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What Were Uzziah’s Machines?

June 19, 2014

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The biblical book of Kings lists Uzziah as reigning 52 years over Judah, and besides that it has precious little to say about him except to note that he “did right in the eyes of YHWH,” did not remove the high places, and eventually contracted leprosy and spent the last years of his reign as a figurehead while his son did the actual work of governing the kingdom.[1]

By contrast, the book of Chronicles contains a whole host of details about Uzziah’s reign which portray him as the head of a powerful kingdom. Uzziah defeated the Philistines and the Arabs, extended Judah’s territory as far south as Eilat, placed Ammon under tribute, and maintained a large army. We know not the author’s sources for this information, except for a vague note that the prophet Isaiah wrote about Uzziah’s reign.[2]

Among this list of accomplishments is a more enigmatic statement in 2 Chronicles 26:15, which the NASB renders thus:

In Jerusalem he made engines of war invented by skillful men to be on the towers and on the corners for the purpose of shooting arrows and great stones.

The NIV translated it more loosely:

In Jerusalem he made devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.

The Hebrew uses three related words to make a punny phrase that cannot easily be rendered into English. The things built on the towers are called hishbonot mahashebet hosheb. All three nouns come from the same consonantal root. A loose translation would be something like “little inventions of inventions of inventors” (scroll to the bottom for a more technical discussion). It’s a literary device, and being used to describe something new that the writer didn’t have good vocabulary to describe.

The second half of the description mentions that these devices were installed in the migdalim (towers) and pinnot (“corners,” probably towers at the corners of the wall) and somehow enabled the shooting of stones and arrows.

An early Greek catapult, basically a scaled-up crossbow.

The obvious explanation is that these devices were catapults. But this merely raises another question. The generally accepted history of the catapult holds that it was first invented in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 399 BC. The Syracusan general Dionysius I had led a military coup in 405 BC that overthrew Syracuse”s democratically elected government and installed himself as a dictator. His first acts were to put Syracuse’s society and economy on a war footing in preparation for attacking Carthage, who controlled the western half of Sicily, and seize total control of the island.

In order to do this, Dionysius brought in engineers from around the Greek world to work on inventing new weapons. The Greeks in Italy had previously invented an early crossbow called the gastraphetes, which could shoot an arrow further than a bow. Dionysius’ engineers took this a step further and created even larger arrow and stone-throwing machines for attacking Carthaginian fortifications.[4]

But Uzziah reigned in the first half of the eighth century BC. He lived 350 years before the catapult was invented.

A few authors have argued that the Syracusans were not the first to come up with the idea of using levers, springs and torque to fling boulders at their enemies. They point to a few archaeological finds and clues from ancient writers to suggest a more ancient and eastern origin.[5]

In the mid eighth century, at the same time as Uzziah, a text from Egypt describing the Egyptian Pharaoh Piye’s siege of Hermopolis states that the attacking Egyptian army included “hurlers” made out of wood. Unfortunately, that is all we know. A “hurler” was something made of wood that hurled things.[6]

The Macedonian author Polyainos, who wrote in the second century AD, recorded in his book Strategems that during the Persian siege of Peleusium in 525 BC the defending Egyptians protected their walls with catapults.

They advanced formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and fire at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration.[7]

Stratagems is a rather whimsical book, containing both examples of concrete military strategy and suggestions such as seducing a tyrant’s daughter, or setting up honey traps for your enemies and then killing them on their wedding night.[8] The idea that the Egyptians would refuse to shoot their favorite animals is entirely within the character of the book.

More importantly, Polyainos wrote in the second century AD, and it is entirely likely that he was mistaken about what types of weapons were available 650 years before he lived.

A few bits and pieces from the archaeological record have been used to argue for early catapults. The first comes from Palaepaphos, a city in Cyprus which was besieged by the Persians in 498 BC. In 1984, excavators found 422 rounded stones which were flat on one side. The stones were of various sizes and weighed anywhere between 4.5 and 48 lbs (2-22 kg). Most weighed between 9-13 lbs (4-6 kg). They were all found on the outside of the walls. The flat sides were not the result of an impact, rather all of the stones were deliberately chiseled that way.

Some of the mysterious Palaepaphos balls.

