Finding King Herod’s Tomb

After a 35-year search, an Israeli archaeologist is certain he has solved the mystery of the biblical figure’s final resting place

Herod built an elaborate palace fortress on the 300-foot mountain, Herodium, to commemorate his victory in a crucial battle. (Duby Tal / Albatross / IsraelImages)
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In the 1860s, Felicien de Saulcy, a French explorer, searched for Herod's tomb on the island in the center of the vast pool in Lower Herodium. Father Virgilio Corbo led an excavation at the summit from 1963 to 1967 on behalf of the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Rome. In 1983, a team led by Lambert Dolphin, a Silicon Valley geophysicist, used sonar and rock-penetrating radar to identify what Dolphin thought was a burial chamber inside the base of the highest tower on the mountaintop.

Netzer, however, did not find Dolphin's data convincing enough to redirect his efforts from other, more promising sites—notably a monumental building in the lower complex. Moreover, Netzer and others argue that entombment in the tower would have been unthinkable, because Jewish law proscribed burial within a living space. Barbara Burrell, a classics professor at the University of Cincinnati, wrote in 1999 that interring Herod inside the palace "would have horrified both Romans and Jews, neither of whom dined with their dead."

Netzer smiles as he recalls that when he investigated the cisterns and tunnels within Herodium in the early 1970s, he was actually standing less than ten feet from the tomb, which he later found halfway up the eastern slope. But Netzer instead continued to focus his attention on the foot of the mountain. "We kept getting hotter and hotter," says Ya'akov Kalman, one of Netzer's longtime associates, "but nothing came of it." Netzer believes that Herod originally intended to be buried in the lower complex, but for unknown reasons changed his mind and chose this other location. In 2005, having completed his work at Lower Herodium without revealing a burial chamber, Netzer turned once again to the mountain.

In April 2007, his team discovered hundreds of red limestone fragments buried in the mountainside. Many bore delicate rosettes—a motif common to Jewish ossuaries and some sarcophagi of the era. Reassembling some of the pieces, Netzer concluded they were all that remained of a sarcophagus more than eight feet long with a gabled cover. The high quality of the craftsmanship suggested the sarcophagus was fit for a king. Plus, the extent of the fragmentation suggested that people had deliberately smashed it—a plausible outcome for the hated monarch's resting place. Based on coins and other items found nearby, Netzer surmises that the desecration occurred during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, from A.D. 66 to 73. (As Kasher notes in his biography, "Herod the Great" was, for the Jews, an ironic title, designating an arrogant monarch who scorned the religious laws of his own people.)

Within two weeks of finding the rosette fragments, workers unearthed the remains of two white limestone sarcophagi strewn about the tomb. Netzer believes one could have held Herod's fourth wife, Malthace, mother of his son Archelaus. The third sarcophagus might be that of Archelaus' second wife, who, based on the accounts of Josephus, was likely named Glaphyra. Workers also found a few bone fragments at the tomb site, though Netzer is skeptical that an analysis of the scant remains will yield any meaningful information about the identities of those buried at Herodium.

Netzer acknowledges that absent further evidence, the rosette-decorated sarcophagus cannot be definitively assigned to Herod. Duane Roller, professor emeritus of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University and author of the 1998 book The Building Program of Herod the Great, concedes that the tomb belonged to someone of noble lineage, but is convinced that Herod's burial site is at the base of the summit tower. For one thing, Roller notes its similarity to other tombs built in Italy at that time. The lack of an inscription particularly troubles some scholars. David Jacobson, a researcher affiliated with University College London and the Palestine Exploration Fund, suggests that a sarcophagus of a very important personage would have been inscribed, and he points to that of Queen Helena of Adiabene, which was recovered from her royal mausoleum in Jerusalem. But others, including Netzer, point out that it was not common for Jews of that era to inscribe sarcophagi. Besides, it's plausible that Herodium itself was the inscription; the entire edifice declares, "Behold me!"

Clad in work shorts, hiking shoes and a well-worn leather Australian bush hat, Netzer scampers up the path to the tomb site. The septuagenarian offers me a hand as I seek a toehold. He greets the crew in Hebrew and Arabic as we pass from one section, where workers wield pickaxes, to another, where a young architect sketches decorative elements.

The tomb site is nearly barren, but the podium that bore the royal sarcophagus hints at magnificence. It is set into the stony earth, partially exposed and unmarred, the joints between the smooth white ashlars (slabs of square stone) so fine as to suggest they were cut by a machine. Netzer has also found the corner pilasters (columns partially built into the walls), enabling him to estimate that the mausoleum, nestled against the side of the mountain, stood on a base 30 by 30 feet and was some 80 feet high—as tall as a seven-story building. It was built of a whitish limestone called meleke (Arabic for "royal") that was also used in Jerusalem and in the nearby Tomb of Absalom—named after the rebellious son of King David, but likely the tomb of the Judean King Alexander Jannaeus.

The mausoleum's design is similar to the Tomb of Absalom, which dates to the first century B.C. and is notable for its conical roof, a motif also seen at Petra. The remnants of the mausoleum's facade are composed of the three elements of classical entablature: architraves (ornamental beams that sit atop columns), friezes (horizontal bands above the architraves) and cornices (crown molding found on the top of buildings). Netzer has also found pieces of five decorative urns. The urn was a funerary motif, used notably at Petra.

Despite the work still to be done—excavating, assembling, publishing the data—Netzer is clearly gratified by what he has learned, which is, he says, the "secret" of Herodium: how Herod found a way to keep his vow and be buried in the desert. "In my field, ancient archaeology, you could say that once circumstances give me the opportunity to be quite certain, it's not in my character to have further doubts."


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