With first-century historian Flavius Josephus as his guide, Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer searched for more than three decades to find the tomb of Herod the Great. He believed it was located at a small, conspicuously symmetrical, flat-topped mountain called Herodium, home to the ruins of Herod's 2,000-year-old fortified palace. Herodium lies three miles east of Bethlehem, the scene where, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the infant massacre.
Finally, on May 8, Netzer's perseverance paid off: His team discovered remains of a mausoleum and pieces of an ornate, 8-foot-long stone coffin at the end of a ceremonial staircase. No inscription links the tomb to Herod, Netzer said, but "there is not really anyone else that it could be."
Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, is disappointed at the lack of identification. "It could well be Herod's tomb," he said, "but we have to withhold judgment."
From 1978 to 2006, Netzer's team excavated at the base of the mountain, the area he calls the Tomb Estate. "I'm convinced [Herod] intended to be buried there, until five to six years before he died," Netzer said.
Sometime shortly after Herod's death in 4 B.C., the tomb was ransacked. Netzer and Maier agree it was most likely the work of Jewish zealots, who provoked a revolt against Rome 70 years later. Even though Herod rebuilt the temple, Jews resented his rule. He imposed burdensome taxes, and though he identified himself as a Jew, he did not observe most Jewish religious practices.
Herodium, one of the largest palace complexes in the Roman Empire, boasted gardens, pools, and stables. Herod the Great earned his title by ordering monumental building projects. But he also murdered one of his wives, three of his sons, and a Jewish high priest.
Because Josephus wrote extensively about Herod, Maier said, we know more about this king than even the Roman Caesars. But not more than the baby he unsuccessfully tried to kill.
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National Geographic News has photos of the site.
Articles about the discovery of the tomb include:
King Herod's ancient tomb 'found' | An Israeli archaeologist says he has found the tomb of King Herod, the ruler of Judea while it was under Roman administration in the first century BC. (BBC News)
Herod's tomb found | Sarcophagus dug up in Herodium in the Judean Desert (Associated Press)
Archeologist: King Herod's tomb desecrated, but discovery 'high point' | The archeologist who located King Herod's tomb at Herodium said Tuesday that the grave had been desecrated, apparently shortly after his death, but called the discovery a "high point." (Haaretz)
Team says it's found Herod's tomb | Site south of Jerusalem had been the focus of the search for 35 years. (The Los Angeles Times)
Herod's tomb found after 35-year search | Clues lead to remains of stone coffin on hillside Intifada disrupted search at site near Jerusalem (The Guardian)
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