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Masada—The Final Reports, Hershel Shanks, BAR 23:01, Jan-Feb 1997.

Masada- The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965, Final Reports

(Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society/Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989–1995, distributed by the Biblical Archaeology Society, 1856 pp.)

Volume I

The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions

By Yigael Yadin and Joseph Naveh

The Coins of Masada

By Yaakov Meshorer

Volume II

The Latin and Greek Documents

By Hannah M. Cotton and Joseph Gelger

Volume III

The Buildings- Stratigraphy and Architecture

By Ehud Netzer

Volume IV


By Dan Barag and Malka Hershkovitz


By Avigail Sheffer and Hero Granger-Taylor

Basketry, Cordage and Related Artifacts

By Kathryn Bernick

Wood Remains

By Nili Liphschitz

Ballista Balls

By Andrew E. Holley

Volume V

Art and Architecture

By Gideon Foerster

In the winters of 1963–1964 and 1964–1965, Israel’s most illustrious archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, led excavations at Herod the Great’s mountain palace-fortress of Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea. Twenty years later Yadin died,a having written a preliminary report of the first seasonb and a popular book on the excavation.c But nothing more. No final report.

Would Masada, like so many other excavations after the excavator’s death, be left forever without a final report, a full scientific treatment of the dig?

Now, more than 30 years after completion of the excavation (but only a little more than a decade since Yadin’s death), the question can be answered with a resounding “No.” The publication of the fifth hefty folio volume of the final report is a landmark.

Yadin’s literary executors—his dear friend and long-time leader of the Israel Exploration Society, Joseph Aviram, and his colleagues at Hebrew University, Nahman Avigad and Amnon Ben-Tor—raised the money and marshaled the scholars to complete all the work Yadin left unfinished (much more than the Masada excavation). For the Masada dig, they appointed two of Yadin’s assistants at the excavation, now themselves senior members of the profession, Ehud Netzer and Gideon Foerster. They, in turn, enlisted other specialists to assist them.

With the publication of Volume V, the project is nearly complete. One more volume is promised—on pottery, weapons, glassware and stoneware.

My first thought on looking over this enormous achievement was, How could Yadin have imagined that he, working essentially alone, would be able to write the final report, even if he lived to 120? And why wasn’t a team assembled much earlier, as part of the excavation plan, to publish the results in a thoroughly scientific manner?

My second thought was, Should this kind of final report be the wave of the future? Or is it more material than can be usefully read and studied in this form? Wouldn’t it be better if this kind of information were available in electronic form, so it could be manipulated to produce broad statements rather than merely provide minutely detailed descriptions? Remember that this report covers only two relatively short seasons of excavations. Imagine what a dig lasting a decade or more would produce.

Volume I publishes more than 700 ostraca, mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic but also in Greek and Latin, found during Yadin’s excavation. Over half are pottery tags with letters that appear to be related to the food-rationing system imposed by the Zealots when they occupied the site during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.). After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Zealots held out for another four years or so (70 to 73 or 74 C.E.).

Other tags bear specific names rather than letters, suggesting that they served as lots. One special group of 12 (11 complete and 1 incomplete) was found near the entrance to the storehouses. They are all in the same handwriting, each inscribed with a single name or nickname. One of them is inscribed Ben Yair, perhaps for Eleazar ben Yair, the Zealot commander who, according to the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, advocated mass suicide as an alternative to surrendering to the Romans. The Zealots, Josephus wrote, chose ten men to slay all the rest, and then the final ten cast lots to determine who would kill the nine remaining defenders and then commit suicide himself. As Josephus explains, those who recognize God alone as their authority would not submit to the power of Rome; death was preferable.

Whether the suicides actually occurred or were simply a literary topos of the time is much debated by scholars. Joseph Naveh, who wrote this part of the report (although he graciously lists Yadin as the senior author), sounds skeptical, in marked contrast to Yadin, for whom these lots were the “single [most] spectacular … discovery” of the entire excavation. Naveh admits it was hard for him to replace Yadin in this publication “mainly because [he] do[es] not share the enthusiasm that inspired [Yadin].”

An addendum to Volume IV (by Joseph Zias, Dror Segal and Israel Carmi) tells us that the skeletal remains of 25 men, women and children were found in a cave at Masada. Are these the bodies of the Zealots involved in the suicide pact? According to this addendum, the bodies had been simply thrown into the cave in disarray. A confidential memorandum circulating among scholars notes that Yoram Tsafrir, who directed the excavation of this cave under Yadin’s overall supervision, recalls that one of the skeletons was completely separate from the others, lying on his or her back, hands neatly folded across the abdomen, head turned to the side—as if carefully laid out for burial.

