New Finds at King Herod's Tomb: 2,000-Year-Old Frescoes

Mati Milstein in Herodium, West Bank
for National Geographic News
November 19, 2008
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Archaeologists exploring King Herod's tomb complex near Jerusalem have uncovered rare Roman paintings as well as two sarcophagi, or stone coffins, that could have contained the remains of Herod's sons.

In May 2007, veteran Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer solved one of Israel's great archaeological mysteries when he first uncovered the remains of Herod's first century-B.C. grave at the Herodium complex, located 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Jerusalem.

(See related: "King Herod's Tomb Unearthed Near Jerusalem, Expert Says" [May 8, 2007].)

King Herod, appointed by the Romans to rule Judea between 37 and 4 B.C., is renowned for his monumental construction projects, including the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the Caesarea complex, and the palace atop Masada.

Herod constructed Herodium as a massive and lavish administrative, residential, and burial center.

New Findings

Netzer revealed new discoveries at a Wednesday press conference in Jerusalem.

Recent excavations uncovered an elaborate theater dating slightly earlier than Herod's burial complex that had been demolished to enable construction of the artificial mountain that served as his tomb.

The walls of the theater's loggia—a balcony that served as a VIP room and viewing box—are decorated with well-preserved Roman paintings of windows and outdoor scenes.

The style of the paintings has not been seen before in the Middle East, according to Netzer, who has been working amid Herod's ruins since the 1960s, at times with funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

The window painting style existed in Rome and Campania only between 15 and 10 B.C. Netzer's team believes Italian artists were brought to the Holy Land to decorate this theater, as happened at a site in nearby Jericho.

"Normally in Judean art you wouldn't paint scenes such as these with animals. The style is so similar to what is known from Italy, it really looks like a team came over to do the painting," said Rachel Chachy-Laureys, a surveyor working with Nezter. "It fits the context."

In addition, two relatively intact coffins, perhaps belonging to Herod's sons, were recently found in the mausoleum and show no signs of deliberate damage. Herod was rumored to have murdered his sons.

The coffins are in good shape compared to what archaeologists are labeling Herod's sarcophagus, discovered in 2007 and crafted of reddish-pink limestone with carved rosettes.

Herod's coffin was likely vandalized during the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule sometime between A.D. 66 and 72, Netzer said.

The king was likely despised by Jewish rebels as a puppet appointed by Judea's Roman rulers, and Netzer said the damage was probably a deliberate expression of hatred or revenge.

The Mystery Remains

One big question remains: Where is Herod's body?

"We have only found a very small number of human bones at the site and have not been able to come to any conclusions," Netzer said. "We have not yet finished digging and have only uncovered a small area."

But he does not believe the king's remains will ever be recovered.

At the conclusion of the first Jewish revolt in A.D. 70, the rebels handed the site back over to the Romans.

Jewish fighters also briefly made use of the site during the Bar Kokhva revolt 50 years later, building a network of tunnels that served their efforts at guerilla warfare against the Romans.

Netzer began to excavate at the Herodium site in 1972. He and his colleagues Ya'akov Kalman, Ro'i Porath, and Chachy-Laureys—with the assistance of local Bedouins—began excavations higher up on the mountain's slope in 2006.

The Israel Museum is slated to open an exhibition in 2010 of archaeological findings from Herodium, which is managed by Israel's Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.

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