First Person: What Should We Do with $25,000?

As published in the May/June 2015 Biblical Archaeology Review


We have $25,000 available for an archaeological project!

Yes, it’s true, and we’re inviting proposals.

Here’s how it happened: Herod the Great lives on.

It all happened as a result of the search for Herod’s tomb. We know he was buried at Herodium. Josephus tells us so, in a detailed dramatic description of his funeral.1 But the question is, where at Herodium? This is what Josephus does not tell us.

After a 35-year search, the great Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the tomb in a small mausoleum on the side of the mountain that is Herodium. Then Netzer fell to his death when a wooden railing at the site gave way. An exhibit featuring the site and Herod’s mausoleum drew thousands at the Israel Museum.a

The Herodium Expedition
Built by King Herod the Great, Herodium is a palace-fortress in the Judean Desert near Jerusalem that dates to the first century B.C.E. After 35 years of excavation, Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer—tragically killed in a fall at the site—believed he located Herod’s mausoleum on the side of the site. Doubts surround Netzer’s theory, so the search for Herod’s tomb goes on.

But then doubts surfaced. Or rather doubts that already had been there surfaced more audibly. BAR wrote about them.b Was this really Herod’s tomb? The primary alternative location for it was a suspicious solid tower at the site. Was Herod buried somewhere in this apparently solid tower? Was it really solid? Deep down was there a mausoleum in it for Herod’s tomb?

After we published an article about this, we received a letter from a leading Israeli tourist guide and adjunct professor at Hebrew University named Danny Herman. Danny had excavated with Netzer and his long-time staff at Herodium, which now led the expedition. The triumvirate, which later proved critical, comprised doctoral student Roi Porat and two colleagues (Yakov Kalman, an M.A. student who describes himself as a farmer/archaeologist, and architect Rachel Chachy-Laureys).

In his letter to the editor, Danny told of guiding “an influential individual, who at the end of the tour expressed his consent to sponsor new research and a possible dig into the base of the eastern tower” that might settle the question of the location of Herod’s tomb. Danny worked with Porat and Kalman to estimate the cost of such a project: Their estimate was $100,000. Then, “unfortunately,” Danny wrote, “the potential sponsor retreated from his offer.”

I was reluctant to print this letter. I know Danny personally, so I wrote him of my hesitation: “Dear Danny: A hundred thousand dollars is a terrible, artificial, round, made-up, unrealistic figure. It scares people off. It is a number pulled out of a hat. It says there is no thought behind it. Other than that,” I added to soften things a little jocularly, “it is OK.”

Danny replied that it was not a figure pulled out of a hat but was the result of a careful four-stage research proposal prepared by Porat and Kalman. The total was $103,000, which Danny rounded to $100,000.

With this, I decided to publish Danny’s letter in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR.c

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Todd Bolen/
The enigmatic eastern tower that may enclose Herod’s tomb.

Wayne Shepard is a long-time BAR subscriber from Florida who has attended a number of our programs. And he is a man of action: When he read Danny Herman’s letter to the editor, he promptly sat down and wrote a check for $20,000 for the project. I was obviously delighted. I replied that we would not take any administrative fee for handling the project and, in addition, we would add $5,000 to the pot, making $25,000 available to study the question of whether Herod’s tomb was in the large solid tower at Herodium.

True, the amount available was far less than the $103,000 needed for the overall project and even considerably less than the $37,000 which Porat and Kalman had estimated for Part 1 of the project, which included a laser survey of the tower, a geophysical survey including radar penetration, deep drilling into the core of the tower and exposure of the base of the tower to locate a possible entrance to the tomb.

Painfully aware that our $25,000 was far less even than the estimated cost of Part 1 of the research plan, I wanted “to assure that the money is wisely spent, that we get the biggest bang for the buck … I want to squeeze as much information as possible from $25,000.”

Danny, who would be honchoing the project from our end, responded that his participation would be on an entirely voluntary basis, without remuneration. My instructions to Danny were to “make sure that every penny’s expenditure is justified and justifiable. Make sure we get a service at the best possible price for the finest quality … All we have at this point is $25,000.”

Danny wrote me that the three codirectors of the project—Porat, Kalman and Chachy-Laureys—had approved the research “and are excited about it as well.”

The excitement was contagious. Danny wrote me that Porat was already getting a quote for the cost of drilling and filming with a mini camera.

Then the sky fell. Danny reported on a meeting he had with the three codirectors in which Porat did all the talking. As Danny described the meeting: “It was pretty insulting.” Porat would not permit the money to come through BAS; he wanted another conduit such as the Israel Exploration Society, which would allow the money to be withdrawn on request without any substantive review. As Danny reported Porat’s words, “They want full autonomy on the use of the budget.”

Porat estimated the actual cost of the work to be only $7,000–10,000. The rest of the fund would be for data processing and publication (and, presumably, staff salaries).

Moreover, Porat did not want to work with BAS. He was afraid of our “demands.” Moreover, he feared that we would “sensationalize” any discoveries.

Danny waited two days before he reported further: “I wanted to be more rational and less emotional. Yet 48 hours did not help. I am still somewhat in the same mood as Hershel—insulted. I initiated the project. I did not ask for a penny. I did not ask for any share in the publication. Nor did Hershel. I expected a red carpet for raising this sum. [Porat’s] response was an insult to all my efforts (including getting there [to the meeting] on crutches).”

So BAR is left with $25,000. What should we do with it? Do you know of a worthwhile project—a study, a test, an excavation, a renovation, a restoration, a plan, etc.? We would be pleased to hear from our readers or governmental authorities or archaeologists or others regarding what we should do with $25,000.

In commemoration of the scholarship of Ehud Netzer, the Biblical Archaeology Society has made a special collection of his groundbreaking articles from the BAS Library available for free. Click here to read Netzer’s articles >>



a. Ehud Netzer, “In Search of Herod’s Tomb,” BAR, January/February 2011; Milestones, “Ehud Netzer,” BAR, January/February 2011; Suzanne F. Singer, “Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey,” BAR, March/April 2013. See Hershel Shanks, ed., Herod’s Palace-Fortresses, Digging Deeper Series (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2015).

b. Hershel Shanks, “Was Herod’s Tomb Really Found?” BAR, May/June 2014.

c. Queries and Comments, “Fund-raising for Finding Herod’s Tomb,” BAR, September/October 2014.

1. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.197–199.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey

Herodium: The Tomb of King Herod Revisited

Monumental Entryway to King Herod’s Palace at Herodium Excavated

Herod’s Death, Jesus’ Birth and a Lunar Eclipse


Posted in Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works, Biblical Archaeology Topics.

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  • Heather says

    I’d recommend investing the money into some sort of high interest-bearing investment, for the next 30 years or something, or until some really compelling question such as the Herod one comes knocking again. Beyond that, I really like Jon’s idea about the pool of Siloam, or Kurt’s idea about the tombs. Funding a survey done by infrared satellite imagery could turn up a lot of fun and exciting new excavation sites too.
    But – please stay away from all of the fantasical Young Earth Creationist ideas being presented on this thread.

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