Archaeologists Reveal Secrets of Assyrian War Machine That Conquered Ancient Judah

Study of siege ramp at Judahite town of Lachish shows that 2,700 years ago, the military juggernaut of King Sennacherib could conquer a city in less than a month

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Aerial view of Lachish
Aerial view of LachishCredit: the Fourth Expedition to Lachish
Ariel David
Ariel David

“None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken.” (Isaiah 5:27)

Thus the prophet Isaiah describes the soldiers of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who invaded the Kingdom of Judah in 701 B.C.E., laying waste to its cities and bringing Jerusalem to its knees.

Just how efficient and ruthless that military juggernaut was has now been revealed by a study conducted on the siege ramp built by the Assyrians to conquer Lachish, a key Judahite stronghold in what is today southern Israel.

The study, published last month in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, combined archaeological data from excavations at Lachish with information from the Bible, Assyrian texts and artistic depictions to understand the inner workings of Sennacherib’s war machine.

“The questions we wanted to answer were, how did they build this massive ramp? Where did they get the materials? How much time and how many people did they need?” says Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who led the study.

The interesting thing about Sennacherib’s campaign is that the biblical narrative and the Assyrian king’s annals mostly coincide in their retelling of it, albeit with some significant – largely ideologically-driven – differences. It is therefore possible to use these narratives, as well as evidence from the ground, to gain a uniquely detailed understanding of this biblical episode and, more broadly, of the Assyrian modus operandi.

A wall in Lachish from the 10th century B.C.E.Credit: Emil Aladjem

Tell LachishCredit: Google Maps

Hezekiah’s revolt

By the end of the 8th century B.C.E., the Assyrian empire already controlled the Levant: it had recently destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and made a vassal of Judah and its surviving neighbours. Things went further south when the Judahite king, Hezekiah, and a bunch of other local rulers decided to rebel and stop paying tribute to their Assyrian overlord. Like every school bully who doesn’t get his lunch money, Sennacherib descended upon his victims to deliver a bashing. The Assyrians took Sidon, in today’s Lebanon, and then marched down the coast to conquer the Philistine city of Ashkelon, before turning back east toward Judah.

“Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them,” the Bible recounts in 2 Kings 18:13.

Lachish was the key stronghold in the hilly Shephelah region, the breadbasket of Judah, and a prime target for the Assyrians. The town’s siege and conquest are mentioned in Sennacherib’s annals and depicted in graphic detail in reliefs that decorated the king’s palace in the capital Nineveh, today in northern Iraq. The ruins of Lachish have been excavated since the 1930s, and the remains of the Assyrian siege ramp, raised in the south-west corner of the site, had already been identified in the 1970s.

But until now no one had systematically studied how the massive rampart was built, Garfinkel and colleagues say. This is the only confirmed physical evidence of Assyrian’s military prowess in the Near East, although some researchers claim that remains of similar siegeworks may have been identified at Azekah, another Judahite stronghold that fell to Sennacherib.

The Lachish ramp, which today looks like a large hillock leading up to the ancient walls of the city, was built using some three million stones, rather than soil, the new study calculated. This counterintuitive choice of building materials makes sense because soil, while easier to find, would have required greater effort to transport through fragile baskets or carts. For moving stones, as we shall see, the Assyrians had a simple, low-tech solution: manpower.

It was assumed until now that the Assyrians, or rather the captives they employed as slave laborers, simply collected the stones from surrounding fields. But, given the amount of stones required, this also seems like a logistical nightmare. Instead, Garfinkel believes that a small cliff located just over a 100 meters south of the site was not a natural feature but was in fact a quarry the Assyrians created to mine stones for the ramp.

The six locations on the Assyrian siege ramp where stones were retrieved and weighedCredit: Dr. M. Pytlik
Reconstruction of the construction of the siege ramp, starting from the far end with a stone quarry nearbyCredit: Yosef Garfinkel

The stone was not used by local builders in the construction of Lachish because then we would still see the negative impression left by the removal of square blocks, as is found at quarries in and around the city. At this particular cliff, chisel marks were identified, but only irregular stones were detached from the walls, just like the rocks that make up the ramp, Garfinkel says.

One-month siege

The Assyrian engineers probably used chains of laborers to pass each stone from the quarry to the area where the ramp was being raised. “If you use porters with baskets they have to go back and forth, plus the fragile wicker baskets need to be replaced frequently, so people standing still and passing the stones make more sense,” the archaeologist says.

It is also likely that the Assyrians worked in shifts around the clock, or, as Isaiah poetically put it, they did not slumber nor sleep.

