Archaeologists get set to dig at Masada, after 11-year hiatus

Tel Aviv University team will excavate rebel dwellings, Herod’s gardens in month-long expedition at UNESCO heritage site

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Aerial view of Masada (Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)
Aerial view of Masada (Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)

For the first time in over a decade, archaeologists are commencing new excavations atop Masada, studying previously untouched areas of the legendary desert mountain fortress, including the residences of Jewish rebels who met their doom in 74 CE.

A Tel Aviv University team, headed by Roman-period archaeologist Guy Stiebel, will conduct a month-long excavation at the UNESCO World Heritage Site starting on February 5.

It will be the university’s first expedition at the site, and the first expedition overall there since 2006.

Masada is a rugged crag in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod, the first-century BCE king of Judea — perhaps best known for building Jerusalem’s Temple Mount complex — constructed a fortress and palace on the mountain. The elaborate waterworks channeling seasonal rainfall allowed the royal redoubt to have a more plentiful supply than Jerusalem, according to ancient accounts.

Masada from road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A view of Masada from the highway (Shmuel Bar-Am)

During the Jewish Revolt against Rome a century later, from 66 to 70 CE, Jewish rebels entrenched themselves at Masada. Nearly four years after the fall of Jerusalem, a Roman army besieged the last holdouts. According to Josephus Flavius, the sole historical source for the battle, the Jewish rebels committed mass suicide before Roman troops stormed the battlements. Archaeologists have challenged the historicity of that account, however.

Amir Drori, the first director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Yigal Yadin (left), during excavations at Masada in 1963 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Amir Drori, the first director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Yigael Yadin (left), during excavations at Masada in 1963 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

With the emergence of Zionism in the modern era, Masada transformed into a national icon of Jewish independence.

Archaeologists estimate that a substantial portion of the mountaintop’s historical material has yet to be excavated, and the former Roman army encampments ringing the fortress peak remain largely unstudied as well.

After the first large-scale excavations in 1963-65 under former IDF chief of staff and archaeologist Yigael Yadin, archaeologists refrained from digging up the entire site for the sake of leaving some exploration for the generations to come.

The dry desert climate allowed the preservation of elegant frescoes and organic remains belonging to the Jewish rebels who holed up on the mountaintop.

“This is the next generation,” Stiebel, the Tel Aviv University archaeologist, told The Times of Israel in the lead-up to the dig. He was reluctant, however, to discuss the dig in detail while the final preparations were being completed.

The northern face of Masada (Deborah Sinai/Flash90)
The northern face of Masada (Deborah Sinai/Flash90)

Stiebel’s team said the plans for its first season at Masada will involve the excavation of new sections of the Jewish rebel dwellings, as well as a garden constructed by Herod.

“Our intention is to further explore a mysterious underground structure that was detected in the earliest aerial photographs of the site” in 1924, Stiebel said in a statement. “The building has remained hitherto unexplored.”

Masada’s impressive ruins are one of the most visited tourist sites in Israel. The UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, registered Masada in its list of world heritage sites in 2001, citing its “majestic beauty” and its importance as a “symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army.”

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