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MASADA

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

MASADA

a mesa located at the edge of the Judean Desert on the western shore of the Dead Sea, approximately 25 km (15.5 mi.) south of ῾Ein-Gedi. Rising about 440 m above the Dead Sea, Masada's summit covers 23 acres. The cliffs surrounding Masada contain evidence of human activity beginning in the Chalcolithic period, but the site's main occupation was during the late Second Temple period. The history of Masada under the Hasmoneans and through the First Jewish Revolt (66–74 CE) is documented archaeologically and by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Masada was last inhabited during the Byzantine period, when a small church occupied the site. [See Churches.]

Josephus' discussions of Masada (War 1.13, 15; 2.17, 22; 4.7, 9; 7.7–10; Antiq. 14.13–15) provide the basis for all histories of this site. As early as 1838 the American explorer Edward Robinson correctly identified Masada with the site called es-Sebba, basing his identification almost exclusively on information drawn from Josephus's account. Samuel W. Wolcutt visited the mesa in 1842 and identified the Roman walls and camps that encircle it. Félicien de Saulcy was the first to excavate at Masada and in 1851 uncovered the mosaic floor of a Byzantine chapel. [See Mosaics.] Claude R. Conder published plans of buildings on the summit and of one Roman camp in 1875. The first in-depth study of the Roman camps was carried out by Alfred von Domaszewski in 1909.

Major studies of the site were begun in 1932 when Adolf Schulter spent a month investigating and sketching the plans of the buildings and Roman camps. The exact location of the so-called Snake Path was established by Shmaryahu Gutman who, later, with A. Alon, surveyed the site's Herodian water system. Gutman then partially excavated and reconstructed some of the Roman camps.

In 1953 the Israel Exploration Society, the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified structures on the northern and western sides of Masada and drafted corrected maps of the site. The major excavation of the site was carried out by Yigael Yadin in two seasons from 1963 to 1965. The buildings on top of the mesa were the primary focus of investigation, but Yadin also made trial soundings in one of the Roman camps. Using Josephus's record as his primary guide, Yadin excavated 97 percent of the area on the summit.

Josephus ascribed the first construction project on Masada to “Jonathan” (War 7.285), whom archaeologist Ehud Netzer (1991) associates with Jonathan Maccabaeus. Others associate him with Alexander Jannaeus. Josephus attributes the major building phase to Herod the Great, who from 37 to 31 BCE expanded the preexisting Hasmonean fortress (War 7.300). After a nearly disastrous siege by Antigonus Mattathias, the last of the Hasmonean kings (c. 40 BCE), Herod refortified the site.

Little information remains of the occupation of Masada after Herod's death; however, Josephus writes that rebels, whom he characterizes as sicarii, the “short-knived ones” captured the site from a Roman garrison (War 2.408, 433–434). This record, coupled with pottery with Latin inscriptions found in excavation, suggests that the fortress housed a Roman garrison following Herod's death. During the First Jewish War (66–74 CE) the site was occupied by the rebel group. In 73 CE the Roman Tenth Legion, led by Flavius Silva, marched against the Masada defenders led by Eleazar ben Ya'ir ben Judah (War 2.447; 7.252–253).

Though Josephus describes extensive Hasmonean construction on Masada, the only clear physical evidence of a Hasmonean presence is an assemblage of coins dating to Alexander Jannaeus and plaster dated to the period from some of the cisterns on the summit. No architecture can be attributed to the period, suggesting that Herodian construction destroyed earlier Hasmonean structures.

A casemate wall, dated to the Herodian period, enclosed the summit except on the north, where a palace forms the outer fortifications. The wall, built of local dolomite stone, about 13,000 m long; the casemates are about 5 m wide. There are four gates, seventy rooms, and thirty towers in the casemate wall. To supply fresh water, a series of aqueducts and cisterns was built. These supplied an abundance of water to the elaborate bathhouses, pools, and (during the Jewish Revolt) ritual baths. [See Aqueducts; Cisterns; Baths; Pools; Ritual Baths.]

MASADA

MASADA. Figure 1. North end of the site showing the Herodian domestic palace, bath house, and storerooms. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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The four palace complexes contain the most spectacular of all the architecture at Masada. The best known of these, the Northern Palace-Villa complex on the northernmost point of the summit, was built in three tiers near the edge of the cliff (see figure 1). [See Villa.] The upper level comprised living quarters with a semicircular porch.

The middle terrace, approximately 20 m below the upper terrace, contained a circular building. That building's foundations incorporated two concentric circular walls; the diameter of the outer wall was 16 m and of the inner wall 10 m. Yadin (1965) and Netzer (1991) propose that two rows of columns supported a roof. A staircase, hidden from view, connected the middle and upper terraces.

The lower terrace, built on a raised area at the cliff's edge, lies 16 m beneath the middle terrace. Building foundations revealed a central area that had been surrounded by porticoes and an inner columned wall. This terrace contained a small bathhouse with a simple paved mosaic floor and a structure with decorated plaster walls and columns. [See Wall Paintings.] Painted and mosaic elements on Masada use geometric patterns. They lack “graven” images, perhaps in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment. In this, the art of Masada parallels contemporary art in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judah. [See Jerusalem; Judah.]

The Western Palace, near the casemate wall, is the largest (4,340 m) residential building on Masada. Four distinct blocks of rooms constitute this palace: “royal” apartments, workshops and a service wing, storerooms, and an administrative section near what Yadin (1966) and Netzer (1993) call the residences of the palace officials. The opulence of the surviving architecture may have influenced Yadin's identification of this structure as royal apartments: its walls were decorated with plaster, and an indentation in the floor suggested a throne area to Yadin (1966) and Netzer (1993). The floor was covered with a richly colored mosaic with a central medallion of geometric and plant designs. A Roman-style bath was located in the northeast corner of a wing of this palace.

