In May 2007, Ehud Netzer (of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem) announced to the world that after a lifetime’s search, he had uncovered the remains of Herod the Great’s tomb (BBC coverage; London Times story).

The fortress of Herodium

The fortress of Herodium

Excavation at Herodium

The likely site of the tomb – Herodium – is a man-made fortress of immense scale with many buildings, monuments, trackways and open spaces. Herodium is located in the West Bank some eight miles from Jerusalem. Excavation at the site has attracted criticism on ethical grounds. Were Israel signatories to the Second Protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention, the project would be illegal under international law. The second protocol forbids excavation and disturbance of archaeological remains in occupied territory. Israel is not a signatory to the Second Protocol and so the excavation has continued.

The site is now well excavated and extensive survey has allowed archaeologists to reconstruct much of the city’s layout. Previous attempts to find Herod’s tomb have so far led to the discounting of likely locations as season after season the excavators drew a blank.

The evidence for Herod’s tomb

Herod was a controversial character to say the least! He was highly unpopular amongst the local population. The site of Herod’s Tomb is reported by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as being in Herodium (and this seems likely – the place is as much a monument to himself as it is a fortress). The Jewish Revolt (beginning in 66 CE) encompassed Herodium and most probably led to the desecration and destruction of Herod’s Tomb. This would make its discovery by archaeologists two thousand years later extremely difficult.

The supposed tomb

The supposed tomb of Herod

The primary evidence presented by Netzer for Herod’s Tomb are ten fragments of the carved limestone sarcophagus. The chamber in which the fragments were found gave no clues as to who was buried there. Would Herod’s tomb not be lavishly decorated? Perhaps all of this was destroyed in the Jewish Revolts? The fragments themselves are clearly decorative, and come from some substantial piece of stone. They do look like the kind of decoration seen on the side of a high-status sarcophagus. However, there is little evidence from which to assert that this proposed high-status sarcophagus belonged to Herod himself. To make that assertion you need more than ten fragments of pretty stone. There were no human remains found with the fragments and so the tomb hypothesis must have other corroborative evidence. Netzer offers the tomb’s location within Herodium itself.

The location of the tomb-site needs to be explained in the context of the rest of Herodium. Netzer follows the description of Herod’s funeral by Josephus and builds his case accordingly. Netzer claims the burial chamber in which the stone fragments were found is the burial chamber of Herod himself. In order for it to be a suitable burial place for Herod the following two assertions were made: what was previously thought to be a Hippodrome was actually a funeral procession-way; and there was a podium built to support the body of Herod prior to its entombment. The funeral procession-way led to the base of a monumental staircase, the podium being reached by alighting the monumental staircase. Unfortunately, there is no more evidence for the grand linear structure being a funeral route than there is it being a hippodrome. Secondly there is little evidence to support the claim that this podium had anything to do with the death of Herod. Such a claim is pure speculation.

In conclusion

A lifetime spent looking for something historically important (like something described in classical texts) can foster high expectations of eventual success. Unfortunately there is currently no conclusive evidence that anyone has identified the tomb of Herod the Great. Given the turbulent history of the region it is unlikely that conclusive evidence will ever be found. The claims of Netzer and his team are based upon flimsy evidence but we (like him) live in hope that better is to come.