King Herod's Tomb Unearthed Near Jerusalem, Expert Says

Mati Milstein in Jersualem
for National Geographic News
May 8, 2007
The tomb of King Herod the Great has been found on the sun-bleached slope of a desert mountain near Jerusalem, an Israeli archaeologist announced today.

Hebrew University professor Ehud Netzer and colleagues say they solved one of Israel's great archaeological mysteries by unearthing the remains of Herod's grave, sarcophagus, and mausoleum at the Herodium complex. (See a photo gallery of the finds.)

Most scholars had assumed Herod, who ruled Judea between 37 and 4 B.C., was buried at the Herodium complex, but his final resting place had remained undiscovered until now. The site lies about 6 miles (15 kilometers) south of modern-day Jerusalem.

King Herod 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 administrative, residential, memorial, and burial center.

The site's unique character and other finds at the Herodium prove without a doubt that this is Herod's burial site, Netzer said at a press conference.

An Ornate Tomb

The king's highly ornamented, 8-foot (2.5-meter) sarcophagus, crafted of red-colored limestone with rosettes on its sides, had been shattered. Hundreds of fragments have been found around the site, but no inscriptions have been discovered so far. (Related: "What Disease Killed King Herod?" [January 28, 2002]).

The style and design of the sarcophagus found at the Herodium is extremely rare. Only a handful of others have been uncovered in Israel, all in elaborate tombs apparently belonging to prominent personalities, such as the King's Tomb on Salah a-Din Street in Jerusalem.

"It's a sarcophagus we don't just see anywhere," Netzer said. "It is something very special."

The sarcophagus and other structures at the Herodium were likely destroyed during the first Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire between A.D. 66 and 72.

The Jewish rebels despised Herod, calling him a puppet appointed by Judea's Roman rulers. The destruction was probably an expression of hatred or revenge, Netzer said. (See a historical overview of the time period.)

No human remains have been found in or near the tomb, and the skeleton of Herod himself will probably never be recovered, he added.

The scientists also uncovered several decorated ornamental urns similar to those made by Nabateans, an ancient Middle Eastern people absorbed by the Roman Empire.

A Find Long Overdue

Netzer has been excavating at the Herodium since 1972. The new discovery only came, however, after he and his colleagues Yaakov Kalman and Roi Porath, with the assistance of local Bedouins, began excavations higher up on the mountain slope in 2006.

The tomb was difficult to find because the site's mausoleum was mostly dismantled in ancient times and its only remnants are a large stage built of white-dressed stone, which is unique to the Herodium.

Though Herod originally intended to be buried at the foot of the hill, he later decided on a higher site. A monumental staircase leading to the hillside was constructed for his funeral procession.

The Tomb Estate found at the Herodium, located at the base of the hill, includes two massive buildings and a large Jewish ritual bath as well as a long, narrow parade ground, also likely used during Herod's funeral procession.

At the conclusion of the first Jewish revolt in A.D. 70, the rebels handed the site back to the Romans. Jewish fighters also briefly used the site during the Bar Kokhva revolt 50 years later. The fighters built a network of tunnels, which served their efforts in guerrilla warfare against the Romans.

Researchers have started planning additional work at the site, which is now administered by Israel's Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.

"We need to find more artifacts in order to fill in the pieces of the puzzle," Netzer said.

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