Siege carts, the Angel of Death, and pottery
All good stories should have a hero, a heroine, and a villain. Spoiler alert – mine has all three.
Let us start with our hero. Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was something of a polymath, an Assyriologist, traveller, cuneiformist, art historian, draughtsman, collector, politician and diplomat. Covering all these would take up this entire lecture, so I shall confine myself to the first.
From 1845 to 1852 Layard conducted excavations in the ruins close to Mosul in modern Iraq and found them to be indeed those of Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire. At one point the largest city in the world, it had a 12km wall enclosing several palaces.
Our perhaps idealised illustration is from one of Sir Henry’s bestselling books, “The Monuments of Nineveh. From Drawings Made on the Spot (1849)”. And here he is doing just that.
He struck lucky from the start – luck is an especially useful attribute for archaeologists. Preserved beneath the debris from a fire which had consumed the upper wooden stories he found ground floor rooms filled with well-preserved statues and stone reliefs.
Our picture shows two of the famous Assyrian winged beasts being prepared for crating up and dispatching to London, where they can be seen in the British Museum. Beyond them are some reliefs and above is Sir Henry himself supervising.
One small room had a particularly well-preserved set of relief depicted a single subject. These are also on display in the British Museum, set up as they were originally. The Assyrian army marches in from the left, assaults a walled city in the centre, and defeated citizens beg for mercy from a throned king on the right.
A cuneiform inscription enlightens the viewer: “Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before the city of Lachish.”
There are two more cartouches behind the king which inform us that we are seeing the King’s tent and chariot. We can surmise that the King told his stone carver that these state-of-the-art travelling accessories must be included!
And this is our villain. Sennacherib is one of the best known of Assyrians because of his mentions in the Bible and elsewhere:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
“Later, when Sennacherib king of Assyria and all his forces were laying siege to Lachish, he sent his officers to Jerusalem with this message for Hezekiah king of Judah and for all the people of Judah who were there.” – (II Chronicles 32:9)
“Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them.” – (Isaiah 36:1–2)
We can even date this campaign, to 701 BCE. When Sennacherib came to the throne Assyria’s vassal states in Palestine had stopped paying tribute, and now it was time to pay up. The coastal cities quickly did so, but King Hezekiah of Judah refused, having prepared for this he was sitting behind thick stone walls with the prophet Isaiah for support. (2 Kings 19) tells the tale.
On their way to Jerusalem the Assyrians stopped to attack Lachish, Judah’s second city, stormed and sacked it. Since Sennacherib had directed the attack himself, he thought it merited a prominent memorial. This is what happens to people who fail to pay their taxes!
By the time the Assyrian army reached Jerusalem it would have been late in the campaigning season, and stone walls don’t come down easily. Then came divine intervention!
“And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.”
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
Six centuries later a Roman army arrived to besiege Jerusalem. It is said that a Roman officer asked a local farmer the name of the hill on which his legion was stationed “We call this the Assyrian camp”, the wily peasant replied, no doubt hoping for a similar fate to befall his questioner.
But I digress. There remained a mystery – where exactly WAS Lachish? Plainly it was somewhere in the Shephelah, a region of rolling hills between the Judean mountains and the coastal plain.
However, a number of these have ruins of ancient settlements on their summits, indeed the accumulation of broken pottery and other rubbish has considerably added to the height of some of them. There were plenty of candidates.
Sir Flinders Petrie, the famous Egyptologist, had turned his attention to Palestine in the 1890s, and in 1932 several of his pupils led by James Starkey struck out on their own to investigate one such, Tell ed-Duweir.
There they found a large city that had been inhabited almost continuously through the Bronze and Iron Ages up until the time of Alexander the Great, after which it had been abandoned. No later construction had therefore disturbed the site, it was a perfect location for archaeology.
