Tag Archives: Herod

Model of Herod’s Tomb

I was at Herodium today and took the opportunity to photograph the new smaller than life-size model of Herod’s tomb which has been installed by the path that leads to the palace-fortress. The model was built from drawings by Prof. Ehud Netzer based on the base of the mausoleum uncovered and Netzer’s expertise as both an architect and archaeologist on the Herodian period. Netzer estimates the nefesh as 25 meters high, with a cube-shaped lower level with two rows of decorations below the roof line, a row of egg and dart pattern and below it a row of medallions and vertical bars. On top of this cube sits a cylindrical second level, a tholos with columns and a conical roof. The model shows Nabatean funerary urns in four places along the roof line and the peak of the cone. We found two pieces of stone carved in the egg and dart pattern a few years ago when I volunteered at the dig.

There is also a short video, currently only in Hebrew, that attempts to illustrate the account by Josephus of Herod’s death.

Archelaus omitted nothing of magnificence therein, but brought out all the royal ornaments to augment the pomp of the deceased. There was a bier all of gold, embroidered with precious stones, and a purple bed of various contexture, with the dead body upon it, covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it, and a secptre in his right hand; and near to the bier were Herod’s sons, and a multitude of his kindred; next to which came his guards, and the regiment of Thracians, the Germans. also and Gauls, all accounted as if they were going to war; but the rest of the army went foremost, armed, and following their captains and officers in a regular manner; after whom five hundred of his domestic servants and freed-men followed, with sweet spices in their hands: and the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried.

There were a half dozen people working at the tomb site. I noticed the remains of some additional structures that have been uncovered. Unfortunately, access to the tomb area is still closed.

Archaeological Ruins at Cypros

The site of Cypros above Wadi Qelt occupies a commanding position overlooking the Jerusalem-Jericho highway and a spectacular view of the Jericho Plain and the Dead Sea (a good place to take photographs). Originally a Hasmonean fortress, Pompey destroyed it in 63 BCE and King Herod rebuilt it as a palace-fortress and named it for his mother, as recounted by Josephus. After 1967 the Israeli army used it as an outpost of bunkers, today it lies deserted.

In 1974 Netzer and Damati did preliminary excavations and then left it in ruins. Cypros consists of 2 parts – a palace-fortress on the mountaintop and additional buildings 30 meters below the summit (perhaps Herod got the inspiration for the palace-fortress at Herodium from this site). It’s a short hike from the parking lot entrance to St. George’s monastery in Wadi Qelt to Cypros.

The ruins are not in good condition but there is something special to exploring a site the way an archaeologist might see it as opposed to a site that has been prepared for visitors. The remains of 2 bathhouses are still exposed, one on the mountaintop and the other below that suggest the grandeur of the site in Herod’s time. The remains of a simple white mosaic floor and pieces of plaster with red and yellow from the wall frescoes and the stone pedestals from the hypocaust floor of the calderium can be seen. There are also some sections of columns, one with some of the original plaster.


Click on the above thumbnail photos to see larger images.

Beside a mikve (ritual bath) the most unusual element found in situ, is a large stone bathtub – today its position is marked by a concrete recess, the bathtub is at the Rockefeller museum.

Down below in the bathhouse pieces of ceramic pipes that were attached to the walls of the calderium and broken ceramic discs that were piled one on another to hold up the hypocaust floor can be seen.

Walking around the site I came across a few broken pieces of terra sigillata (the first examples that I’ve found at an archaeological site), a type of fine, red-gloss Roman pottery that would have been imported from Italy or Gaul, additional evidence of Herod’s grand lifestyle.

Archaeological Artifacts with Names

Of the myriad names of people that are familiar from the Bible and I’ll expand it to include the New Testament, Josephus and the Talmud, we have very little confirmation from archaeological evidence, inscriptions, papyrus or parchment, that these figures actually existed. I am excluding, for the moment, the names of rulers who appear on coins minted during their reign or names on bullae or seals.

