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In first, Israeli and US archeologists piece together secret of how Assyrians conquered biblical city Lachish

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‘Back in the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, it was all about the siege ramp, an elevated structure that hauled battering ramps up to the enemy’s city walls and let the Neo-Assyrians soldiers wreak havoc on their enemies

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In a tale of biblical proportions, a team of archaeologists from Israel’s Hebrew University (HU) and  Oakland University in the US has for the first time pieced together how the Assyrians conquered the Judean city of Lachish.

The Assyrians, a Near East superpower that controlled a landmass that stretched from Iran to Egypt during the ninth to seventh century BCE, had a secret weapon when they went to war. That weapon was the siege ramp, which helped them win any open-air battle or penetrate any fortified city.

“Back in the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, it was all about the siege ramp, an elevated structure that hauled battering ramps up to the enemy’s city walls and let the Neo-Assyrians soldiers wreak havoc on their enemies,” the archeology team explained.

The team, led by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel and Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu of the Institute of Archaeology at HU, and Professors Jon W. Carroll and Michael Pytlik of Oakland University, used several biblical sources, studied archeological stone reliefs depicting Assyrian battles and archeological evidence to paint a complete picture of what happened in Lachish.

One of the main archeological pieces used as supporting evidence was an ancient Assyrian siege ramp found to have been built in Biblical Israel and remains the only surviving physical example of their might in the entire Near East.

According to Garfinkel, Lachish was a flourishing Canaanite city in the second millennium BCE and had been the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah.  

He explained that in 701 BCE Lachish was attacked by the Assyrian army, led by King Sennacherib. 

The team pointed out that the Assyrians “had a mighty and well-equipped army that, in the early eighth century BCE, rapidly quelled growing rebellion in the Southern Levant.”

But it was only in 721 BCE when the Kingdom of Israel was finally conquered. “Twenty years later, the Assyrian army attacked the Kingdom of Judah, laying siege to its most important city, Jerusalem, and launching a direct assault on its second most important city, Lachish,” the team said. “King Sennacherib himself went to Lachish to oversee its destruction, which began with his army building a siege ramp to reach the walls of the hilltop city.”

Despite the many different reports of how the siege of Lachish took place, Garfinkel and his team worked tirelessly using photogrammetric analysis of aerial photographs and creating a detailed digital map of the relevant landscape, producing a practical model that accounts for all available information about that battle.

“Evidence at the site makes it clear that the ramp was made of small boulders, about 6.5 kg each,” he said. “A major problem faced by the Assyrian army was the supply of such stones: about three million stones were needed.” 

Prof. Yigal Garfinkel who led the archeological study. (Photo Credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

“Where,” Garfinkel questioned, “did these stones come from?”
“Collecting natural fieldstones from the fields around the site would require a great deal of time and would slow the construction of the ramp,” he said. “A better solution would be to quarry the stones as close as possible to the far end of the ramp.”

“At Lachish, there is indeed an exposed cliff of the local bedrock exactly at the point where one would expect it to be,” Garfinkel added.

Through their research, the team believes that construction of the siege ramp started some 80 meters away from the city walls of Lachish, close to where stones required for the ramp could be quarried. 

“The stones would have been transported along human chains – passed from man to man by hand,” he said. “With four human chains working in parallel on the ramp each working round-the-clock shifts, [we] calculated that about 160 000 stones were moved each day.” 

“Time was the main concern of the Assyrian army,” Garfinkel emphasized. “Hundreds of laborers worked day and night carrying stones, possibly in two shifts of 12 hours each. The manpower was probably supplied by prisoners of war and forced labor of the local population. The laborers were protected by massive shields placed at the northern end of the ramp.
“These shields were advanced towards the city by a few meters each day,” he added.

After 25 days of non-stop building, it’s believed the ramp, which was the shape of a giant triangular wedge, could reach the city walls. 

“This model assumes the Assyrians were very efficient, otherwise, it would have taken months to complete,” said Garfinkel.

Up against secret weapon of the Assyrians – the siege ramp, Lachish’s inhabitants had no chance despite trying to defend their city by shooting bows and arrows and throwing stones at their enemies from the city’s walls.

Garfinkel suggested that the workers used massive L-shaped wicker shields, similar to those shown protecting soldiers on Assyrian reliefs, as they moved towards the city. 

The cliff south of the site, as documented by the first expedition to Lachish. The photo was taken from site in 1932, with the Assyrian ramp shown as the whitish area in the lower right corner. (Photo credit: Courtesy Wellcome Trust, London)

“In the final stage, wooden beams were laid on top of the stones, where the battering rams within their massive siege machines, weighing up to 1 ton, would be securely positioned,” he continued. “The ram, a large, heavy wooden beam with a metal tip, battered the walls by being swung backward and forwards.”  

He pointed out that the ram was suspended within the siege engine on metal chains, as ropes would quickly wear out.  Indeed, an iron chain was found on the top of the ramp at Lachish.

Interestingly enough, the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the end of the 8th century BCE, witnessed the events and even mentions the Assyrian army in some of his prophecies. He writes that the Assyrians were a mighty, supernatural power: “None of them tired, none of them stumbling, none of them asleep or drowsy, none of them with belt unfastened, none of them with broken sandal-strap.”

Garfinkel concluded that to further their research they are planning excavations in Lachish, “at the far edge of the ramp in the quarry area – this might give additional evidence of Assyrian army activity and how the ramp was constructed.” 

Their findings were published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

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