Underground palace.
An aerial view of Herodium, where Herod's palace once stood.

Yaacov Saar / Reuters

King Herod's Secret Is Out

After hunting for more than 30 years, researchers have located what they believe to be the tomb of Herod the Great, the ancient King of Judea responsible for great building projects and, according to the Bible, the massacre of a number of infants.

Herod was appointed by Rome and ruled Judea from 37 B.C.E. until his death in 4 B.C.E. Many details of the king's life, as well as his death and burial, are well known to scholars from accounts by 1st century C.E. historian Josephus who drew directly from writings by Herod's court biographer. Herod, who died from multiple ailments at the age of 70, was a cruel man. As recounted in the Book of Matthew, the king orchestrated the "Massacre of the Innocents," where he called for the death of all male infants in Bethlehem in hopes of extinguishing the baby Jesus. He was also "probably the greatest builder in the history of the Middle East," says Duke University archaeologist Eric Meyers. Herod built such wonders as the fortress Masada and rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem, one wall of which, the Wailing Wall, still stands.

Archaeologists knew from Josephus that Herod was buried at Herodium--a huge artificial mound just south of Jerusalem that Herod built and named after himself--but they didn't know where. Large and volcano-shaped, the site comprises Upper Herodium, where a palace stood, and Lower Herodium with various other court buildings. The earliest excavations were conducted by Franciscan monks a half-century ago on the top of the mountain. Since 1972, a team from Hebrew University headed by Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer has been digging away at the bottom, where it suspected the tomb lay.

Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem today, Netzer said his team found the remains of Herod's sarcophagus halfway up Herodium. The site contained one of a number of fortified palaces that the king built along the edge of the Judean desert to protect himself from invaders--as well as from his own people, says Jody Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

The burial spot itself is located near a staircase that Netzer claims was built specifically for the funeral. Workers only found fragments of the limestone sarcophagus--and no bones--in what may have been a mausoleum. Much of the site was destroyed by Romans around 70 C.E. when Jews were rising up against them. But the sarcophagus, which bore a flowerlike pattern, was "monumental" and unquestionably royal, Netzer said.

Because so much is known about Herod's life and times, there's "no reason to doubt" Netzer's claims, says Meyers. "It's an exciting find," says Magness, and "ultimately the manner in which he chose to be buried could tell us some things that we didn't know about Herod."

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