How did people live (and die) in biblical Azekah? 4 skeletons shed light

Azekah is described in the book of Joshua as one of the cities of the Amorite kings.

 Azekah Excavation. (photo credit: BENJAMIN SITZMAN / THE LAUTENSCHLAEGER AZEKAH EXPEDITION - TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Azekah Excavation.
(photo credit: BENJAMIN SITZMAN / THE LAUTENSCHLAEGER AZEKAH EXPEDITION - TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

Some 3,200 years ago, a building caught fire and collapsed in Azekah, a city mentioned several times in the Bible. Two teenagers, a young man and a woman were trapped and killed in the structure.

Millennia later, their bones have offered archaeologists a glimpse into their lifestyle, health and challenges, as well as in their last moments before perishing, as revealed in a recent paper published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Back then, the southern Levant was experiencing a period of crisis. The Egyptian Empire -– the regional power of the time – collapsed, climate conditions worsened and trade waned. In those years, some major cities in the area, including Hazor and Lachish, as well as Azekah, were completely destroyed. What caused the destruction, widely documented by archaeological finds, is still under debate.

Established around 3,500 years ago, Azekah presents remains dating all the way to the late Roman period.

In the biblical Book of Joshua, it is described as one of the cities of the Amorite kings that the prophet destroys as he conquers the Land of Israel.

Azekah Excavation. (credit: BENJAMIN SITZMAN / THE LAUTENSCHLAEGER AZEKAH EXPEDITION - TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)Azekah Excavation. (credit: BENJAMIN SITZMAN / THE LAUTENSCHLAEGER AZEKAH EXPEDITION - TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

“The Lord threw them into a panic before Israel: [Joshua] inflicted a crushing defeat on them at Gibeon, pursued them in the direction of the Beth-Horon ascent, and harried them all the way to Azekah and Makkedah,” reads a passage in the 10th chapter of Joshua.

Since 2012, the site has been excavated by the Lautenschlaeger Azekah Expedition, in cooperation with Tel Aviv University and two German universities, Heidelberg and Tübingen.

The four skeletons uncovered by the archaeologists were found under the ruins of one building.

The researchers employed modern methods of fire-scene investigation and forensic analysis to analyze the remains.

Three out of the four skeletons were found crushed and burned. The fourth was in a better state of preservation. One individual was approximately 15-17 years old, but it was not possible to determine their gender. One likely belonged to a young man aged 19-25, one to a woman between 35 and 45, and the last and best kept belonged to a girl also around 15-17 years old.

All of them presented signs of anemia caused by malnutrition, possibly during childhood, or other forms of chronic diseases.

At the same time, they appeared to conduct a very active lifestyle, with lesions in the bodies’ remains compatible with activities that were very common at the time and even attested to in the very same building where the Azekhans found their death.

“This pattern of lesions is often argued to be related to spinal compression during heavy lifting and carrying,” authors Karl Berendt, Sandra Garvie-Lok, Pamela Mayne Correia from Alberta University in Canada and TAU’s Oded Lipschits and Yuval Gadot wrote in the paper. “More than 115 heavy Canaanite storage jars, comprising almost half of the pottery vessels found in the building, provide an example of the types of loads residents of the community may have carried.

“Artistic depictions, literary works, and historical linguistics indicate that two people could transport these two- or four-handled vessels by supporting them from both sides with flexed forearms,” they added.

The remains of two individuals suggested that they also extensively engaged in grinding.

“In fact, a grinding installation consisting of an enclosure with a saddle quern and large collecting vat was discovered in Building T2/627 [the excavated building] alongside several grinding stones,” researchers noted. “This installation, along with the surrounding pottery assemblage, is suggested to have been part of a large-scale production operation beyond the needs of these four individuals, consistent with the idea that Individuals 3 and 4 could have been habitually engaged in this task.”

The first individual finally, the most gracile, appeared to have used a thumb motion compatible with spinning or pigment grinding.

Regarding the cause of their deaths, “There are no signs of trauma suggestive of interpersonal violence, such as sharp-force trauma or defensive wounds, and no weapons or other signs of an aggressive act were found in the destruction layer,” the authors wrote.

Instead, the four Azekahns appeared to have been caught by surprise by the fire. All of them were found in positions that suggest they tried to protect themselves, such as in fetal position, or in a position of trying to escape. The first three individuals were likely crushed to death as the building collapsed. The fourth might have also been killed by the fire or the smoke.

“The find locations of these individuals suggest behavior typical of modern fire victims trying to escape a building, and at least two of them seemed to show body positioning that reflected attempts at self-protection from an impact from above, suggesting that they were alive and moving around the building for a short period while it was on fire,” the paper reads.

The researchers hope that it will also be possible to shed light on the bigger pictures of what happened in those decades in Azekah.

“We hope that a much larger integrative discussion in the future may be able to build upon this research to attempt to conclude exactly what events caused the destruction of this building and of the city of Azekah at the end of the Late Bronze Age,” they concluded.