One of the exciting things about visiting historical, archaeological sites with a knowledgeable guide is that there is always something new. Two of the sites that I like to take visitors to are Masada and Herodium both which show King Herod’s genius as a builder and life 2000 years ago under Roman rule.
When visiting Masada you may notice recent archaeological excavations being carried out by Tel Aviv University across from the Byzantine church. The site was chosen to gain more information about the open area on the top of Masada and 2 water cisterns were found from the time of Herod that were reused when Byzantine monks settled on the site. This is additional evidence that the open area was used for agriculture and in fact study of the sediment not only identiﬁed fertilizing agents, but also yielded the ﬁrst signs of the presence of grape vines on the southern part of the mountain-top, most likely indicating the existence of a vineyard. TAU’s archaeobotanical laboratory excavated probes in the hanging Northern Palace’s upper terrace, which had been suggested to be a viridarium, a small, roofless indoor garden that was popular in villas in Rome. Foerster has pointed out the architectural similarities between the layout at Masada and the Roman villa under Villa Farnesina in Rome which is thought to be the residence of Marcus Agrippa, Herod’s benefactor. When Agrippa visited in 15 BCE he brought Herod a gift from Augustus, a large stone carved washing stand and was so impressed with Herod’s building projects that he sent Roman artists and craftsmen. Visitors today can stand outside on the balcony of the Northern Palace, in the same way that royal guests stood, with a spectacular view of the Dead Sea, the Moab mountains in Jordan, and north to the oasis of En Gedi.
When visiting mountain-top palace/fortress at Herodium you will notice a similar roofless garden off the triclinium.
The Hebrew University is continuing its excavations inside the palace fortress, between the casement wall that defines the structure. Digging down the remains of cellars with vaulted ceilings were uncovered for the storage of wine. There the remains of ten gigantic pitoi, large ceramic storage jars (like the vats and wooden barrels used today in wine-making), were densely arranged in the storage space, probably used as fermentation tanks for making wine. Wineries of this type from the Roman period are known from archaeological finds from the Italian region and around the Empire. Wine was of great importance in the Roman period, and the production, importation and use of high quality wines by Herod was an expression of economic and cultural status. During excavations at Herodium and Masada, as well as other Herodian sites dozens of amphorae were discovered bearing shipping inscriptions and seals, indicating large shipments of fine Italian wine to Herod the King. Roman horticulture and viticulture practices further confirm Herod’s political and social ties to Augustan Rome.
Another surprising discovery, under the level of the courtyard were found remains of buildings and a large rock-hewn water reservoir that date to the Hellenistic period (mid 2nd century BCE). The remains were buried and sealed under the walls of the palace/fortress and under the layer of garden soil dumped in the courtyard. Until now no evidence had been found at the site of any activity prior to Herod.