Elisabeth Erdmann proposed that the rocks were shot at the city walls by Persian catapults. However, catapult ammunition was round, while the purpose of the flat sides of the Paleopaphos balls is unclear and it is hard to see what advantage it would give a catapult projectile. I myself have seen similar round balls flat on one side while excavating Persian period material in Ashkelon. They were used to build walls just like any other stones. In fact, the stones from Paleopaphos may simply be architectural elements ripped out of walls and dropped off the top of the wall on the heads of attackers.[9]

There is one round stone ball from this period, a 48-pound (22 kg) ball found at Phocaea in Asia Minor. But only one. Was it a catapult shot? A weight for a large scale? Something else? There is no way of knowing.[10]

There is a third item sometimes advanced in support of early catapults for which we have to dig all the way back to 1849, when Austen Henry Layard published sketches of the excavations of the Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, including one of this relief of an assault on a fortress: [11]

Layard’s drawing of a Assyrian palace relief from Nimrud.

This relief hasn’t been studied much, because there are far more interesting and complex reliefs. If you zoom in on the upper right corner, there is a siege ramp with two tall things on the ramp. The defenders are trying to set the tall things on fire. There appear to be uneven rocks or building stones in the air near the tall things.

Close-up of the alleged “catapults.”

Based on this vague image, George Rawlinson wrote this fanciful description:

Besides battering-rams, the Assyrians appear to have been acquainted with an engine resembling the catapult, or rather the balista of the Romans. This engine, which was of great height, and threw stones of a large size, was protected, like the ram, by a framework, apparently of wood, covered with canvas, felt, or hides. The stones thrown from the engine were of irregular shape, and it was able to discharge several at the same time. The besiegers worked it from a mound or inclined plane, which enabled them to send their missiles to the top of the ramparts. It had to be brought very close to the walls in order to be effective—a position which gave the besieged an opportunity of assailing it by fire. Perhaps it was this liability which caused the infrequent use of the engine in question, which is rare upon the earlier, and absent from the later, sculptures.[12]

At the risk of overstating the obvious, there is absolutely nothing in this image that looks like a catapult at all. The best that can be made of this engine based on these pictures is that it is a siege tower built on the ramp to allow the people inside the tower to shoot down onto the walls. No throwing arms or anything indicating a catapult are visible. As this image is stationary, we cannot tell if the rocks are being thrown at the walls, or from the walls and at the towers.

But the bigger problem is that the technology does not seem to have spread. If the Egyptians, Persians and Assyrians had rudimentary catapults, why don’t we hear more about them? Why do Assyrian reliefs that show detailed pictures of all manner of siege weapons not show a clear picture of a catapult? Why does Thucydides, who described many sieges in his history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) never mention them? Why does such a useful and effective invention not begin appearing elsewhere until after 399 BC? Where did it go for several hundred years?[13]

All told, there is no real evidence that catapults existed before 399 BC. But what do we make of those inventions of Uzziah?

The book of Chronicles ends with Cyrus allowing the Jews to return home from exile in Babylon, although we can’t know with any certainty how far after that the book was written.[14] The first possibility, therefore, is that the author of Chronicles was projecting, anachronistically ascribing an invention of his own time to the past without knowing that they didn’t exist back then.

This explanation is possible but not entirely satisfactory. Inventions take time to spread, and catapults do not seem to have been in widespread use in the Near East until after Alexander the Great. This would push Chronicles back into the third century, which is not impossibly late, but less likely since the text also references things such as Persian currency units which seem to indicate it was written before the fall of the Persian empire.[15]

Layard drawing of an Assyrian relief from Nimrud, showing boulders being used as a weapon.

The purpose of the inventions is said to be to “shoot arrows and hurl large stones.” The word translated as “shoot” and “hurl” is the Hebrew verb yarah, which is used many times to describe a bow shooting an arrow. But it is also used in 2 Samuel 11:20-24. David has ordered the Israelite army besieging the city of Rabbah-ben-Ammon to approach close to the walls in order that Uriah the Hittite may be killed and David can then marry his wife. Several of his men were killed by this reckless action, including Uriah. Joab sent a messenger to deliver the news to David, and warned the messenger that David might be upset and ask him “Why did you go so near to the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? Who struck down Abimelek the son of Jerubbesheth? Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?”

