Study reveals how Assyria conquered the Judahite city
Perhaps no event recorded in the Hebrew Bible is better supported by archaeology and external evidence than Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish in 701 B.C.E. The siege of Lachish is documented in multiple Assyrian texts and reliefs and is also clearly visible in the site’s archaeology. These various sources agree that Lachish eventually fell to the Assyrians, who built a massive siege ramp to reach the top of the city’s walls. The same tactic would later be used by the Romans in their siege of Masada. A study, published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, examines what went into the construction of the Lachish siege ramp and, in turn, argues for the accuracy of the biblical description of the event.
In investigating the Assyrian siege ramp at Lachish, the team examined several questions, specifically how the construction material for the ramp was collected and transported, how the ramp was built, how the ramp’s builders were protected from the city’s defenders, and how the ramp was made usable for Assyria’s heavy siege engines. In answering these questions, the team relied on textual and archaeological information, as well as statistical and computer analyses of the efficiency of various ramp models.
The study showed that it would have taken hundreds of workers laboring 24 hours a day over three weeks to build the siege ramp. It was constructed from medium-sized stones, around 15 pounds each, that were quarried and gathered by the Assyrian army from a small hillside adjacent to the city. The stones were likely carried to the construction site by workers made up mostly of foreign prisoners taken by the Assyrians on their way to Judah. These workers would have been protected by large shields as they carried their stones to the site and dumped their stones to gradually build up the ramp. This is in line with the biblical description of the siege in 2 Kings 19:32, which mentions how the Assyrian army confronted the city with shields.
The ramp was constructed from its back end forward, not from the ground up. Thus, the stones would be dropped over the edge of the ramp to the open area between the city’s wall and the end of the ramp. This would in turn minimize the height advantage of the defenders on the wall. The study notes that this particular construction method was clearly known to the biblical authors, who used the Hebrew verb spk, meaning “to pour,” to describe the building of the ramp (2 Kings 19:32). Thus, in the same way that liquids are poured, stones were poured over the end of the ramp in its construction
Finally, the upper surface of the ramp was constructed with a smoothed layer of dirt topped by wooden boards. This is seen in contemporary depictions of the siege including the famous Lachish relief from Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh. The smoothed surface allowed the heavy Assyrian battering rams to reach and then breach the city walls. These siege devices, which weighed up to a ton, were made up of a wooden frame and a heavy metal chain that held a log used to batter the city wall. Remarkably, one of these chains was uncovered from the excavations at Lachish.
According to the study, the siege ramp was roughly 260 feet long and would have required almost 20,000 tons of stones. Even if working 24 hours a day, it would have taken the Assyrian army between 20 and 25 days to construct the ramp. The Assyrian army was one of the most advanced of the day and easily conquered most of the smaller kingdoms and city-states in the southern Levant. During the reign of King Hezekiah, however, Judah posed a major threat and, as a relatively large kingdom, was likely more difficult to conquer. This also explains why Merodach-Baladan, the king of Babylon, as well as the kingdom of Cush would have allied with Judah in their attempt to overthrow the Assyrians.
Located southwest of Jerusalem in the Judean foothills, Lachish was the second most important city in Judah during the First Temple period. The city was conquered in 701 B.C.E. as part of the Assyrian advance to Jerusalem in response to King Hezekiah withholding Judah’s tribute and inciting a regional rebellion against Assyrian control. The events of the campaign are recorded in numerous royal Assyrian inscriptions as well as several letters from Assyrian and Judahite soldiers. The events are also described in several biblical texts, including Isaiah 36–37, 2 Kings 18, and 2 Chronicles 32. Although Sennacherib was successful in conquering Lachish and many other Judahite cities and towns, he did not conquer Jerusalem. The reasons for this are debated, but it is known that a short time later, Judah was once again paying tribute to the Assyrian Empire.
Read more in this special collection of seven seminal BAR articles on the Lachish excavations in the BAS Library.
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