Not Fit for a King?

Archaeologists contest attribution of Herodium tomb to Herod

May 2014 Update: In the May/June 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks examines the evidence for and against Netzer’s tomb discovery in Herodium, and suggests an alternate possibility for the location of Herod’s burial. Read more about the feature online for free.


A reconstruction of Herod's tomb.

In February 2013, the Israel Museum opened the acclaimed exhibit Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey, described in BAR as:

An extraordinary archaeological exhibit … It marks the journeys of two men separated by 2,000 years. One journey was the funeral procession of King Herod the Great—feared, hated and lionized—whose monumental works still mark the landscape of Israel; the other journey was the life work of renowned Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer.

In the posthumously published BAR article “In Search of Herod’s Tomb,” Netzer wrote:

During the 38 years since I began working at Herodium, Herod’s luxurious desert retreat, this architectural masterpiece has yielded many treasures, but none more exciting than the 2007 discovery of Herod’s elusive tomb. Some still question this identification, but more recent discoveries confirm my initial conclusion. Today, I have no doubt of it.

However, two Israeli archaeologists still have their doubts. Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas recently suggested that the modest tomb doesn’t match the ego of the infamous king and his elaborate architectural program. As the Herodium tomb serves as the centerpiece for what may be the largest archaeological exhibit in Israel’s history, the Hebrew University archaeologists believe that it is simply too modest to have been Herod’s.

In commemoration of the scholarship of Ehud Netzer, Biblical Archaeology Society has made a special collection of his groundbreaking scholarship from the BAS Library available for free.

According to a recent article in Haaretz, Patrich and Arubas suggest that, by comparison to the grand architecture surrounding the Herodium monument, the tomb claimed to be Herod’s is relatively small. Herod would have been familiar with larger tombs in the region, such as the second-century B.C.E. Hasmonean tombs at Modi’in, and his infamous megalomania would have propelled him to build something much larger, more akin to the tombs of Augustus or Alexander the Great.

Restoration work on the tholos, the upper story of Herod’s mausoleum, including the entablature, roof fragments and urn. Photo © the Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Meidad Suchowolski.

The Israel Museum exhibit is organized around the 25-mile procession from the throne room in Jericho to the tomb in Herodium, a grand event described by Josephus involving thousands of participants. Patrich suggests that the plaza across from the tomb could hardly host 20 visitors, let alone the thousands that would have participated in the funerary march.

While the Hebrew University duo does not believe that the tomb matches Herod’s opulence, others stand by Netzer’s attributions. Roi Porat, Netzer’s successor at Herodium, sees the entire tell as a grand burial mound. In this case, the large-scale plaza needed to host the procession would not be atop the tell at the tomb itself, but instead near the base of the hill. Since the publication in Haaretz, others in the archaeological community have stood by Netzer’s original assessment. On his website Ritmeyer Archaeological Design, Leen Ritmeyer questions Patrich’s conclusions, suggesting that the “rebuttal delivered by Roi Porat … was more positive and convincing,” a sentiment echoed by Todd Bolen on the Bibleplaces website. The debate on one of Israel’s most prominent monuments will surely continue for months to come, but the doubts put forward by the Hebrew University scholars have tinted the limelight on Herod’s tomb cast by the Israel Museum exhibit.

Read more in Haaretz.

View a web-exclusive slideshow of the Israel Museum exhibit along with Suzanne F. Singer’s exhibit review as it appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of BAR.

Read a collection of articles by Ehud Netzer, available for free online.

Posted in News, Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works, Biblical Archaeology Places, People in the Bible.

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  • Norman says

    That the entire Herodium was to be considered a monument to the old king seems beyond dispute. The apparently modest burial place itself is thus of secondary importance. Incidentally, Herod could hardly have been impressed by the tomb in Rome of Augustus Caesar, his friend and ally since Augustus out-lived him by well over a decade……But modelling himself on Alexander in so many respects, including use of the Macedonian sun symbol on his coins would reinforce the argument for Herodium itself being the monument, just as all of Alexandria was for Alexander.

  • amnon says

    This claim of the otherwise esteemed archaeologists, is really an absolute sham.
    I have just been on sight a few days ago. If you multiply the small exceptional model on site with the gigantic base remaining you have to come to only one conclusion – what an outstanding builder was Herod, as his monumental mountain and grave can also be seen easily from the southern Jerusalem hills.

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