Joab was referencing Judges 9:50-53,where the warlord Abimelek is killed by a woman who drops a grinding stone on his head from the top of a tower. The idea of dropping rocks on the heads of your enemies is probably as old as rocks and heads, but there are devices for making it easier. “Murder holes” overhanging walls and gates were common features in medieval castles.

Corner tower at Lachish showing archers, shields, window slits, and overhanging superstructure.

Corner tower at Lachish showing archers, shields, window slits, and overhanging superstructure.

Could some sort of similar construction been present in the towers of Jerusalem? We have no artistic or archaeological remains of the upper story of any Jerusalem tower. However, the Assyrian reliefs from Nineveh that portray Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish in 701 BC do show us Israelite fortification towers from that city. Several of the towers have archers shooting arrows from behind shields in a superstructure placed over the battlements. They also feature a sort of slotted window at the top of the tower. The tops of the towers overhand the base of tower, leaving room for murder holes for dropping rocks on anyone at the base of the wall.

Could one or all of these innovations be the inventions installed by Uzziah’s men on the towers and corner-towers of Jerusalem? If so, they may have been first used in Jerusalem and by the late eighth century spread to other fortified cities in Judah such as Lachish.[16]

It should be noted that almost the above cases portray catapults being used in a defensive manner. The Egyptians and Uzziah’s alleged stone throwers were used to defend a city under siege. At Paleopaphos the rocks were dropped from the walls onto attackers. Could all of these references be misremembered or misinterpreted references to structures built atop walls that facilitated archers and rock-droppers? It is an interesting speculation, but one that for now must remain so due to a lack of firm evidence.

Note: This is a complete reworking of an older article from the old blog. However, I kept the comments from the original article since they had some useful information. Just know that the first three comments refer to the previous version of this article.

References:

[1] 2 Kings 15:1-7.

[2] 2 Chronicles 26:1-15, 22.

[3]  2 Chronicles 26:15

[4] Baron C. Hacker, “Greek Catapults and Catapult Technology: Science, Technology, and War in the Ancient World” Technology and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), 34-44; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Perseus, trans. by C.H. Oldfather. 1989, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.01.0084 (accessed July 24, 2011), 14.42.1.

[5] See for instance Leigh Alexander, “The Origin of Greek and Roman Artillery,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 5 (Feb., 1946), 208-212.

[6] Alan R. Schulman, “Military Organization in Pharaonic Egypt,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. I, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 298-299.

[7] Polyaenus, Strategems, Attalus.org, trans. by R. Shepherd. 1793, http://www.attalus.org/translate/polyaenus.html (accessed July 24, 2011), 7.9.

[8] Polyaenus, Strategems, 5.14; 8.30.

[9] Duncan B. Campbell, Besieged: Siege Warfare in the Ancient World (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006), 27-28; Rihll, The Catapult , 29-30.

[10] Campbell, Besieged, 29.

[11] Austen Henry Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh: From Drawings Made on the Spot; Together with a Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, Including Bas-Reliefs from the Palace of Sennacherib and bronzes from the Ruins of Nimroud; from Drawings made on the Spot During a Second Expedition to Assyria, Vol, 1, 1849, Plate 19.

The work can be found at: http://echo.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/home/search?searchSimple=Layard%2C+Austen%20Henry

[12] George Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, or, the History, Geography and Antiquities of Chaldea, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Parthia and Sassanian, or New Persian Empire, Vol.  1 (New York: Worthington, 1875), 275.

[13] Rihll, The Catapult, 30; Paul Bentley Kern, Ancient Siege Warfare (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Pres, 1999), 105.

[14] Since the last event recorded in 2 Chronices 36:22-23 is Cyrus’ decree allowing the Jews to return.

[15] Tracy E. Rihll, The Catapult: A History (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2007), 28; Steven L. McKenzie, I & II Chronicles, (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries) (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2004), 29-32.

[16] This idea was proposed in John Walton, Victor Matthews and Mark Chavalas, IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 448.

