Dig this! Herod’s tomb found after 3-decade hunt
Ruthlessly lavish in his lifetime and a villain of Jewish and Christian narratives alike, the biblical King Herod has captured the world’s imagination anew with the discovery of his tomb outside Jerusalem.
Hebrew University archeologists on May 8 announced the find of the first century B.C.E. monarch’s grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum at the Herodium ruins in the Judean Desert after more than three decades of digging.
“This is the only site that carries his name, and the site where he chose to be buried and to memorialize himself — all of this with the integration of a huge, unique palace at the fringe of the desert,” said professor Ehud Netzer, team leader. “Therefore, the unearthing of his tomb marks the climax of research at this site.”
No human remains were among the relics, possibly due to grave robbers or what the university described as “nationalist vandalism” in ancient Judea. It said the sarcophagus and mausoleum had suffered extensive damage, apparently by Jewish zealots who waged a revolt against Roman occupiers in 66-72 C.E.
“The rebels were known for their hatred of Herod and all that he stood for as a ‘puppet ruler’ for the Romans,” the university said in a statement.
Herod, a convert to Judaism whom the Romans appointed king of Judea, was considered a great builder and administrator who dramatically expanded and renovated the Second Temple, refurbished the fortress at Masada, rebuilt water supplies for Jerusalem and built the cities of Caesarea and Herodium. He also is remembered as a ruthless ruler who did not hesitate to eliminate potential rivals, including one of his many wives and two of his children.
Herod’s outsized ego has an especially grim resonance for Christians: The New Testament records that upon hearing that a new messiah, or “King of the Jews,” would be born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered the slaughter of the town’s male children. Jesus survived, according to the Christian narrative, because his parents escaped to Egypt.
Herodium, which included a huge palace at the edge of the desert near Bethlehem, is where the king chose to be buried and memorialized.
Netzer, considered a world expert on Herodian architecture, began his search for Herod’s tomb more than three decades ago. After digging in various spots on Mount Herodium, Netzer said the team knew it was close to the tomb when they found the first pieces of a “monumental” sarcophagus made of hard limestone during excavations on the northeastern slope.
“There is only one or two of its kind found so far” in the country, Netzer said. “It’s not that every rich Jew or citizen of this time could afford it. It’s really a royal one.”
Netzer’s team of archeologists, Ya’akov Kalman, Roi Porath and local Bedouins, also unearthed part of a platform of dressed limestone — about 30-by-30 feet — that belonged to the mausoleum. Other “high-quality” artifacts found at the site included decorated urns similar to those found on burial monuments of the Nabatean culture.
No inscriptions have been found, but the team says circumstantial evidence — an account of Herod’s funeral at the site by the historian Josephus Flavius, the lucrative artifacts and remnants found and historical records indicating Herod’s decision to be buried there — points to this being the king’s burial site.
According to the archeologists, Herodium included a prefabricated “tomb estate” for the king, with a mikvah for ritual purification of the corpse. There also was a “monumental” flight of stairs — 20 feet wide — up which the bier was carried.
Josephus’ book, “The Jewish Wars,” describes the funeral at Herodium in detail. Herod’s son, Archelaus, Josephus wrote, “brought forth all the royal ornaments to accompany the procession in honor of the deceased. The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the scepter beside his right hand.”
The find is one of the most important discoveries from the Second Temple period, said Oren Gutfeld, professor of classical archeology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archeology.
“Someone so famous, like Herod the Great, Herod the Builder, a dominant person in the history of Israel and who we know about so much from literary sources — from Josephus Flavius — and archaeological finds all over Israel and outside, it’s a diamond in the crown,” said Gutfeld, who had worked with Netzer at Herodium for three years and has seen the tomb remnants.
Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land and a specialist in inscription studies and Second Temple historiography, said Netzer should be congratulated for finding sarcophagus fragments, which indicate “a tomb of someone on the ground who was very rich, affluent, perhaps of great honor.”
But “we don’t know whether Archelaus or one of the other sons was buried there with him,” Pfann said. “We don’t know whether the fragments of the sarcophagus might be of someone else. All we know from history is that he is the only one mentioned as being buried there.”
Ze’ev Weiss, also an archeology professor at the Institute of Archeology, said it seems logical that the tomb belonged to Herod, based on the discovery of the podium and pieces of the sarcophagus, combined with accounts of the funeral taking place at Herodium.
However, the archeological team and other experts say much excavation work still remains to be done at the site.
“In my mind, as an archeologist, there is nothing 100 percent,” said Weiss, who worked with Netzer in the 1980s in the Herodium area. “We have to work; we have to prove it, but still, when we take all the details, I would say there is a high percentage that this is Herod’s tomb.”