Situated southeast of this complex were three small palaces whose central courts and two-columned halls reflect the layout of the Western Palace. Herodian ceramics and coins found within the complex provide a reliable chronological indicator. Of special interest was the discovery of a wine amphora inscribed in Latin “to Herod, king of Judea.”

Evidence of the Jewish occupation of Masada during the Jewish Revolt of 66–74 is extensive. Two blocks of long rooms (approximately 30 × 3 m) were attached to a building complex at the north end of the site. Yadin (1966) and Netzer (1993) date the remains of flour, oil, wine, dates, olives, and other foodstuffs recovered from these structures to the period of the revolt. Another group of storerooms west and south of the northern building contained caches of weapons. [See Weapons and Warfare.] Casemate rooms and palaces underwent conversion into living quarters, and cooking ovens, new walls, and benches were added in many of the Herodian buildings. Ritual baths were apparently built at this time, and in the northern casemate wall a synagogue was constructed in a room that had previously served as a stable. Numerous religious documents were discovered, many of them recovered in, or in close proximity to, the synagogue. The texts included biblical books, the Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), and “The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.” The latter text was also discovered at Qumran. [See Qumran.]

The artifacts from the period of the revolt were of special interest to Yadin: items of everyday life (textiles and textile artifacts, ceramics, and baskets), hoards of Jewish coins dating to the fourth year of the revolt (70 CE), and ostraca of various types. [See Ostracon.] The ostraca include personal names, designations of priestly tithes, names of foodstuffs, and records of supplies and payments.

Following Josephus (War 7.395), Yadin excavated a group of ostraca he identified with the “lots” used by the defenders in carrying out their mass suicide (Yadin, 1966). These ostraca were found near the Water Gate in a group of eleven (a twelfth appears simply to be an incomplete ostracon sherd). Each carries a single name, including the name Ben-Ya'ir, who has been associated with Eleazar ben Ya'ir ben Judah. Not all scholars share this identification. Among those who have raised serious questions is S. J. D. Cohen (1982), who doubts the historicity of Josephus's description of the rebels and their mass suicide. Josephus reports that the Sicarii set fire to the “palace” during the final stage of the siege, though evidence of a conflagration was discovered (War 7.315–319, 397, 403–406).

Josephus reports that Flavius Silva built an extensive siege wall and a series of camps encompassing Masada (War 7.304–314), which archaeological exploration has verified. Both the wall and several of the camps are still visible. Gutman excavated camp A and the assault ramp and Yadin (1965) made soundings in camp F. After the fall of Masada a Roman garrison remained at the site, but only a few related coins have been recovered that reflect this occupation. The site appears to have been abandoned until the Byzantine period (fifth-sixth centuries). An apsidal church was built northeast of the Western Palace that may have been part of a monastic complex.

[See also First Jewish Revolt; Hasmoneans; Israel Antiquities Authority; and the biographies of Conder, Robinson, Saulcy, and Yadin.]

Bibliography

  • Cohen, S. J. D. “Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus.” Journal of Jewish Studies (Essays in Honour of Yigael Yadin) 33 (1982): 385–405.
    Revisionist reevaluation of the literary and archaeological evidence for the last days of Masada, bringing to bear parallels in Greco-Roman literature
    .
  • Josephus. The Jewish War. Books 1–7. Translated by Henry St. John Thackeray. Loeb Classical Library. London, 1927–1928.
    The standard edition of Josephus's writings
    .
  • Josephus. The Jewish Antiquities. Books 12–14. Translated by Ralph Marcus. Loeb Classical Library. London, 1943.
  • Knox, Reed, et al. “Iron Objects from Masada: Metallurgical Studies.” Israel Exploration Journal 33 (1983): 97–107.
    Argues that specific metal objects discovered on Masada were produced by the rebels during the Jewish Revolt against Rome
    .
  • Masada 1–4: The Yigael Yadin Excavations, 1963–1965, Final Reports. Jerusalem, 1989-. Definitive, readable series of site reports that retains much of Yadin's original interpretations while reevaluating the discoveries. The series includes Yigael Yadin and Joseph Naveh, Masada 1: The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions (Jerusalem, 1989), published with The Coins of Masada by Ya῾acov Meshorer; Hannah M. Cotton and Joseph Geiger, Masada 2: The Latin and Greek Documents (Jerusalem, 1989); and Ehud Netzer, Masada 3: The Buildings, Stratigraphy, and Architecture (Jerusalem, 1991). Masada 4 (Jerusalem, 1994) includes Dan Barag and Malka Hershkovitz, Lamps; Avigail Sheffer and Herd Granger-Taylor, Textiles; Kathryn Bernick, Basketry, Cordage, and Related Artifacts; Nili Liphschitz, Wood Remains; and Andrew Holley, Ballista Balls.
  • Netzer, Ehud. “The Last Days and Hours at Masada.” Biblical Archaeology Review 17.6 (1991): 20–32.
    Further discussion and exploration of the defenders' siege walls and Roman engines
    .
  • Netzer, Ehud. “Masada.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 3, pp. 973–985. Jerusalem and New York, 1993.
  • Newsom, Carol, and Yigael Yadin. “The Masada Fragment of the Qumran Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.” Israel Exploration Journal 34 (1984): 77–88.
    Publication of the Masada fragment, comparing it to the version discovered at Qumran
    .
  • Yadin, Yigael. “The Excavation of Masada, 1963/64: Preliminary Report.” Israel Exploration Journal 15 (1965): 1–120.
  • Yadin, Yigael. Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand. New York, 1966.
    Fairly detailed, popular account of the excavation and finds at Masada
    .

Glenda W. Friend and Steven Fine

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