Battering rams, ancient archaeology of the Bible

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Bible Study Resource

The Battering Ram

There were five ways of conquering a fortified city:

  • penetration of the high walls by force from above; this was achieved by scaling the walls, mostly with ladders 

  • penetration by breaking through the wall, either by primitive methods using hammers, axes, spears, and swords, or by a special instrument called the battering-ram 

  • penetration from below by digging under the foundations of the city wall

  • siege: starving the inhabitants until they surrendered or died

  • penetration by ruse, as was done in the Iliad. 

The earliest type of battering-ram

This wall painting from the tomb of Khety shows a besieged city attacked by Egyptian warriors. At the centre of the painting, three Egyptian soldiers within an enclosed space, something like an enclosed wicker shell, thrust a long pole towrds the upper part of the fortifications in an attempt either to harm the defenders or weaken the wall.

This wall painting from the tomb of Khety shows a besieged city attacked by Egyptian warriors. 
At the centre of the painting, three Egyptians within an enclosed space, something like an enclosed wicker shell, thrust a long pole towards the upper part of the fortifications in an attempt 
either to harm the defenders or weaken the wall. 

In its earliest form, the battering-ram was simple: a long beam with a sharp metal head. It was thrust with force against the wall to be breached so that its head was lodged deeply between the stones or bricks. It would then be levered right and left, dislodging the stones of the wall and causing it to collapse. In the era of King David and the Divided Kingdoms, it was probably a device with a hardened head, metal-capped, which was either swung in a harness secured to a fixed wooden scaffolding or by a group of very strong men charging a wall or gate.

In action, the soldiers handling the battering-ram had to reach the wall, bringing them close to the defenders above - and to their missiles. To protect them, an improvement was devised: the battering beam was carried beneath a long wooden box-like structure, similar to the top half of a covered wagon, its surface strengthened with leather or shields, its forward part open to allow the beam to be swung. Early type of battering ram in which the central beam can be swung back and forth

In later periods with more advanced engineering skills, this was adapted to ease the movement of the beam and give it a more powerful thrust. 

The method most commonly used was to drop a rope from the ceiling of the structure and tie it to the beam at an appropriate spot, so that it became a kind of pendulum. It could then be swung backward and forward, gathering momentum, so that when it was released, it would fly forward with greater force and wedge itself more firmly in the wall. 

Essentially, a battering ram was the prototype of the modern tank or armored vehicle. Complete with its protective structure, it was very heavy. It had to be brought from great distances to the city under assault, and then right up to the walls. The more advanced types were therefore equipped with wheels, giving them the appearance of a covered wagon. It was drawn to the battlefield by draft animals but when it arrived at its destination it had to be moved to the city wall by the soldiers themselves. Early type of battering ram

This was a tough task, for the ground was usually rough, rocky, and steep. To make it easier, the assaulting force would lay an improvised track of earth strengthened with wooden planks, to serve as a smooth ramp up which the battering-ram could be moved to the city wall. 

When it had been brought within appropriate range for the battering operation, it would be braked at the spot to prevent its rolling back. Covering fire from the regular infantry was backed up by fire from special troops who would accompany the battering-ram, walking at its sides or even inside the structure. Later on, the supporting troops were moved in high, mobile, wooden towers from which they could fire at the defenders upon the walls. 

The Mari Documents: what they tell us

The earliest illustrations of battering-rams are those which appear on the wall paintings of Beni-hasan dating back to the 20th century BC (see image above). To the right of the fortress we see a mobile structure, rather like a hut with a slightly pointed arched roof, which could be moved with the help of two parallel crossbars. It served as cover for two or three soldiers whose hands grasp a very long beam with a sharp tip, probably made of metal. The point of the beam is aimed at the top of the fortress wall, to the balconies and battlements, for the lower portion of the wall is already protected by a low glacis, a sloping piece of land extending from the city wall. 

Defensive walls and towers at the ancient city of Buhen These battering-rams, though they seem primitive, were no doubt effective under the prevailing conditions. Otherwise, it is hardly likely that they would be depicted in these siege scenes as the principal weapon of an army attacking a fortress. Moreover, the excavations at Buhen (see photograph at right) show that its magnificent fortifications were destroyed as a result of breaching by a more developed battering-ram, and being set on fire, during the Hyksos period in the 17th century BC. 

The documents of Mari on the Euphrates tell us more. The Mari letters (see one of these below) make several mentions of the battering-ram, made largely of wood, and of its effectiveness. Ishme-Dagan, for example, writes as follows: “Thus saith Ishme-Dagan, thy brother! ‘After I conquered (the names of three cities), I turned and laid siege to Hurara. I set against it the siege towers and battering-rams and in seven days I vanquished it. Be pleased!’ ” Clay tablet, one of the Mari letters

The power of the battering-ram must have been great, for in another letter, Ishme-Dagan reports that he conquered another city in a single day.

