How Lachish fell: Study reconstructs Assyrian onslaught almost 3,000 years ago

Israeli, US researchers suggest powerful army quarried and transported 3 million stones in just weeks to build a ramp for battering rams to breach the hilltop stronghold in 701 BCE

An undated photo of the Assyrian ramp at Lachish, constructed using 3 million stones. (Yosef Garfinkel/courtesy)
An undated photo of the Assyrian ramp at Lachish, constructed using 3 million stones. (Yosef Garfinkel/courtesy)

Israeli and American archaeologists say they have managed to reconstruct how the Assyrian army may have built a massive ramp to breach the Judean city of Lachish in 701 BCE, deepening their understanding of the Iron Age power’s military prowess as it conquered almost the entire Kingdom of Judah.

Using a wide variety of sources and data, the study concluded that the Assyrians, led by King Sennacherib, likely collected three million stones from a quarry near the hilltop city overlooking the Judean plain. In an exceptionally orderly process, the army constructed a huge siege ramp that allowed battering rams to be transported up to the city’s defenses, breaching the walls and resulting in the city’s complete destruction.

The siege ramp in Lachish is the biggest surviving siege ramp in the Near East, and the only surviving Assyrian siege ramp.

The study, published last month in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, was led by Professor Yosef Garfinkel and Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professors Jon W. Carroll and Michael Pytlik of Oakland University.

They drew on extensive data that includes biblical texts, stone reliefs depicting Assyrian battle scenes, Akkadian inscriptions, archaeological excavations and photogrammetric analysis of aerial drone photographs that created a detailed digital map of the area’s landscape.

The resulting analysis was hailed Tuesday by the Hebrew University as “a practical model that accounts for all available information about that battle.”

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel. (Hebrew University/courtesy)

The siege by the Assyrians is extensively recorded both in biblical texts and in other historical sources. At the time, they were a veritable Near East superpower, controlling a landmass that stretched from today’s Iran to Egypt.

The Kingdom of Judah, on the other hand, was a relatively small vassal state that attempted to break free of the Assyria’s influence by allying with Egypt.

Lachish, which had been a flourishing Canaanite city in the second millennium BCE, was the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah after Jerusalem.

But its fortifications were no match for the Assyrian army, which sacked the entire kingdom save Jerusalem.

Archaeological evidence at the Lachish site today makes it clear that the Assyrian siege ramp was made of small boulders, weighing about 6.5 kilograms (14.3 pounds) each, Hebrew University said in its statement.

To acquire three million such stones in a short amount of time, the army most likely quarried them at a site that was as close as possible to the bottom end of the ramp, the researchers concluded.

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

The stones would have been transported along human chains, passed from man to man by hand. With four such human chains working in parallel, each working round-the-clock shifts, the researchers calculated that about 160,000 stones were moved and placed each day, possibly completing the construction in just 25 days.

An illustration of the estimated construction process of the Assyrian siege ramp in Lachish, starting from the far end with a stone quarry nearby. (Yosef Garfinkel/courtesy)

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

“Time was the main concern of the Assyrian army,” he added. “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.”

As the workers built the final stages of the ramp and approached the walls of Lachish, the inhabitants are believed to have tried to defend their city by shooting arrows and throwing stones down on the workers. The researchers suggest that the laborers used massive L-shaped wicker shields, similar to those shown protecting soldiers on Assyrian reliefs.

A relief from the palace of Tiglath Pileser III at Nimrud, depicting a siege scene with two massive L-shaped shields protecting Assyrian soldiers. (British Museum/courtesy)

In the final stage, wooden beams were laid on top of the stones, where the battering rams, weighing up to a ton, were positioned. The ram — a large, heavy wooden beam with a metal tip — battered the walls by being swung back and forth, like a pendulum.

The researchers suggest that the ram was suspended on metal chains, rather than ropes that would quickly wear out. Supporting this theory, they say an iron chain was found on the top of the ramp.

Garfinkel said his team was planning excavations at the far edge of the ramp in the quarry area to firm up his research.

“This might give additional evidence of Assyrian army activity and how the ramp was constructed,” he said.

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