In addition to the skeletons, the cave also contained pig bones. Do these pig bones cast doubt on the Jewish identity of the skeletons? Perhaps the bones are to be associated with the Byzantine occupation of the site, centuries later. Because of this doubt, a carbon-14 test was performed on a fragment of woolen textile found in the cave (the human remains were long ago accorded a Jewish burial). The carbon-14 test, however, rejects this possibility- The wool dates to 40–115 C.E., squarely at the time of the Zealot occupation.

The addendum concludes that this carbon-14 test “adds a small measure of credibility to [Josephus’s] narrative.” The Roman soldiers, the authors suggest, may have disposed of these bodies by throwing them into the cave, showing their contempt by desecrating them with pig bones.
What happened to the other bodies? Josephus tells us 960 Jews participated in the mass suicide. Perhaps he exaggerated the numbers, our authors speculate.

The private memorandum referred to above suggests some conspiracy to suppress information regarding these skeletons. It has been asked why the skeletal remains themselves have not been published. I see nothing nefarious or conspiratorial in the failure to publish these skeletal remains. They have been reburied and hence there is nothing to work on now. That little has been said of these bones may reflect the well-known political sensitivity in Israel to excavating Jewish graves.
Additional inscriptions found during the excavation indicate that the Zealots carefully followed Jewish purity laws. One ostracon was inscribed “for hallowed things,” another “fit for the purity of hallowed things.”

Based on the inscriptional evidence, Joseph Naveh concludes that in the first century C.E. many Jews of Judea were trilingual, speaking Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, although Aramaic was the dominant tongue.

Most of the Latin inscriptions are attributable to the Roman garrison that apparently occupied Masada from its fall until about 112 C.E.

Whether Masada fell in the spring of 73 C.E., the traditional date, or the spring of 74 C.E., is treated in an excursus in Volume II. The issue may be resolved by two Latin inscriptions found in Italy relating to the career of Silva, the Roman commander at Masada. Josephus tells us that shortly before Silva’s capture of Masada he was appointed governor of Judea. According to his career inscriptions, he was elevated to the rank of patrician and praetorian during the joint consulship of Vespasian and Titus, which only began in early April 73. The next step in his career was his appointment as governor of Judea. Masada fell in March or April. Therefore, it could not have fallen in 73, for Silva had not yet been appointed governor of Judea. Accordingly, Masada must have fallen in 74 at the earliest (if the chronological order of the career inscriptions is precise).d Scholars are still divided on the issue.

Among the Latin inscriptions is also a fragment of Virgil’s Aeneid, attributed to the Zealot period at Masada. As Hannah Cotton and Joseph Geiger state, this may be the earliest manuscript witness to Virgil and “certainly the earliest that can be dated with any certainty.”

On the wall of a storage silo in the casemate wall that virtually surrounds Masada is a rectangular seal impression with the name Josephus in Greek and Latin. Cotton and Geiger comment that this person was undoubtedly a Jew because the name appears often in Jewish characters (Hebrew and Aramaic) at Masada. But this Josephus was probably a Jewish baker, not the famous historian who chronicled Masada’s defiance of the Roman army.

Volume III is the pièce de résistance of the series. People with back problems need to be warned- It is more than 650 pages long and is not easily thrown around. In it Ehud Netzer describes in detail each of the rooms on the site.

An architect himself, Netzer revels in understanding the plans, the development of the structures and the way they functioned together. He has directed excavations at a number of other Herodian sites along the Jordan Valley and the Great Rift, at each of which he has found Hasmonean buildings that in some ways informed the later Herodian buildings. Netzer is convinced that was the case at Masada as well. But he has been unable to demonstrate this conclusively. He even went back to Masada for a short excavation season in April 1989 in the hope of finding some clearly Hasmonean architecture—alas, in vain. He speculates that some of the buildings uncovered by Yadin’s excavations (especially the core of the western palace and a tower) may go back to the Hasmonean period. He also notes that the earliest Herodian buildings on the site owe a clear architectural debt to the Hasmoneans, but conclusive evidence is still missing. (Of the 1,160 oil lamps found at Masada, only 1 or 2 date to the late Hasmonean period.)

The water supply system at Masada is especially fascinating. It included not only water for cooking, but even swimming pools and numerous mikva’ot, or ritual baths, again attesting to the fastidious Jewish religious observance that prevailed there during the Zealot occupation.