Here are some of the names that have been found on archaeological artifacts:

  • The name Nicanor, from Alexandria who brought 2 large bronze gates to the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, recounted in the Talmud Yoma 38a, was found on an ossuary in a burial cave on Mt. Scopus.
  • The name of the priestly family of Hezir, mentioned in the Bible (Nehemiah 10:20; 1 Chronicles 24:15), was found in an epitaph in the family mausoleum in the Kidron Valley.

  • The name of the priestly family Qatros, mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, was inscribed on a stone weight, found in the basement of the Burnt House, a private dwelling on the Western Hill in Jerusalem.
  • The name of the priestly family Caiaphas, mentioned in the New Testament, Josephus and the Talmud was found on two ossuaries found in Jerusalem.
  • The name Yehohanah, a granddaughter of the high priest Theophilus nominated high priest in 37CE the year Herod became king mentioned in Josephus was found inscribed on an ossuary.
  • The name “tzaddan malka” and “tzadda malkata,” the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek “Queen Helena”,  spoken of in Josephus and the Tosefta for her giving of charity to the poor of Jerusalem during a period of famine (Peah 4:1) was found inscribed on a sarcophagus from the Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem.
  • The name Simon bar Kosiba or Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135CE) against the Roman was found on letters in caves at Wadi Murabba’at and Nahal Hever and 4 lead weights. You can see images of these weights at this site: http://www.archaeological-center.com/en/monographs/
  • The name David was found in the excavations at Dan when a piece of basalt, part of a victory stele describing how the Aramaean King Hazael was victorious over the House of David was found in the wall by the outer outer gate.
  • The name Pontius Pilate was found on a stone inscription, part of a larger dedication to Tiberius Caesar in Caesarea.
  • The name James (brother of Jesus) was found on an ossuary with the Aramaic inscription Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” as recorded in the New Testament and Josephus; the authenticity of the inscription has been contested and is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate.

Columbarium for doves

On one of the first trips on the guides course, we were driving along the southern coast with its sand dunes, from Gaza to Ashkelon. Haim Karel, the course coordinator, stopped the bus, we all got out and crossed the road to look at a large pit with rows of niches arranged in the walls built of kurkar blocks. The site is completely unmarked and not visible from the road – as the guide, you have to know where it is. Kurkar, is a kind of rock found along the Mediterranean coast, formed when the ocean spray carrying limestone glues the sand together to form rock. Haim explained that the structure is a columbarium, from the Latin columba meaning dove.

If you look up columbarium on the Internet you’ll find that a lot of the references are to cemeteries and crematorium. In his book on Masada Yadin describes  a circular “columbarium” southwest of the Western Palace from the time of Herod that they uncovered:

It is our conviction that this building, like similar though larger buildings discovered in Italy, was designed to receive the remains of cremations. It is probable that Herod built it for the burial of his servants, ministers or other members of his court who were not Jewish.

Two buildings, square not circular, but with similar niches in their walls, were found in the north-western part of the wall; it is possible that they fulfilled the same function.

Yadin even describes how Moshe Yoffe who worked on the excavation team  and raised pigeons at home brought in a very small pigeon but couldn’t cajole or force it into one of the niches.

In Jewish tradition where burial is outside the city and cremation is against Halacha (Jewish law) it seems unlikely; also, there were no human remains found here nor pottery shards, from the urns which may have held human ashes.

Another suggestion is that these caves were filled with water and used to raise fish. The consensus though is that they were used to raise doves or pigeons. The name columbarium comes from the Latin columba meaning dove. Doves/pigeons were used as a source of food and for sacrifice. My mother tells how in Israel in the 1950s when food was scarce and rationed, our neighbor kept pigeons and I was fed pigeon as a baby. The excrement makes excellent fertilizer for growing vegetables. The birds could be used for communication as they would fly back to their home.

But you don’t have to go as far as Masada, there are columbaria in other parts of Israel, for example, at Maresha/Bet Guvrin. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea in 332 BCE, Maresha developed as a diverse town with Sidonians, Greeks, Jews and Egyptians arriving and settling there. Residents of Maresha took advantage of the naturally soft limestone to quarry water cisterns, olive presses and columbaria beneath their homes.

Don’t miss the columbarium at Tel Maresha where you descend into a tremendous cross-shaped cave with niches for more than 2,000 pigeons; so far more than 60 columbaria have been found in the Maresha region.

