Biblical Archaeology Review 10:2, March/April 1984

News from the Field: Defensive Judean Counter-Ramp Found at Lachish in 1983 Season

By David Ussishkin

Our expedition to Lachish is described in detail in the review/article “Destruction of Judean Fortress Portrayed in Dramatic Eighth-Century B.C. Pictures.” In this brief note I would like to describe for BAR readers the exciting results of our 1983 season, in which, for the first time, we extensively excavated the Assyrian siege ramp outside the city wall. We also extended inside the city wall the longitudinal trench cut through the Assyrian siege ramp. Once inside the city, we discovered, opposite the Assyrian siege ramp, an unsuspected Judean counter-ramp intended to bolster the city’s defenses against the Assyrian onslaught. With the discovery of this defensive Judean counter ramp, the battle of Lachish in 701 B.C. came alive in a startling new way.

The British excavations at Lachish led by J. L. Starkey in the 1930s had discovered and partially excavated the Assyrian siege ramp outside the city wall. In 1977 our own expedition to Lachish cut a small trench into the ramp to determine how it had been built. At that time, we also surveyed the area around the ramp, inside as well as outside the wall.

This effort to understand the Assyrian siege ramp and the implications to be drawn from it directed us to the location of the Assyrian siege camp. Even more important, this preliminary study focused our attention on a raised area inside the city wall, opposite the siege ramp. It was clear that extensive excavations were called for, both into the siege ramp itself and inside the city wall opposite the siege ramp.

We were finally able to undertake these excavations in the summer of 1983. Many of the volunteers in the 1983 season were BAR readers, and they all did excellent work. As in previous years, the excavations were conducted under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University and the Israel Exploration Society. (The area supervisor was Yehudah Dagan.)

Earlier excavations had already made it clear that the battle for Lachish had been most fiercely fought in the southwest corner of the city. This area, where the Assyrian siege ramp had been built, had borne the brunt of the Assyrian attack. Sennacherib had devised his battle plan wisely: Lachish is surrounded by deep valleys on all sides but one. The exception is the southwest corner, where an earth saddle connects the mound to the neighboring knoll on which the modern Israeli village Moshav Lachish is built. The saddle made this sector of the site the most vulnerable point for attack. Sennacherib knew this, but so did the Judeans. They therefore reinforced their defensive fortifications at the southwest corner.

Our 1977 probe of the Assyrian siege ramp led us to the certain conclusion that Sennacherib’s camp was located in the area of Moshav Lachish, opposite the main point of the Assyrian attack at the southwest comer of the city. Lachish is portrayed in Sennacherib’s reliefs as seen from a particular point in the area of the Moshav where the Assyrian camp must have been located. That is where Sennacherib, the supreme commander of the Assyrian army, must have sat on his throne as shown in the relief, watching the battle and deciding on strategy. The reliefs pictured the besieged city as seen by the monarch during the battle from his command post.

In 1983, we wanted to understand the siege ramp better and also to confirm its date. It had been assumed that the ramp dated to 701 B.C., but this had never been proven. It is important to remember that after Sennacherib’s destruction, the Judeans rebuilt Lachish (the Level II city); this rebuilt city was then destroyed in 588/6 B.C. by the Babylonians. (For the background of the Babylonian destruction, see “Scholars’ Corner: Yadin Presents New Interpretation of the Famous Lachish Letters.”)

Moreover, the 1977 probe focused our attention on what seemed to be a large raised area inside the city wall opposite the Assyrian siege ramp. The southwest comer of Tel Lachish has apparently always been one of the higher parts of the mound, and even before the excavations by the British in the 1930s, this area had risen to such a height that it was regarded as the acropolis of the mound. The British excavations suspected that “the extra height at this point was achieved by the use of dumped soil.” As it turned out, this was an understatement.

In 1983, we excavated eight squares inside the city wall, as part of a major trench cutting longitudinally through the Assyrian siege ramp and extending inside the city. From these squares inside the city, we learned that the substantial height in this area was the result of enormous amounts of soil having been dumped here in ancient times.

This fill was composed of thick layers of soil that contained debris from earlier strata of the mound—including large amounts of pottery of various periods ranging from the Chalcolithic period (fourth millennium B.C.) to the Late Bronze Age (1550 B.C.-1200 B.C.). Significantly, pottery from Level III (which was destroyed in 701 B.C.) is almost entirely absent. And there was no later pottery in this fill. The layers of soil fill were dumped in an orderly manner from certain points and therefore have a diagonal slant. As can be clearly seen in the sections cut parallel to the city wall, the soil fill was dumped against the face of the city wall.

On top of the soil fill was a thick layer of limestone chips without any pottery at all. As indicated by the contours of the layers, the upper part of the city wall and the soil at the top of the adjoining counter-ramp are now entirely missing; apparently they were removed before the later Judean city wall (Level II) was built along the summit of the counter-ramp.