Image Sources: (Banner) Photo © Christopher Jones 2012. (Body) http://civilianmilitaryintelligencegroup.com/?p=3814; Campbell, Besieged, 29/F.G. Maier, Swiss-German Archaeological Expedition Palaepaphos; Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, Plate 19 (and closeup); Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, Plate 66; Lachish photo © Christopher Jones 2012.

For the Hebrew Students

The phrase in question:

חִשְּׁבֹנֹות מַחֲשֶׁבֶת חֹושֵׁב

חִשְּׁבֹנֹות is a noun, the plural of חִשָּׁבוֹן which features an וֹן ending often attached to adjectives and diminutives. The word only appears twice in the Bible, once in this verse and once in Ecclesiastes 7:29, which says “God made man upright, but they sought out many חִשְּׁבֹנֹות ” Here, the use of diminutive is clearly to belittle. Men seek their own silly little inventions rather than seeking God.

מַחֲשֶׁבֶת features a מ prefix, often used for abstractions. The word is frequently used elsewhere to mean a thought, idea, plan or invention.  חֹושֵׁב is a verb, a Qal perfect participle being used substantively. חֹשׁב is used several hundred times to mean to think or plan. It is related to מַחֲשֶׁבֶת since מַחֲשֶׁבֶת are what one makes when one חֹשׁב . The חִשְּׁבֹנֹות , therefore, are the product of the inventor inventing something. There is nothing we can glean from the etymology about what the inventions actually were.

The verb יָרָה in the Qal is used in about a dozen verses to refer to using a bow and arrow (1 Sam. 20:20, 36; 2 Sam. 20:36-37, 37:33; 2 Kings 13:17, 19:32; Psalms 11:2, 64:7; Proverbs 26:18; 1 Chron. 10:3, 2 Chron. 35:23). It is used to describe generally shooting and throwing things off a wall in 2 Samuel 11:20-24. Other miscellaneous uses: piling up stones to build a sacred cult site (Gen. 31:51), casting lots (Josh. 18:6), laying foundations stones (Job 38:6), God shooting righteousness like rain (an allusion to the imagery of the divine warrior shooting a bow in the sky when it rains, Hosea 10:12).

Article © Christopher Jones 2014.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2013 8:54 AM

    This is a remarkable and well researched article. It sheds light on the military history of ancient Israel.

  2. May 1, 2014 3:19 PM

    Hi,

    I looked up Rawlinson’s book on the Seven Great Monarchies and found a few different versions available online including this one on Google books:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=4ngEELtvtUYC&pg=PA81&dq=george+rawlinson+catapults&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NZBiU4TuE9SeyASe3IDwAw&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=george%20rawlinson%20catapults&f=false

    The text is accompanied by the same nonsense image of two vertical structures that look nothing at all like catapults. But there is a footnote which refers to a different image entirely. He refers to Series 2 Pl. 18. Layard published (as a separate book I think) a second series of the Monuments of Nineveh. I found this online also, as a series of images. The plate numbers are not perfectly clear, but I think this is Plate 18 from that book:

    http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?494737

    This book DOES appear to show some sort of structure on wheels with people behind it. I wouldn’t say it looks like a catapult, but it looks a lot more like a catapult than the first image. It could just be some sort of rolling shield. Although it has some length. There are several archers behind vertical curved shields that are not on wheels also.
    Similar devices are visible in this iamge also:

    http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?494740

    The images look more like something Rawlinson woud have interpreted as a ballista. (Though the wheels are odd, many modern scholars don’t think catapults were ever actually wheeled). Perhaps the wrong woodcut was published in the book? Although I believe it had several editions and you’d think it would have been corrected. I don’t know when the reliefs that these images are based on would be dated to. But it’s all a little more interesting than it seemed at first glance.

  3. May 1, 2014 7:07 PM

    Wow, thank you for posting that! I’ve never seen the image in the second link before.

    The machines in the Lachish relief are definitely a type of battering ram. The long projections coming out the front are a type of pry bar used to attack and pry apart the superstructure of the wall.

    The machine from the second link looks different. The image is low resolution but from what I can tell it lacks any sort of pry bar. It also lacks any sort of throwing mechanism. It looks to me like it is a mobile shield on wheels used to protect the archers as they advance up the siege ramp closer to the wall. A very interesting piece though, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before.

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