The Masada synagogue is one of the better-known structures on the site. But, notes Netzer, it was “almost certainly not built originally for this purpose.” In this, he differs from Yadin, who believed it was a synagogue even in the Herodian period. Netzer suggests that originally it was a stable, as evidenced by remains of animal dung the excavators found on the original floor of the building. Netzer admits, however, that the “delicate plaster floor” of the original building is a “flaw” in his argument.

That it was undoubtedly a synagogue in the Zealot period is clear from the scroll fragments found in what was apparently the synagogue’s genizah (a burial depository for worn-out sacred texts). The Masada genizah included fragments of Ezekiel and Deuteronomy.

Elsewhere on the site, excavators found a sectarian document known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a text that was also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran. Considerable speculation attempts to explain the presence at Masada of a sectarian scroll usually identified with Qumran. What was the relationship between Masada and Qumran? Were Essenes living at Masada too? Did the Essenes join the Zealots at Masada after the fall of Qumran in 68 C.E.? Did the Zealots bring the scroll to Masada after a raid on Qumran?

Netzer points out that the stratigraphy of Masada is more complicated than is generally assumed. In addition to the still-questionable existence of a Hasmonean level, Netzer identifies at least three Herodian phases (the elaborate casemate defense wall was built only in the third phase). The Herodian occupation is followed by repair work done when the site was occupied by Roman procurators after Herod’s death, remains of the Zealot period, evidence of Roman occupation after the defeat of the Jewish rebels, a Byzantine occupation (including a fine chapel and the remains of a monastery) and, finally, some later earthquake damage.

Volume V, on art and architecture, by Gideon Foerster, is a “direct continuation of Volume III,” so we will briefly consider it before Volume IV. Foerster’s volume is at once the most beautiful of the volumes and the most reader unfriendly. The latter is doubtless due to my ignorance of terms like oecus, antae, cymatium, ovolo, torus, volutes, canalis, echinus, balteus, cavetto, sima, cubiculum, scotia and abacus, to name just a few. For readers like me (for whom the volume was obviously not intended), a glossary would have been helpful.

On the other hand, this is the volume that describes—and contains pictures of—the gorgeous mosaics and plaster wall decorations. The volume concludes with 17 glorious color plates that give some idea of the vividly colored decorations that graced this extraordinary site in the midst of the Judean desert during its Herodian apogee.

Because of the exceedingly dry climate at the site, unusual quantities of textiles, basketry, cordage and wood were recovered, as reported in Volume IV. The textiles include ladies’ hair nets, a sock, tunics, cloaks and what may be a prayer shawl (tallit). One fragment is even embroidered, which is very rare for this period (“almost without parallel,” as the authors note). The materials include linen, goat hair (used for packsaddles), wool and cotton.

Jewish law forbids the mixing of animal and plant fibers (for example, wool and linen; sha’atnez). Although none of the textiles found at Masada violates this law, some of the woolens were sewn with linen thread. Perhaps the law was interpreted to permit this (although it would not be permitted by rigorously Orthodox Jews today).

The textile report in Volume IV unfortunately includes only 122 items out of an estimated 2,000.e These 122 fragments could be studied because they were cleaned in connection with a Masada exhibit in 1966. The rest remain uncleaned in the storerooms of Hebrew University. What should be done with these uncleaned specimens? What will be done with them? Can the money be found to clean them? Is it worth doing, since the choicest pieces were already chosen for the exhibit? What about cleaning them, recording them, encasing them in lucite containers—and selling them (or most of them) to the public? Horrors!

Although the textiles are fragmentary, enough have survived that we can appreciate their fine quality, even though they apparently date to the Zealot period rather than the Herodian period. They were considerably worn and repaired, however, finally being thrown out in the rubbish dump. A few pieces with little or no signs of wear were damaged by fire. Josephus tells us that, before being killed, each family “made one heap of all they possessed and set it on fire.” Apparently these clothes, still in good condition, were in use until the very end.

An analysis of the ballista balls at the site indicates that some of them (the larger ones) were intended to be rolled down the slope if the Roman soldiers attempted a direct assault. Smaller ballista balls were used with slingshots (the Zealots, unlike the Romans, apparently had no artillery). Still other ballista balls were fired into Masada by the Romans, mute evidence of the end of the siege.

These five volumes are a magnificent tribute to Yigael Yadin, to the site and to the history they document.

Posted in: Roman Period I

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