The expedition found many fascinating items such as the plaintive ‘Lachish letters’, written by the garrison commander on pieces of pottery shortly before the city fell to the Babylonians in 589 BCE but never sent. The finds are on display in Israel. Here is Starkey at Lachish.
And here he is posing with a painted pot.
However in 1938 Starkey was murdered by robbers on his way to Jerusalem and the expedition ended. At this point we can introduce our heroine, Olga Tufnell. That is her in the photograph.
Tufnell had no qualifications in archaeology, she had taken employment with Petrie as his fund-raising secretary but impressed by her enthusiasm he had promoted her to supervising on his digs. At Lachish, she was the expedition’s recorder.
Miss Tufnell was a keen photographer, here is one from her of precarious site photography at Lachish.
Back in England, determined that their work should not be forgotten, she spent the next twenty years researching and writing up the excavation report. The result in four volumes (Lachish I-IV) established a stratification of Palestinian pottery that has been used ever since.
‘Stratification’? If something undatable, a brooch for example, is found next to an Early Bronze Age pot then that dates it. They were the plastic bags of their time, thrown away after use and piling up everywhere.
Lachish remained largely undisturbed until 1973, when David Ussishkin of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology began a major expedition that was to last for twenty years. In 1981 attention turned to the large mound in the southwest corner of the city.
Starkey had surmised that this might be the siege ramp constructed by the Assyrians as shown in the reliefs. Ussishkin went further in suggesting that the reliefs might not be a generic picture but a specific illustration of the siege (others have since disputed this). The King had after all been present, he could himself have told the sculptors what to carve.
At this point my typist should declare a personal interest, having been a volunteer digger (more often a wheelbarrow pusher actually) on the siege ramp during two seasons.
Here is a view of the siege ramp under excavation taken by my typist. The ramps themselves are gone but the rubble used to construct them is visible.
A view from the opposite direction. That is an aerial view but we did not have drones in those days so we sent for the Kiryat Gat fire brigade! Here is my photograph of their platform, I was posing with my petouche (an archaeologist’s trowel) on the hillside pretending to look for arrowheads.
In the background is the modern village of Moshav Lachish, and that would have been where Sennacherib, King of Kings, King of Assyria was sitting outside his tent. Up in air is my friend Dr Nicolas Slope supervising, knees knocking as he suffered from acrophobia. He needed several beers to aid his recovery that evening.
Here is a diagram of the area. Lower left is the Main Gate, a complex structure with a ramp leading up to it for wheeled traffic. In green is the siege ramp, at a saddle where the city walls were most approachable from the hill opposite.
One question was why the mound is so high. The answers lies in the yellow area in the diagram. It is a counter ramp, piled up by the defenders to prop up the inner wall after the outer had fallen.
It was a considerable undertaking, the excavators had to go down a long way to find the bottom. That was a seriously wobbly ladder which I climbed down once to clean for a VIP visit.
Well, time is getting on so I expect you are thinking “but what about the siege carts”?
Here is one from the Lachish reliefs. To the left is a section of city wall, at the bottom are archers behind the cart providing covering fire. Assyria had specialised well armoured siege archers. The slope was littered with arrowheads and sling stones testifying to the intensity of the fighting.
Here is a modern drawing of the same cart. It is a wooden four wheeled structure made in sections, you can perhaps make out the straps joining them together. It would have been covered in leather at the front for protection, and has archers on top. Each cart had its own ramp up which it could be pushed from inside.
The walls were made of mud brick, and a large pick with a pointy end is being swung against it to bring it down. The defenders are throwing down torches, and from the cart a ladle is being used to put out a fire.
And here is an imagining of the assault. Further back are slingers and archers with shield bearers to protect them. It was this siege equipment that made the Assyrians so feared by their enemies, no city was safe from them.
So there we have it. A Victorian polymath, a mighty King and a determined lady who never actually met.
Sir Henry Layard and Nineveh
Judith Dekel drawings
Counter ramp article by Ussishkin 1983