A research project currently being carried out in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Tel-Aviv University

Yuval Goren, Israel Finkelstein
and Nadav Na’aman

Historical Background
The Research Objectives
Methods of Examination
Preliminary Results

Historical Background

One of the most dramatic chapters in the history of Egypt and Canaan began with the fall of Avaris, the Hyksos Capital in the Delta, and the conquest of the Hyksos strongholds in southern Canaan. Subsequent military campaigns into Canaan by the kings of the early 18th Dynasty, particularly Tutmose III (1504-1450 BCE), paved the way for the establishment of the Egyptian empire of the New Kingdom. This empire held sway for almost three hundred years over the entire area between the fourth cataract of the Nile and the Euphrates River. Numerous contemporary documents, coupled with the rich archaeological record from Egypt, Canaan, and elsewhere in the ancient Near East, provide a detailed picture of Egypt's foreign policy and of the close commercial and cultural contact between Egypt and its provinces to the east.

Tablet of Shuwardatu, ruler of Gath (EA 282)

The identification of the city of Gath in the Shephelah area of Israel as the seat of Shuwardatu of the Amarna letters and the identification of that city with Tell es-Safi are widely accepted. However, a minority of scholars still challenge this view.

Our examinations indeed connect Shuwardatu to the Shephelah region in general. However, the identification of the exact location of Shuwardatu’s city on the basis of the provenance of his tablets is still under investigation.


Amenophis IV (Akhenaten)
(Berlin Museum)

In 1887, Egyptian farmers discovered a large number of clay cuneiform tablets at the ancient site of Tell El Amarna in Egypt, the location of Akhtaten, the capital of Egypt during the reign of Amenophis IV (Akhenaten). The archive included about 380 clay tablets, most of which were written in Akkadian cuneiform, which formed part of the royal correspondence of the kings Amenophis III, Amenophis IV and Tutenkhamon. Ever since their discovery, the Amarna tablets have supplied significant information about the political and cultural interactions between Egypt and the Ancient Near East during the Amarna stage (ca. 1375-1325 BCE) of the New Kingdom period. Various lines of evidence indicate that this period witnessed a peak of Egyptian influence over Canaan the nature of which, although historically recorded in the Egyptian scripts, is still the subject of various interpretations raised by the complexity of the archaeological record.

The archaeological as well as the historical data point to the existence of an Egyptian administrative system in Canaan, controlling the satellite city-states, which maintained a limited degree of autonomy. Though at the present state of research only the textual information has been extracted from the documents, no attempt has been made so far to systematically investigate the source of the tablets on the basis of their raw materials.

The Research Objectives

Ancient Near Eastern archives of cuneiform texts contain numerous tablets whose origin is unknown. Letters often contain the name of the sender, but not always. Sometimes the letterhead is partly or entirely missing. In other cases we may have the name of the sender and still ignore his domicile. Worst of all, the location of some ancient Near Eastern and Aegean countries and cities has not yet been clearly established. In such and similar cases, scholars can only hope to find some paleographical, linguistic, or thematical clues for the origin of a tablet.

The Amarna letters form one of the most important archives, though very limited in measure relatively to other Near Eastern annals. The analytical study of the clay cuneiform tablets from the Amarna archive is concerned with the nature of the political and cultural interactions between Egypt and the Ancient Near East during the New Kingdom era, as reflected by the provenience of the tablets. The aim of this research is to resolve some of the major geographical and historical problems concerning the settlement map of the Ancient Near East, particularly Canaan, at the period in question. Additionally, it intended to investigate the nature of the administration of Egypt in her Asian provinces. This is done through a systematic provenance study of most of the Amarna tablets by mineralogical and chemical means. So far, 220 tablets from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, the British Museum in London, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford were already analyzed. The investigation of such a problem through an interdisciplinary study of the material culture is uncommon in Near Eastern archaeology.

Methods of Examination

The idea that the Amarna tablets can be studied also by the provenance of their materials is not new. Already at the first decade of this century, Knudtzon sought to form an opinion about the origin of the tablets by help of external examination of their materials. His descriptions of the archive related, beside the text and the stile, also to the coloring and the fabric of each tablet. Technically, Knudtzon and other scholars of his generation were already capable of analyzing the materials and the provenance of the tablets in more detail.

For more than a century the location of the Bronze Age kingdom of Alashiya is continuously debated. Today, most scholars concerned with the issue believe that the association between the copper producing land of Alashiya and part or all of Cyprus is supported by all the relevant contemporary documents within the historical, geopolitical and archaeological background of the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus itself. However, no consensus exists as yet, and a minority view still considers the data circumstantial and inconclusive. It is therefore most unfortunate that analytical provenance studies, which may have solved the problem by establishing the source of two important pieces of evidence - copper ‘oxide’ ingots and the Alashiya clay tablets from the Amarna archive - have produced so far ambiguous results. Four tablets sent from the king of Alashiya to his ‘brother’, the king of Egypt, were examined in the early 1970s by a group of scholars from Berkeley University using neutron activation analysis (NAA), in order to determine their origin. The results were rather inconclusive, though they suggested a possible link with western Cyprus. Our examinations of these tablets, but especially of EA 37 that was not analyzed before, revealed clear indications for a western Cypriote provenance.

Tablet of the King of Alashiya (EA 34)

Samples taken from tablets
located in the British Museum
Petrologic studies of ceramics were already practiced (such as in the case of the pottery of Troy), and the geological mapping of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon was initiated as early as in the 1860’s. Nevertheless, there was neither an established database for Levantine ceramic materials, nor the geographic-historical information as to the location of the Canaanite cities, to perform a more thorough study. During the last fifty years there were immense developments in all the related fields that enabled a systematic study of the Amarna tablets by their raw materials.

