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Tomb of King Herod Found! (2007)

All photos © Danny Herman

After more then 100 years of search and research, Professor Ehud Netzer recently announced the discovery of the tomb of King Herod at the site of Herodium. Known to the western world mostly for ordering the killing of the babies of Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus, Herod indeed had a complex and paranoid personality. Yet for archaeologists he is more known as a maniac – of construction. As Netzer puts it, “Herod was obsessed with building, and personally followed all his building projects”. Indeed Herod had initiated building projects at many sites. In Caesarea he turned a sand dune into an international port. In Jerusalem he renovated the Jewish temple, built a palace, entertainment facilities, a fortress, and markets. In Samaria he built many public buildings. For himself, he constructed a set of fortified palaces, atMachaerus, Cypros, Dok, Hyrkania, Alexandrion, Masada, and Herodium.

Herodium, which he named after himself, was a unique combination of a fortified palace, and destined to be his burial place. The fortified palace was constructed on top of a hill which was filled with tons of earth to appear like the top of a steep volcano, or as Josephus states, “its shape was like of a breast”. The top was protected by a circular wall and four towers. Inside a lavishly designed palace housed the king and his royal family when visiting the site. Around the acropolis a lower city was also created, yet although Josephus states that Herod was also buried at the site, no sign of his tomb could be seen prior to excavations.

Most of the top of the mountain was excavated by the Franciscan Archaeologist V Corbo between 1962 to 1967. He exposed most of the acropolis, but still with no sign of the royal tomb.

A view of the center of the palace on the top of the acropolis of Herodium

A view of the center of the palace on the top of the acropolis of Herodium. Some scholars suggested the tomb of Herod should be sought under the eastern tower, but after years of research Netzer’s assumption that it should be searched elsewhere proved right.

Prof Nezter started excavating at the site in 1970. He estimated Herod did not plan to be buried in the acropolis itself, because it would defile his fortified palace. Jewish law at that time prohibited burials within living areas, and considered death as the highest level of impurity. Being so, Prof Netzer focused on exposing the lower city that was at the bottom of the site, figuting his tomb should be there.

Already in the 19th century the French scholar de-Saulcy estimated a round structure in the centre of the lower city could be Herod’s tomb. Netzer’s excavations, however, showed that the round structure was actually a pavilion placed in the centre of a large pool which was adorned with rows of pillars. At the corner of the poolNetzer exposed a bathhouse complex which probably provided further entertainment for the king and guests. Some of the original mosaics can still be seen there.

A mosaic floor from the Herodian bathhouse in lower Herodium.

A mosaic floor from the Herodian bathhouse in lower Herodium.

Between the pool complex and the hill two monumental structures were also good candidates for housing the tomb, so Netzer exposed them as well, but they too proved NOT to contain any burials.

A view of the acropolis of Herodium from the lower city

A view of the acropolis of Herodium from the lower city. The round structure in the centre of the photo was once believed to be the tomb of King Herod. However, excavations at the site proved it to be a pavilion in the middle of a pool which was adorned with colonnades of pillars on all sides. Some of the pillars have been reconstructed.

Out of luck around the large pool with the ‘floating’ pavilion, Prof Netzer focused on the area north of the large pool, but it too failed to reveal royal burial remains. In that area Netzer exposed a monastic complex from the Byzantine period. Parts of the monastic complex were built over structures from Herod’s time, but none included tombs.

So Netzer returned to the artificial hill, the acropolis, and focused on the northern and eastern slopes outside the fortified palace. Creating a set of trenches, Netzer tried reaching the foundation of the fortress, hoping it would link to a royal sepulchre. It was only at the 12th trench that his team hit a retaining wall which provided a flat space on the steep slope for erecting a large rectangular structure – the mausoleum of Herod.

A view at the acropolis of Herodium from the east. The arrow shows the trench in which the tomb of Herod was.

A view at the acropolis of Herodium from the east. The arrow shows the trench in which the tomb of Herod was.

View of the corner of the mausoleum of King Herod

View of the corner of the mausoleum of King Herod. On the right side the corner of the square podium of the structure can be seen. On the left side a curved stone fragment indicates that the upper courses of the mausoleum included round elements. In the centre a fine dressed stone is undoubtedly a fragment of a cornice of the mausoleum.

A closeup of the decorated stone fragment

A closeup of the decorated stone fragment

The mausoleum was dismantled a long time ago, but its remains included highly ornamented stone fragments. Some were of the burial structure, and some were part of a large stone coffin, no doubt the burial coffin of King Herod.

Visiting the site a week after the announcement of the discovery was made, I had mixed emotions about the finds. The search for Herod’s tomb was of personal interest for me for many years. My dream was to participate in the search for his tomb – with the hope to find it un looted. Josephus describes in length the funeral procession, and I was especially enchanted by his description of the wealth mentioned: the bier was of

solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in a purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the sceptre beside his right hand.

I was always fascinated by the possibility we would find the tomb intact. If indeed so, I imagined, its wealth would surpass the splendor of all ancient tombs ever revealed, even that of Tut Ankh Amun.

Finding (just) the stone coffin in small fragments is indeed a disappointment to some extent. But perhaps there is still a chance of finding a treasury related to the tomb after all. From the podium of the mausoleum a tunnel leads to the fortress. It is blocked with debris, and Netzer plans to excavate it soon.

Perhaps the tunnel leads to the treasury of the tomb. I made sure Netzer listed me as a volunteer for this excavation, and I truly hope there is still chance to find some of Herod’s original wealth in the vicinity of his tomb. So stay tuned for my next report. Perhaps it will be on the newly discovered gold from Herod’s tomb!

A closeup view of the tunnel at the side of the mausoleum

A closeup view of the tunnel at the side of the mausoleum. Could this tunnel lead to the treasury of king Herod's burial?