The soil fill was laid on pavements and flimsy structures contemporaneous with the city walls of Level III. The pottery associated with these pavements and structures was all Level III pottery, typical of the pottery found in the city on the eve of the siege. Under the soil fill, we even found a jar handle stamped with a royal seal impression (a so-called l’melekh handle).a Neither this royal seal impression nor the pottery under the soil fill had been destroyed by fire—a clear indication that the soil fill was laid in 701 B.C. but prior to Sennacherib’s destruction of the city.

Undoubtedly, what we have here is a “counter-ramp” dumped against the inner city wall in 701 B.C. When the defenders of the city saw that the main thrust of the Assyrian attack was going to be directed against the southwest corner of the city and that a siege ramp was being laid there, they apparently decided to dump large amounts of soil against the inner face of the city wall in order to support it against the imminent attack.

Strengthening of city walls from inside at the point of attack is known elsewhere, but all such cases are much later. At Masada, the Sicarii used wooden beams and soil to construct an additional wall to support the inner face of the citadel wall at the point opposite the Roman siege ramp and battering rams.1 In Dura-Europos in Upper Mesopotamia, in about 256 A.D., the Romans prepared for a Sassanian attack by dumping large amounts of soil inside and outside the city wall where the attack was expected. This strengthened the western wall of Dura-Europos and made tunneling underneath it much more difficult, if not impossible.b

Our 1983 trench revealed the composition of the Judean counter-ramp at Lachish. The general layout of the counter-ramp was determined by a surface survey. The counter-ramp is shaped like a crescent. The center is roughly in line with the central axis of the Assyrian siege ramp outside the city, a clear indication that the Judean counter-ramp was laid as a countermeasure to the Assyrian siege ramp. The counter-ramp extends along the inner city wall for about 360 feet, reaching the city gate at the northern end of the counter-ramp.

The excavation of this counter-ramp firmly established its date and its relation to the Assyrian siege ramp outside the city wall. It also helped to establish that the siege ramp outside the city wall was indeed the siege ramp of Sennacherib built in 701 B.C.

As noted above, our 1983 season also included for the first time extensive excavation of the Assyrian siege ramp itself. In addition, we surveyed the adjacent area, including the roadway leading to the city gate. We have now determined quite precisely the sides of the Assyrian ramp and have reconstructed its shape, despite the fact that large parts of it were removed in the British excavation of the 1930s. Originally the lower end of the ramp must have covered the ancient roadway leading up to the city. (It must have even partly filled the Middle Bronze Age fosse or dry moat near the roadway.) Unfortunately, the lower end of the siege ramp was entirely removed in the excavation of the 1930s. Thus we cannot determine with certainty the line of its lower edge. The main guiding line for reconstructing its lower edge is the angle of the lower extremity of the part still existing, using the central axis of this line. We can assume that the ramp continued at a less steep gradient below this point or at the same gradient. A less steep gradient would of course produce a longer ramp. Our plan and section drawings are drawn with two alternatives, representing the minimum and maximum dimensions. The Assyrian siege ramp appears to have been between 210 and 225 feet wide at the bottom and between 150 and 180 feet long (along the central axis up to the outer revetment wall). We have not yet attempted to estimate the amount of boulders used in the siege ramp, but it must have been thousands and thousands of tons.

As noted, the length of the siege ramp given above is to the point where it reaches the outer revetment wall. This was in fact only its first phase! Its second phase extended from the revetment wall to the city wall. These two phases of construction of the Assyrian siege ramp corresponded to two phases of the battle for Lachish.

Before describing the two phases of the battle, corresponding to the two phases of construction of the Assyrian siege ramp, let me explain the relationship between the revetment wall and the city wall at this point on the mound.

In drawings and reconstructions of ancient Lachish, we often see the city surrounded by two concentric city walls. These reconstructions are based on two rings of fortifications found in the excavations and on what appear to be two concentric city walls in the Lachish reliefs at Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh. However, our excavations have convinced us that this outer wall was not a conventional city wall. What appears to be an outer city wall was in fact a revetment wall designed to support the bottom of a glacis sloping down from the city wall to the revetment wall. This glacis supported the base of the city wall, which surrounded the entire city on the upper periphery of the mound. Halfway down the slope, the people of Lachish built the revetment wall to support this glacis.

In the southwest comer of the mound, however, where the fortifications of the city were wisely reinforced, the revetment wall comes as close as about 15 feet to the city wall, rather than being built further down the slope. In addition, because the revetment wall at this point was so close to the city wall, the stone-faced glacis between the two walls is not very steep. It appears likely—and we hope to check this possibility in coming seasons—that at this corner of the mound, the two walls (the city wall and the revetment wall) merged to form a single structure about 45 feet wide, thus creating a platform in front of the city wall from which the defenders could fight along the outer line of fortifications. Elsewhere the revetment wall served as an independent fortification line supporting the glacis, which in turn supported the city wall.