Already during the first half of the century, the archaeology of the southern Levant was established with the excavations of several of the important tells, including some cities that are mentioned in the letters (e.g. Lachish, Tell es-Safi {Gath?}, Gezer, Jerusalem, Shechem, Ta’anach, Megiddo, Hazor). Today, many of the main city-states and peripheral towns that are mentioned in the archive have already been excavated. Systematic surveys supplied the complementary information as to the distribution of Late Bronze Age sites, their dimensions and extent, and in several cases their identification according to the historical documents. At the same time, systematic geological surveys that were made throughout the Levant supplied all the necessary information about the distribution and composition of clays, soils, and other formations that were relevant to pottery production processes in and around the sites. In the field of ceramic material studies, many analytical methods were introduced including sophisticated chemical examinations that processed concurrently with the development of geochemistry. Yet despite these improvements, the systematic analytical study of the tablets forms a sad lacuna in their research and interpretation. Although few attempts have been made during the last thirty years to examine several tablets, these studies were inconsistent and very limited in scope and therefore supplied only shortcoming results if any.

Provenance studies of pottery assemblages were employed in many cases in order to examine the nature Egyptian - Levantine connections. These indicate that the analyses of ceramic materials can supply significant information on the origins of Egyptian and Canaanite wares. Egyptian ceramics can be readily identified both mineralogically and chemically by their typical pastes and discriminated from Canaanite wares.

Nadav Na’aman examining tablet samples
As for the Canaanite pottery, the rapidly growing petrographic database, and our reference materials and collection of over 7,000 thin-sections of pottery from most of the substantial archaeological sites in the southern Levant can suggest the particular region in which any clay artifact was produced. In several cases these definitions can be very specific. In other cases our database can provide at least the general geological whereabouts from which the raw material of a ceramic artifact was derived. Thus, frequently the information that petrographic examinations can provide may satisfy the archaeological need. When supported by consistent chemical examinations (that supply the elemental composition of the clay), these data can indicate the possible origin of most tablets. In consequence of this situation, a systematic research program was planned to fill this gap in the means of the interpretation of the Amarna documents. It is obvious that in such a comprehensive research, the collaboration of experts from different backgrounds is deemed essential. Consequently, the research group includes experts in the fields of ceramic analyses in archaeology (Goren), field archaeology and geographical history (Finkelstein), epigraphy, philology and geographical history (Na’aman). In planning the methodology and strategy of the sampling, considerations that were taken from those fields of research were combined.

Preliminary results

The examinations have yielded so far an enormous body of data concerning the geographical history of the Near East. The following points summarise some of the conclusions of this research:

  1. Mineralogical and chemical studies of clay cuneiform tablets can provide valuable and explicit information that cannot be otherwise revealed.
  2. This study adds more information to many debated issues (below). However, the results and our conclusions will undoubtedly generate new debates and discussions. We consider this as one of the main achievements of our research project.
  3. We succeeded to come to a firm conclusion as to the location of the kingdom of Alashiya. The mineralogical composition of the tablets strongly relates it to western Cyprus. This suggests that Alashiya of the 14th century BC was located in western Cyprus and not in the eastern part of the island, in northwestern Syria or in Cilicia as was previously suggested.
  4. A major contribution was also made regarding other debated topics, such as the identification of the letters that were sent from Ugarit, the location of Wassukanni (Capital City of Mittani), and more.
  5. The Canaanite component of the Amarna archive includes most of all original letters that were sent from the locations mentioned on them, but also a few letters that were not produced on clays that appear near the cities from which they were supposed to be sent.
  6. A considerable group of Canaanite letters (nearly 10%) was most likely sent under the names of certain Canaanite city-state rulers from Egypt’s administrative center in Gaza. This is totally new information that is pending further examination.
  7. The hometowns of several key players in the Amarna archive, such as Suwardatu (ruler of Gath?) Tagi, Ba'alu-UR.SAG and Ba'al-mehir, Bayadi, Budazuna and others, can be suggested now on the basis of the origin of their letters.
  8. The results could also suggest the origin of letters that lack the domicile or the name of their sender.
The full results of this study will be published in a volume that will appear in 1999 in the Monograph Series in Archaeology of the Tel-Aviv University.


This study was supported by the Center for Collaboration between Natural Sciences and Archaeology on behalf of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the Fund for Internal Researches of the Tel-Aviv University. We wish to thank Dr. B. Salje, Dr. E. Klengel and Dr. J. Marzahn from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin who cordially allowed us to study the collection of their museum. The sampling was done with the kind help of Ms. U. Von Eickstedt. Dr. J. Curtis from the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities, and DR. S. Bowman from the Department of Scientific Research kindly permitted the study of the British Museum tablets. The sampling was done with the help and advises of Mr. C. Walker, Dr. I. Freestone and Dr. A. Middleton. Dr. P.R.S. Moorey from the Department of Antiquities of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford kindly allowed us to study the tablets from this museum. We would like to thank Dr. S. Hadjisavvas, Director of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, Dr. G. Konstantinou, Director of the Cyprus Geological Survey, and Dr. P. Florentos, curator of the Cyprus Museum at Nicosia, for their collaboration and help. We thank Dr. I. Segal, Dr. N. Porat and Dr. A. Sandler from the Geological Survey of Israel, and Prof. M. Artzy from the Institute of Archaeology, Haifa University, for their kind collaboration and information. The petrographic examinations were made in the Archaeometric Laboratory of the Institute of Archaeology, Tel-Aviv University. The chemical analyses were made at the Geological Survey of Israel.

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