Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Herod the Great's Tomb Discovered?


[Updated Wednesday, May 9 below]

Hey, folks, grading is finally finished! Whooo!! Sorry for so few posts recently. Between a wedding last week and grading this week, I haven't had a lot of free time to post. I promise to make it up to you.

The big news today is a report that archaeologists in Israel have uncovered the tomb of Herod the Great, who ruled the area during the late 1st c. BC and who figures prominently in the New Testament, among other things. The strange thing is, we've known all along where he was buried. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us:

After this, they betook themselves to prepare for the king's funeral; and 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 scepter 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. And this shall suffice for the conclusion of the life of Herod.

Herodium, located just SE of Bethlehem, was one of several lavish palace complexes built by Herod during his reign. Masada and Caesarea Maritima are two others. Herodium was a sort of fortress-palace, like Masada, centered on a large circular structure on a prominent hill. A large circumference wall and four towers provided security. Within were well-appointed royal apartments. There were also gardens, pools and pavilions surrounding the central complex. Some 75 years after Herod's death, the palace was occupied by rebels during the Jewish revolt, and they made some small modifications to the interior layout. The site was eventually captured by Roman soldiers without much fuss after the fall of Jerusalem.

The site has been the subject of excavations for decades, and the palace itself is a relatively small, well-defined space, so it is interesting that the tomb waited so long to be discovered. Unfortunately, the early reports say little about where the tomb was located within the palace. Apparently fragments of the sarcophagus were preserved, but there is no report of the kind of grave goods listed by Josephus. Considering the number of people tramping around the site after Herod's death, this wouldn't be surprising.

(Weird stuff: I found this link to an apparent report of the discovery of the tomb dated March 17, 2005. Later in the post the author then says "The reader might be a little disappointed to learn that the above report is fictitious." Strange. Note that this is the first Google result for "Herod's Tomb," and given the amount of detail in this bogus report, I wouldn't be surprised if it leaked into reports of the recent, authentic discovery).

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[Update: Yahoo news has a slideshow showing some of the new discoveries here. The interesting images are towards the middle. The first thing I notice is that Herod's tomb is located at the margins of the fortress of Herodium; this likely explains why it wasn't discovered before. Also, the sarcophagus of Herod is very fragmentary, so it seems unlikely that much if anything remains of the objects placed in the tomb with the deceased.

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