Near Nes Harim there is a nice hike through the natural oak, pistachio and carob trees in the Judean hills that takes us to the spring at Hurvat Itab among olive, fig and almond trees. In a large cave nearby is a columbarium for keeping pigeons.

At Ramat Rahel, a burial cave, columbarium and ritual baths characteristic of the Second Temple period were uncovered by Aharoni (1962). The caves and columbarium were hewn into soft nari bedrock. On one of my visits to the archaeological site, I had climbed down into the columbarium to look around and was able to take this photo of one of the niches.

Food Discoveries at Masada

Yigal Yadin led the archaeological excavations at Masada, an inaccessible fortress situated on the western coast of the Dead Sea between the years 1963-1965. The archaeological evidence from Masada suggests the great richness of King Herod’s stores as described by Josephus, who emphasizes that they are a greater object of admiration than the royal palace itself:

But the stores laid up within would have excited still more amazement, alike for their lavish splendour and their durability. For here had been stored a mass of corn, amply sufficient to last for years, abundance of wine and oil, besides every variety of pulse and piles of dates.

Among the finds archaeologists found some clay shards from Roman amphorae with bilingual Latin-Greek writing, garum BασιλέωϚ ‘of the king’ – referring to Herod. As well, they found shards of wine jars datable by a fragment of inscription bearing the consular name C. Sentius Saturninus to 19BCE. The inscription on the jar indicates that the Philonianum wine from the Italian producer L. Lenius was intended for the King himself.  One should probably add to Herod’s shopping list apples from Kyme, honey and olive oil. The inscriptions not only throw light on Herod’s culinary tastes but show that Herod was able to order such luxurious imports. Herod ordered only the best garum, from Spain which the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, says was only surpassed in price by perfume and you can assume that it would have had to be kosher.

Garum was a type of fermented fish sauce that was an essential flavour and condiment in ancient Roman cooking (think of worcestershire sauce today). Although it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Roman world, it originated with the Greeks – its name comes from the Greek words gáron (γάρον) the name of the fish whose intestines were used in the condiment’s production.

Garum was traditionally made in one of two ways. The dry-salting method involved placing layers of small whole fish or the guts of larger fish into a vat on a layer of herbs and spices (dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others) and covered with salt “two fingers high”. Repeat until the vat is full and leave for 10 days in the sun after which mix it daily for 20 days (some recipes say allow to ferment for three months). Alternatively, garum makers began with a strong salt solution (brine) into which they placed whole fish or fish intestines. The brine was heated over a fire until the liquid had reduced to an acceptable level.

If you’re interested in making up a batch of garum to taste, you can find various recipes by searching for “garum fish sauce” or check out this great Israeli food blog with a recipe for a modern version:

http://www.baronesstapuzina.com/2010/07/17/garum-roman-ketchup/

Tour of Herodium Palace Complex

In Ehud Netzer’s book on the Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great he writes:

In its day, Herodium was one of the largest palaces in the Greco-Roman world. It is actually the most spacious one of that time that is known to us from archaeological studies.

When I guide Herodium, I include a comprehensive tour of Lower Herodium, outside the archaeological park and the area that Prof. Ehud Netzer excavated in 1972 looking for Herod’s tomb. I point out

  • the overall planning of the site – the relationship between the palace/fortress on a man-made mountain south of the site and the palace complex at its foot
  • the concentration of structures around the pool, more characteristic of present day complexes such as a university campus or large hospital
  • the addition of formal gardens against the background of the barren Judean desert
  • where and how Herod overcame the topography and lack of water to build Herodium
  • Netzer’s discovery of the Monumental building where he thought Herod was buried

In its current state it can be difficult to imagine what Herodium must have looked like. Then I was introduced to the Hungarian-born artist and illustrator, Balage Balogh. Balogh has done paintings where he has recreated (Biblical) settings with a startling degree of accuracy based on a combination of intensive archaeological investigation, scriptural and ancient text research and a measured dose of interpretive insight. He has kindly given me permission to include his illustration of Herodium here. To better picture the ancient world check out his website at
http://www.archaeologyillustrated.com/


(Click on the image to view it in more detail)