Initially, the Assyrians built the siege ramp at the southwest corner of the mound up to the revetment wall. This was the Judeans’ first line of defense. The first phase of the siege ramp’s construction consisted of boulders piled on top of each other. The topmost layer consisted of stones cemented with strong mortar to create a compact surface. As the ramp approached the revetment wall, it seems that either bricks or horizontal layers of clay were incorported between the stone layers. We hope to investigate this phenomenon further in the future. But it seems likely that the Assyrians wanted to stabilize the siege ramp as it approached the outer revetment wall so that the siege machines and soldiers could be assured of firmer ground.

The battle was fierce as the Assyrian siege machines and soldiers fought their way up the ramp to the outer revetment wall. The revetment was built with a stone base, on top of which were mudbricks. In the heat of battle, the brickwork of the superstructure burned and collapsed on top of the siege ramp. As we excavated in front of the revetment wall, the remains of the first phase of the battle of Lachish were exposed. Some of the burned brick debris from the upper part of the revetment wall still contained remnants of white plaster. We also found chunks of carbonized wood, ashes, and pottery of a Level III date.

We also found 27 arrowheads in front of the revetment wall. The arrows were apparently fired toward the top of the walls where the defenders stood. One arrowhead was found embedded in the revetment wall itself. Many of the arrowheads were bent—an indication that they were shot at the wall from close range with powerful bows. Only two slingstones, both carved of flint and resembling tennis balls, were uncovered in front of the revetment wall. The ratio between slingstones and arrowheads indicates that the onslaught on the walls was supported mainly by archers rather than slingers. This accords well with the Lachish reliefs in which fewer slingers are portrayed than archers.

Included in the military equipment, we also found some scales of Assyrian armor. Finally, a rather unusual find was an iron chain about 37 cm long composed of four long, narrow links, each about 10 cm long. The chain was found lying in the burned brick debris in front of the revetment wall. This chain must have served some function in the battle, but we do not know what it was.

In the second stage of its construction, after the Assyrians had reached the revetment wall, the siege ramp was extended, covering the revetment wall and reaching nearly to the foot of the main city wall, where the second phase of the attack took place. The second—or higher—part of the siege ramp was between 66 and 75 feet wide (we cannot establish the exact width because we have not yet excavated the edges). The remains of the second stage of the siege ramp were severely damaged by the British expedition of the 1930s. But it appears that the higher end of the second stage of the siege ramp did not abut the face of the city wall itself but stopped just short of it. Apparently the Assyrian battering rams were long enough to bridge this gap. It was along this narrow section of the fortifications that the Assyrian army concentrated its efforts, eventually breaching the walls of the city. The reliefs in the palace of Sennacherib portray five siege machines standing one beside the other on top of the siege ramp attacking the city wall, and 75 feet or so would have been sufficient for five battering rams to be arrayed for battle, one beside the other. At this point the city wall, running southwards from the gate, made a sharp turn to the east. Professor Israel Eph’al of Tel Aviv University is preparing a detailed study of the military aspects of the battle, and he has already observed that the Assyrians had a distinct advantage attacking this particular point in the city’s defenses because the angle of fire used by the defenders stationed on the city walls to the right and left of the corner under attack was relatively ineffective.

At the foot of the city wall, we found more remains of the battle equipment of the Assyrian army. We unearthed 157(!) arrowheads in two excavation squares in front of the city wall. All the arrowheads but one are flint. One is carved of bone; apparently the Assyrians occasionally used bone arrowheads. The arrowheads are not uniform in size or shape, and several different types are represented. This variety might indicate the participation of different ethnic units in the attack, as can be seen from the Lachish reliefs.

The main city wall was about 17½ feet thick at this point and was built of bricks on stone foundations. On its inner side, it still stands to a height of about 14 feet. But somehow the Assyrians managed to breach it and destroy the city.

The Assyrian siege ramp and the remains of the battle, the fortifications, consisting of the revetment wall and the city wall, and the counter-ramp all combine to provide a unique picture of a fierce attack on a large Biblical city. The archaeological remains are entirely consistent with the picture we get from the other sources. All the data indicate the importance and strength of Lachish, the resolute defense of the Judeans and the exceptional military effort the Assyrians mounted to overcome it. The Assyrian siege ramp and the Judean counter-ramp are the earliest battle ramps thus far identified in the ancient Near East, and the only ones known from the Assyrian period.

The excavations in the southwest corner of Tell Lachish are far from completed. We will be back in the field during the summer of 1985. BAR readers are invited to join us and take part in these exciting excavations.