It must have been possible to move these heavy war machines over long distances, for another letter talks of transporting it by wagon and boat. More detailed evidence of how the battering-ram was operated is contained in a Hittite document from Boghazkoy which describes the siege of a city named Urshu at the end of Middle Bronze II. The text reads: 

“They broke the battering-ram. The King waxed wroth and his face was grim: ‘They constantly bring me evil tidings. . . . Make a battering-ram in the Hurrian manner! and let it be brought into place. Make a “mountain” and let it [also] be set in its place. Hew a great battering-ram from the mountains of Hazzu and let it be brought into place. Begin to heap up earth. . . .’ The King was angered and said: ‘Watch the roads; observe who enters the city and who leaves the city. No one is to go out from the city to the enemy. . . .’ They answered: ‘We watch. Eighty chariots and eight armies surround the city.’ ”

This document gives more several details about the action of the battering-ram and its manufacture. 

  • The 'mountain' is nothing other than the mound or ramp of earth which had to be laid up to the wall, to fill in part of the moat, over which the battering-ram could be moved into position, as we shall see very clearly from the illustrated Assyrian monuments from the first millennium. 

  • The description also gives us information about the military units used to back up the battering rams: the chariots were there not for storming the city but to seal off the approach roads leading to the city, so that no ally could help the trapped citizens.

  • The purpose of the siege towers referred to in the Mari documents was to enable the attacking archers to give covering fire from a greater height to the men operating the battering-ram, and to neutralize the weapons of the defenders upon the battlements. The importance of this covering fire by archers is endorsed in the Beni-hasan paintings, but here the mobile tower had not yet been introduced and the bows are fired from the standing or kneeling position from the ground.

All the evidence supports the view that the tremendous resources and effort invested in the fortifications of the Middle Bronze period were designed primarily to prevent breaching by the battering-ram. This was the major purpose of the moat, the outer or advanced wall, and the glacis, which protected the steep slope and lower portion of the wall.

Battering rams change the design of city walls

Casemate wall, with relatively thin walls easily breached by a batter-ram

So radical a change in the construction of fortifications was certainly not accidental. The changeover from a relatively weak casemate wall (see right) to a massive wall of formidable strength could have been prompted by one thing alone: the enemy must have begun employing a powerful battering-ram. 

And so it was. We have evidence that from the beginning of the 9th century, a very advanced battering-ram makes its appearance in the Assyrian army. It is safe to assume that it is against this weapon that the new type of wall was built, marking a radical departure in the fortifications constructed in the lands of the Bible. From this time on, the casemate is abandoned in the construction of new city walls, and gradually disappears, being used in Iron Age II only for the walls of the inner citadel (as in the story of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho), or for isolated and independent fortresses, where the chambers of the casemates are used mainly for dwellings or storage (see above). 

The Assyrian battering-ram

Artist's reconstruction of the Assyrian battering ram belowThe appearance of the battering-rain in the Assyrian army is already featured in the reliefs of Ashurnasirpal (see opposite and below). They are solid objects whose mobility over long distances must have been somewhat limited. One type moves on six wheels, its body built on a wooden frame, and its sides covered by a conglomeration of wicker shields common to the army of Ashurnasirpal. 

From the size of the shields and the number of shields used, we can calculate the measurements of the body of the battering-ram as between 4 and 6 meters in length and between 2 and 3 meters in height. Its front portion was further heightened by a round domed turret (see below) possibly made of metal; inside this turret hung the rope on which the battering beam was attached like a pendulum. The turret also contained embrasures through which the crew could fire and, more importantly, could watch the walls and direct the operation of the battering-ram while they themselves were protected. The turret itself was about 3 meters high, giving the front portion of the body an overall height of 5 to 6 meters from the ground. 

This relief of Ashurnasirpal clearly shows the design of the separte components of the battering ram: the defending archers in the turret of the ram, the ram itself shattering the stone wall of the city under attack, the compartment hiding the operators of the ram, and the wicker covering which protected the soldiers within the ram.

The wall relief of Ashurnasirpal clearly shows the separate parts of the six-wheeled battering ram: defending archers in the turret of the ram; the ram shattering the city's stone wall; the compartment hiding the operators of the ram; and the wicker covering which protects soldiers within the ram.

The operational head of the ram was shaped like the blade of an axe. This would be inserted with force between the stones or bricks of the walls and, when it was in sufficiently deep, it would be levered to the right and to the left, displacing stone and brick and causing the collapse of a section of the wall. To reduce the extreme danger to the warriors operating the battering-ram, who had to move right up to the foot of the wall and so offer a perfect target to the defending archers above, they were given covering fire by their own archers, who were perched on mobile towers. 

