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Herod's Grave Uncovered

A Hebrew University professor, fulfilling a career-long quest to solve this national-historic mystery, has found King Herod's grave at the Herodion
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 5/8/2007, 1:18 PM

Prof. Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University, fulfilling a career-long goal of solving this national-historic mystery, has uncovered the grave of King Herod - at the Herodium (Herodion), east of Efrat in Gush Etzion.

Prof. Netzer announced his discovery at a Tuesday morning press conference at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He explained that a combination of the location, type of work at the tomb, the decorations, and pieces of the coffin led to the definite conclusion that this was Herod the Great's burial site.

Herod was the Roman-appointed king of Judea from 37 to 4 BCE. He was renowned for his many monumental building projects, including the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the palace at Masada, and the Herodium complex, 15 kilometers south of Jerusalem. The Herodium, Herod's final resting place, is among the most outstanding of his building projects. Prof. Netzer has led archaeological digs there since 1972, and the "exposure of the king's tomb here becomes the climax of this site’s research," Netzer said.

The coffin was found broken into pieces, and Prof. Netzer explained that it was likely broken some 70 years after the unpopular king's death, during the Jewish rebellion. Herod had also been known for his cruelty, killing his wife and children, among other perceived opponents.

The Herodium is famous for its mountain-top structure comprising a palace, a fortress and a monument. The excavations on the slope of that mountain, where the tomb was found, began in August 2006. The expedition, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was conducted by Prof. Netzer, together with Yaakov Kalman and Ro'i Porat.

The approach to the burial site was via a monumental flight of stairs 6.5 meters wide, leading to the hillside; the stairs were especially constructed for the funeral procession. Herod died in Jericho, but left instructions to be buried in the area known as the Herodium.

The mausoleum itself was almost totally dismantled in ancient times, but part of its well-built podium remains. Spread among the ruins are pieces of a large, unique coffin, nearly 2.5 meters (over 8 feet) made of a Jerusalemite reddish limestone, decorated by rosettes. The sarcophagus (coffin) had a triangular cover, which was decorated on its sides. Only very few similar sarcophagi are known in the country, and can be found only in elaborate tombs such as the famous one at the King’s Tomb on Salah a-Din Street in eastern Jerusalem. Although no inscriptions have been found yet at Herodium, archaeologists are hopeful that some might yet be found.

Wild Goose Chase
The search for Herod’s tomb, which began actively 30 years ago, focused until last year on Lower Herodium, which includes an area built especially for the king's funeral and burial. However, atop the Herod-era ruins was a large complex of Byzantine structures that took many years to dig out first.

Finally, Herod's Tomb Estate was dug. Though two monumental buildings and a large ritual bath (mikveh) were found, as well as a large route (350 meters long and 30 meters wide) that had been prepared for the funeral, no sign of the burial place itself was found.

The expedition then started to search for it on the slope of the hill, where it was finally found.  Prof. Netzer emphasizes that there seems to be no doubt that the king's initial intention was to be buried in the estate. Herod later changed his mind, however, asking to be buried within the artificial cone which gave the hill of Herodium its current volcano-shape.

Josephus Leaves Out Detail
The main historical source of the Second Temple’s days, the historian Josephus Flavius, described the site of Herodium in detail, as well as the funeral - but left out the detail of the burial having taken place on the hillside instead of in the Tomb Estate.

A complex of tunnels from the days of Bar-Kokhba within the Herodium mount was opened to the public in the 1980's. The archaeological excavations at the site, which stopped in 1987, were renewed 10 years later and continued until 2000, and after a second break, were renewed at the end of 2005.

Modern-Day Implications
Residents of Gush Etzion anticipate that the find will strengthen eastern Gush Etzion. The Herodium is located along the not-yet opened Zaatra bypass road between the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa and the two Gush Etzion communities of Tekoa and Nokdim.