Renewed excavation at Masada bears fruitful results
How the archaeologists came up with the idea for a new excavation project at King Herod’s palace-fortress at Masada is a compelling story. In 1924, a British pilot took a series of aerial photographs of Masada from 4,500 feet up in the air. The images were preserved in glass negatives and kept at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. When BAR co-author Guy Stiebel was examining these images a few years ago, he noticed next to the Byzantine church an oblong shape that seemed to be covering a subterranean structure—something that couldn’t be seen at the site at the time. As it turns out, not knowing that anything was there, the Israel Nature and Parks authority had covered this structure around 45 years ago—providing an excellent candidate for excavation. With this undisturbed section of Masada in mind, Guy Stiebel and Boaz Gross launched a new archaeological project under the sponsorship of Tel Aviv University (TAU).
Comprised of specialists in field archaeology, archaeobotany, archaeozoology, archaeometallurgy, and paleomagnetism—along with a host of international volunteers—the archaeological team has now completed two field seasons at King Herod’s palace-fortress. The project has uncovered evidence of agricultural activity and aqueducts and irrigation systems from the time of King Herod. Although Masada is situated in the middle of the Judean desert, such excessive use of water for agriculture was not unheard of in antiquity. Scholars were already familiar with Herod’s lush gardens at Jericho, Caesarea, and Herodium; further, the writings of Jewish historian Josephus describing the soil at Masada offered clues.
“Learning from Josephus’s account that the soil of Masada was allegedly fertile, we wondered if we could identify evidence of such agricultural activity atop the mountain,” write Stiebel and Boaz Gross in BAR. “Together with the team from TAU’s archaeobotanical laboratory led by Dafna Langutt, we excavated a series of probes in the semi-hemispheric feature of the Northern Palace’s upper terrace, which had been suggested to be a viridarium, a plantation of trees constituting what many call a ‘pleasure-garden.’ The semi-hemispheric balcony provided the royal residences of the Northern Palace with a spectacular view of the Dead Sea, the Moab mountains, and the oasis of En Gedi.”
To learn more about what the renewed excavation at Masada unearthed, including what the oblong shape in the ground—which had planted the seed for the project—was covering, read the full article “Masada Shall Never Fail (to Surprise) Again” by Guy Stiebel and Boaz Gross in the September/October 2018 issue of BAR.
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Cheek-by-jowl with Herod the Great’s handsomely decorated palace complex at Masada are the tattered remains of the Jewish defenders who, Josephus tells us, committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman army. Did Masada excavator Yigael Yadin find the lots by which the Jewish rebels decided who would be the last to live? Back to Masada, edited by Hebrew University professor Amnon Ben-Tor, brings the siege of Masada vividly to life.
Herod the Great and the Herodian Family Tree by Lawrence Mykytiuk
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