These towers were possibly even higher than the battering-ram. The relief below depicts an even larger and heavier battering-ram which was almost certainly assembled near the city. The artist in this relief adds a rare touch, portraying not only the method of operation of the instrument but also the action of the defenders. Note the chain to the left of the relief: this was dropped down so that it would loop around the ram, or tangle up in it, and so impede its capacity to destroy the wall.

Archers, battering ram, sappers undermining the city wall, chain tangling with the end of the battering ram, a falling body: all part of an Assyrian attack

Archers, battering ram, sappers undermining the city wall, 
chain tangling with the end of the battering ram, a falling body: all part of an Assyrian attack

Ashurnasirpal was experimenting with these battering-rams, trying them out, feeling his way. But they had one great weakness. They were cumbersome. And so his son, Shalmaneser, tried out a new type. It was more mobile, less heavy and awkward, but it still did not match the needs of the Assyrian army. 

Six-wheeled battering ram attacking the city of Dabigu. The poles at the back of the ram may have been used by draft animals to drag the ram from place to place as required.

Six-wheeled battering ram attacking the city of Dabigu. The poles at the back of the ram 
may have been used by draft animals to drag the ram from place to place as required.

Four-wheeled battering ram attacking the city of  Parga

Four-wheeled battering ram attacking the city of  Parga. 

Two of these new types of battering-ram were depicted on the bronze gates of Balawat. Their characteristic feature was the snout, fashioned like the head of a wild boar, and they look rather like long wheelbarrows. The heavier type had six wheels (top), as in the reign of Ashurnasirpal; the lighter model (bottom) had four wheels, with six spokes like those of the chariots. Their principal drawback was that their operational snout was so low that it could not be maneuvered into positions where it could reach the higher levels of the wall. 

Much of the success of Tiglath-pileser III in reducing strong fortified cities is the product of a highly advanced type of battering-ram which he introduced into his army. In place of the cumbersome and rigid models, we now find light bodies on four wheels. These were easier to manoeuvre. In some cases the battering-rams are represented with two poles or horns (see image below). However, this must be interpreted as representing a pair of battering-rams - rather than a battering ram with two horns - operating side by side. The wall relief at Sennacherib's palace, a graphic record of the attack on Lachish, show seven rams working simultaneously.

This relief shows the siege, assault and destruction of a city by Tiglath-pileser III. The battlemented main wall of the city is no match for the battering rams (the two prongs suggest two battering-rams, one behind the other). The rams (centre) gouge into the wall, leaving the city open to the attackers. 

 

Similar images appear on the reliefs of Sargon (see drawing below). Sargon’s battering-rams are essentially the same as those of Tiglath-pileser. He appears to have learned to concentrate more of his force and utilize to the maximum the protection which in any case had to be provided whether he was using one instrument or ten. His relief shows a group of battering-rams moving to destroy a single point of the wall (below). 

Sargon attacks a hapless city with at least two battering rams

Sargon attacks a hapless city with at least two battering rams

Sennacherib introduced two improvements over his predecessors. He lengthened the ramming rod, and the body was now apparently made of easily assembled and readily dismantled parts, covered with leather.Ashurbanipal It is strange that no battering-ram appears on any of the reliefs of Ashurbanipal (see right), neither on those portraying operations against very distant fortified cities nor on those depicting action against cities near to his bases. Their absence is especially difficult to explain in the light of the fact that the Babylonian kings, who came soon after, certainly used them, as we see from the Biblical texts in the verses of the prophet Ezekiel: “And lay siege against it, and build a fort against it, and cast a mount against it; set the camp also against it, and set battering-rams against it round about” (4: 2). Or, “At his right hand was the divination for Jerusalem, to appoint captains, to open the mouth in the slaughter, to lift up the voice with shouting, to appoint battering-rams against the gates, to cast a mount, and to build a fort” (21: 22). 

These texts of Ezekiel aptly describe the method of operating the battering-rams, which are borne out in the Assyrian reliefs. The gate is chosen as the focal point of assault not only because it is the weak spot in the wall, but also because the battering-ram could then be wheeled up the path leading to the gate without requiring the construction of a special ramp (see illustration below). 

 

Assyrian units attack the city of Pazashi

Assyrian units attack the city of Pazashi

But such ramps were constructed on other occasions to overcome the natural steepness of the tell when the chosen point of breach was a part of the wall. These ramps were built up of earth whose sides and top surface were covered with bricks and stones (see above). Where the ramp was very wide, and designed to take a large number of battering-rams at the same time, only part of the surface was covered with wooden planks and bricks and these served as narrow courses for the individual rams and not as is represented in the reconstructed portrayal below. 

A reconstruction of the siege of Lachish

A reconstruction of the siege of Lachish, with siege ramp and battering rams left centre.

 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: The Battering Ram from earliest times, the Mari letters, to the Assyrian use of rams in destruction of city walls

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