregor chooses not to acknowledge.  

I wonder why the Assyrian stone reliefs in room 10b in the British Museum are called the Lachish Reliefs, and not referred to as sculptures from Sennacherib’s Palace, or the Nineveh Reliefs from Northern Iraq. The biblical association, it seems, remains a powerful statement on the enduring legacy of biblical archaeology practices that have endured till the present day.

In All That Remains, historian Walid Khalidi references more that 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed and depopulated by Israel in 1948. It was the hastily orchestrated departure of the British Mandate from Palestine in 1948 that enabled the formation of the state of Israel and the expulsion of 300,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands in what remains the longest refugee crisis in modern history. After the withdrawal of the British mandate in 1948, Tell el-Duwier and its neighbouring Palestinian inhabited village, Al-Qubayba, were occupied and depopulated by the Zionist army. In 1955, an Israeli settlement named Lakish was established on the appropriated land southwest of the excavation site of Tell el-Duweir. 

The British Museum’s podcast includes a biblical segment describing the siege of Lachish in which, “people old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude were forced to flee”. If stone reliefs could speak, we might hear the stories of those ancient refugees. Frozen in stone, we could almost sense the distress of deportation plastered across the rooms of the British Museum. We can only imagine their words, their cries, their anguish. However, in more recent times, the voices of Palestinian refugees from Tell el-Duweir, what has been renamed Biblical Lachish, and its nearby depopulated village of Al-Qubabya remain unacknowledged. 


Walid Khalidi, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1992).

Peter J. Ucko, Rachael Thyrza Sparks (eds.), A Future for the Past: Petrie’s Palestinian Collection (London: Routledge, 2016).

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