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Puzzling new finds from Herodium (2009)

No doubt the most famous find made in Israel in the last few years is the discovery of the tomb of King Herod “the Great” in Herodium, about 10 km (6 miles) south of Jerusalem. The location of Herod’s tomb was deluding scholars and researchers for decades, but in April 2007 Professor E. Netzer of the Hebrew University declared in a special news conference that he had finally discovered the tomb of King Herod, in Herodium. I have been following this discovery from its beginning, and even participated in the excavations of the tomb complex. It is indeed a great find, and for the last year or so I also brought countless groups to view the site and appreciate the new finds. But at the first announcement of the discovery skeptics wondered whether this is indeed the tomb of King Herod. The main problem is that to this day an inscription identifying the stone coffin as belonging to the famous king has not been recovered.

Netzer’s repeated answer was that this can only be the tomb of King Herod himself, because Herod was buried in the Herodium, and this is the only coffin found in the Herodium. It is also dressed in a royal manner, as is the whole tomb complex.

In November 2008 Professor Netzer called another press conference, and presented new finds that had been recovered that year. Next to the tomb Netzer revealed a lavishly decorated room, with surprising figurative art in a wall painting. Figurative art was opposed by the Jews at that time, and this is the first time such art has been found in Herod’s building projects.

Furthermore, next to the decorated room Netzer discovered the edge of a small theatre, orientated toward Jerusalem. Its location next to the tomb is surprising, and its function remains a mystery.

Theatre which is being uncovered near the tomb complex

Theatre which is being uncovered near the tomb complex. Photo © Danny Herman

Yet the most puzzling finds presented at this conference were the additional remains of the stone coffin, as well as two other coffins! These two coffins were well decorated, but they too failed to bear any inscription. Who were buried in these coffins? Netzer still believes the first stone coffin he recovered was for King Herod himself, and the two others were for his family members – his wife, and his daughter-in-law.

Is Netzer right? It seems that only discovery of an inscription could solve this riddle.

Netzer presenting a reconstruction of the first stone coffin he recovered at Herodium.

Netzer presenting a reconstruction of the first stone coffin he recovered at Herodium. Photo © Avital Lahav

A stone coffin

A second stone coffin presented at the recent press conference. It is less decorated than the first coffin discovered, but is also done in a high style. Netzer also found a third stone coffin, but non of them bear an inscription. Whose coffins are they? Photo © Avital Lahav

A stone coffin

A second stone coffin presented at the recent press conference. It is less decorated than the first coffin discovered, but is also done in a high style. Netzer also found a third stone coffin, but non of them bear an inscription. Whose coffins are they? Photo © Avital Lahav