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Archaeological Discoveries: Herod the Great’s Tomb Discovered

(May 2007)

After many years of searching, the tomb of Herod the Great has been discovered on the northeastern slope of Mount Herodium, fifteen kilometers south of Jerusalem. A team of archaeologists, including Prof. Ehud Netzer, Yaakov Kalman, and Roi Porath of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology, along with the help of local Bedouins, unearthed the remains of Herod’s grave, sarcophagus, and mausoleum. The archaeological team describes the burial site as one of the most striking finds in Israel in recent years.

Herod was appointed as King of Judea by the Romans in 37 BCE and ruled over the kingdom of Judea until he died in 4 BCE. He was renowned for his monumental building projects throughout the kingdom, including the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the fortress at Masada, the port city of Caesarea, and the complex at Herodium.

Of all of Herod’s building projects, Herodium, the only site given his name, is the most outstanding. This was the site where Herod chose to memorialize himself and where he chose to be buried. To build the palace at Herodium, Herod’s architects constructed a man made mountain at the edge of the desert. At its peak, within the mountain, were a palace, a fortress, and a monument.

For thirty years prior to the most recent find, excavations searching for Herod’s tomb had focused on Lower Herodium, an area that had been built for the funeral and burial of King Herod, which is now known as the “Tomb Estate.” This area included two monumental buildings, a mikveh, or ritual bath, and a 350-meter long path prepared for Herod’s funeral. It is believed that Herod’s initial intention was to be buried in the Tomb Estate and that only in his later life did he ask to be buried within the artificial cone that gave Mount Herodium its volcano-shape.

Upon not finding Herod’s burial place at the Tomb Estate, in August 2006 archaeologists began the excavations on the slope of Mount Herodium. Once archaeologists moved excavations to the slope of Herodium, a monumental flight of stairs (6.5 meters wide), also constructed specifically for the funeral procession, was unearthed leading from the hillside to Herod’s burial site. Prof. Netzer reports that the historical record, the location, and the unique nature of the findings leaves no doubt that the site was Herod’s burial place.

While the mausoleum itself was almost completely destroyed in ancient times, archaeologists found the remains of part of a well-built podium constructed from large white ashlars (dressed stones) in a manner and size not previously seen at Herodium. A group of decorated urns were also found among the ruins, similar to ones found on the top of burial monuments in the Nabatean world. The urns were decorated on the sides and had a triangular cover, a style that was typically used to store body ashes.

The remains of a sarcophagus, which archaeologists believe with certainty belonged to Herod, were found spread among the ruins. The sarcophagus, which was close to 2.5 meters long, was very unique, made of a Jerusalemite reddish limestone decorated by rosettes. The sarcophagus had a triangular cover decorated on its sides. Only a few similar sarcophagi have been found in Israel and only in elaborate tombs such as the famous King’s Tomb on Selah a-Din Street in East Jerusalem. The sarcophagus was found deliberately broken into hundreds of pieces. According to the historical record of Josephus Flavius as well as the archaeological evidence, it appears that the destruction of the monument and the sarcophagus occurred in the years 66-72 C.E. during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans. At that time, Jewish rebels, who were known for their hatred of Herod as the “puppet ruler” of the Romans, took control of Herodium and destroyed the monument and sarcophagus. While no inscriptions have been found yet at Herodium, archaeologists believe they could be unearthed during the continuation of the dig.

Sources: Hebrew University of Jerusalem