The ramp itself was not built in horizontal layers from the bottom up, because this would have exposed the workers to fire from the defenders every time they got close to the wall. Instead, they would simply advance from the starting point, the farthest from the walls, and progressively dump larger amounts of stones beyond the rising edge of the slope.

This simple process of dumping stones also jives with the fact that when describing the building of such attack fortifications, the Bible uses the verb lishpoch (for example in 2 Kings 19:32) – which usually refers to pouring or spilling a liquid.

Pottery found at LachishCredit: C. Amit / IAA

All the while, the laborers who were “pouring” the ramp would be protected by large wicker shields shaped like inverted Ls. These shields, depicted in the Nineveh reliefs, covered soldiers and workers from defensive missile fire from the front and above.

Each team of workers chiselling and passing on building materials would require 100 to 200 men, and could move some 200 tons of stone a day. With each stone weighing around 6.5 kilograms, and the entire ramp requiring some 19,000 tons of material, it could take as little as 20 to 25 days for three or four of these chain to raise the ramp, the study estimates.

This means that in less than a month from their arrival, the Assyrians would have been battering away at Lachish’s walls.

“Of course, we’ve only built a theoretical model of how it would have looked if everything went off without a hitch,” Garfinkel notes. “We don’t know if they worked at 100 percent efficiency.”

But looking at the doom-and-gloom description of Isaiah, who supposedly lived through Sennacherib’s invasion, it doesn’t look like the Assyrians were likely to snooze on the job.

Inexorably, some 80 meters of ramp were built, rising 20 meters on a gentle gradient to reach the base of the walls of the hilltop settlement of Lachish. Then, the top of the ramp, because it was made with irregular stones, was covered in soil and paved, probably with wooden planks, which are also shown in the Nineveh reliefs.

The Lachish reliefCredit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

This allowed the Assyrian fighters to roll up the slope their killer application, a massive, wheeled battering ram, weighing an estimated one ton, which pounded a breach into the walls of Lachish. The ram, also pictured in the reliefs, was likely a wooden beam tipped with metal that swung in a pendulum motion from a suspension mechanism to which it was connected through chains. In fact, a metal chain, possibly from a battering ram, was found by archaeologists at the top of the ramp, Garfinkel notes.

The battering ram was equipped with additional useful features, such as shielding for its operators and a water tank – in case the defenders tried to set it on fire.

In his annals, Sennacherib claims to have captured 46 fortified towns in Judah and taken more than 200,000 captives. The numbers are clearly a propagandistic exaggeration, but it is easy to see how the outnumbered and technologically outmatched Judahites did not stand a chance against the Assyrians.

Winter is coming

Sennacherib went on to besiege Jerusalem, but, unlike at Lachish, his forces did not vanquish the city. Why? Depends who you ask.

According to 2 Kings 19:35, the “angel of the Lord smote 185,000 Assyrians in their camp” (another gross exaggeration in numbers, even if one believes in the miracle). According to Sennacherib’s annals, he trapped Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” forcing Jerusalem to surrender and pay a heavy tribute.

We don’t know the truth of what happened and why Hezekiah did not face the ultimate penalty for his revolt. Perhaps, as some scholars believe, the Assyrian army was struck by disease, which ancient chroniclers interpreted as divine punishment.

Or, perhaps, Sennacherib simply ran out of time, Garfinkel suggests. Military campaigns in antiquity started in spring and ended in fall, meaning that Sennacherib had less than nine months – including travel time – to bring the entire region to heel before he had to head back to his home base in Mesopotamia. Sennacherib had already been on the road for a while when he reached Jerusalem, and it would have been impossible to continue campaigning through the winter, when poor weather and lack of supplies could easily wipe out an army, Garfinkel explains.

Assyrian siege ramps on the Lachish relief uncovered in the palace of Sennacherib. Note the siege engine with its wheels on a paved road.Credit: Drawing by Judith Dekel

“The worst enemy of the Assyrian army was time, which is why their siege tactics had to be so efficient,” he concludes.

Whatever the reason for which Jerusalem was spared, Judah clearly paid a heavy price. In addition to a heavy yearly tribute it also lost most of the fertile Shephelah, the region surrounding Lachish, to more faithful Assyrian vassals.

Nearly a century later, starting in 626 B.C.E., the Assyrian empire began to decline under the attacks of rising new powers, the Medes in Persia and the Babylonians in southern Mesopotamia.

Taking advantage of a power vacuum in the Levant, Judah retook the Shephelah and rebuilt Lachish. But this brief resurgence didn’t last long. By 586 B.C.E. the new ‘empire du jour’ – the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar – had steamrolled into the region. Lachish was destroyed one last time. And soon after that Jerusalem, along with the First Temple, met the same fate.

Inscription found at LachishCredit: Tal Rogovski

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