Commentary Magazine

The Masada Dig

Friday, October 18, 1963

In the morning I set out from Arad, the desert town that serves as supply base for the expedition. A ten-mile dusty, rock-strewn track leads through the burning wilderness to the western approaches to Masada.

Herod's palace clear against the sky, the cliffs dropping sharply toward the Dead Sea a thousand feet below: not much has changed since Flavius Josephus described the scene more than 1800 years ago:

There was a rock, not small in circumference, and very high. It was encompassed with valleys of such vast depths downward, that the eye could not reach their bottoms. . . . No animal could walk there, excepting at two places of the rock, where . . . it affords a passage for ascent, though not without difficulty. . . . When a man has gone along for thirty furlongs he reaches the top of the hill, which does not narrow to a point; rather, there is a plain upon a mountain top. Upon this top, Jonathan the high priest first of all built a fortress and called it Masada.

The Jonathan to whom Josephus refers is presumably Alexander Janneus, a late Hasmonean king who ruled from 103 to 76 B.C.E. Later on, Herod was to improve upon Jonathan's work, adding a system of dams and reservoirs to catch the winter rains, a complex of storehouses, a double casemate wall around the perimeter, and, most notably, a magnificent palace at the northern edge, with two of its three tiers below the summit so as to be in almost constant shade. After Herod's death the Romans occupied Masada, but in the early days of the Jewish revolt against Rome the fortress was captured by a group of Jewish Zealots. Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., but the Masada garrison refused to surrender. For the next three years the defenders—960 men, women, and children—withstood the Procurator Silva's forces—6,000 legionnaires assisted by 9,000 slaves. When the Romans finally succeeded in breaching the double casemate, the Zealots burned their own dwellings and killed each other in a suicide pact; only two women and five children survived to tell the story. According to Josephus, the defenders of Masada won the admiration even of their conquerors:

They came within the palace, and so met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though these were their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was.

Today Masada is a place of pilgrimage for Israel's soldiers and youth largely because Flavius Josephus, a bad Jew but a good historian, has preserved the record of the Zealots' resistance. Previous archaeological excavations have confirmed the accuracy of his accounts; the present “dig” too uses his book, The Jewish War, as its basic text.


I arrive at the summit and am directed to where a group of fellow journalists are sitting in the shade of a ruined storehouse. The briefing by Yigael Yadin, director of the Masada excavation, is already under way.

Chief of Operations during Israel's War of Independence, Chief of Staff while still in his thirties, currently a professor at the Hebrew University and one of the world's most distinguished archaeologists, Yadin is a man at ease among newspapermen, who refer to him as “The King of Publicity.” A wide-brimmed army hat covers his dome-shaped, bald head. He wears a black tee-shirt, khaki pants, combat boots. His eyes squint against the glare of the morning sun and a luxuriant mustache accentuates his smile. He is smoking a Sherlock Holmes pipe. His speech is rapid, almost brusque; he talks with the confidence of one who knows he is a spellbinder.

Excavations, Yadin informs us, are already in progress at a number of sites. Teams are working, for example, on the upper and lower sections of Herod's palace; the lower sections promise to reveal more because they have been virtually inaccessible to would-be despoilers. (He interrupts to pay tribute to the army engineer corps for its construction of stairways to the lower tiers.) A trial dig has also been started on the second largest structure of the fortress, with the hope of finding out what purpose the building might have served.

Yadin saves the most important news for the end: in a cave on the southern cliff, some twenty feet below the summit, fifteen skeletons have been found. It is not certain who these people were, but fragments of clothing found with the bones are of a type that was worn by the Jews of the 1st century.


After Yadin leaves us, we tour Masada. Dan Bahat, an earnest young archaeologist, shows us Herod's palace. In the upper section an exquisite mosaic floor is in the process of being uncovered. We descend, first to the middle tier, a semicircular building whose function is as yet unknown; then to the lower section. We look out to the blue expanse of the Dead Sea on our right, and the savage desert on our left. We inspect the pillars set in the rock, and some frescoes. Herod built wisely: it is cool here.

When we return to the summit we are shown the storehouses by Shmaryahu Goodman, the only archaeologist on this dig other than Yadin who is known to us. Having been in charge of some trial digs here in the 50's, he knows all about Masada. His extensive studies in Jerusalem and England were financed by the kibbutz of which he continues to be a member. Dust and sweat cover his small, wiry body as he bounds from rock to rock while expounding on his consuming passion—archaeology. To us, the uninitiated, the storehouses are at first rather uninteresting, especially as compared to the palace itself. To Goodman, though, they are an object of wonder, a sense of which he succeeds in the end in conveying to us. He points out that the storerooms cover about one of the summit's twenty acres, and that the work of restoring them has only begun. At present the rocks are being cleared away from the floors and the walls are being rebuilt. Thus far there have been no finds, but we know from Josephus that the storerooms represented a marvelous achievement:

. . . here was lain up corn in large quantities, and such as would sustain men for a long time; here was also wine and oil in abundance, with all kinds of pulse and dates heaped up together. . . . These fruits were also fresh and full ripe, in no way worse than on the day they were lain in. Yet from that day to the day of capture by the Romans was about a hundred years.

We proceed to the southern edge, where we descend by rope-ladder to the cave in which the skeletons have been found. The bones and fragments of cloth have already been placed in baskets, and there is not much to see. It is a cave like any other cave, except that its silence is occasionally broken by the ringing of a telephone: all parts of the expedition keep in constant touch with headquarters.

Yoram Safrera, discoverer of the cave and the skeletons, explains to us how much is known at present. The cave had at one time served as a living quarter, but the bodies were not thrown into it until after it was abandoned. We wonder mildly how this could have been established, but are more interested in hearing how Safrera discovered the cave in the first place. He replies that he explores the sides of cliffs by dangling from a parachute harness (he is a paratrooper in the army reserve), keeping in touch with the summit by walkie-talkie. Like Yoram Safrera, many of those now working on the Masada excavation are volunteers who have come from many different places. I met and interviewed a number of them last week in Arad: a seventeen-year old kibbutznik; a septuagenarian (Dr. Rosenberg) from Haifa; two youths from South Africa; a bearded novelist from England, who hoped to tape a program for the BBC but found that all rights had already been reserved; a young society girl from Barcelona, who admitted that before coming to Israel she had never done a single day's work in her life. I see her now, grimy and determined, rattling a heavy sieve full of earth.

We eat the normal expedition lunch of cheese, tomatoes, oranges, and tea. In mid-afternoon I return to Arad in an overloaded jeep that groans as it passes over the boulders.

“A promising start,” Yadin has said.


Friday, November 8

Masada is far cooler now. Yadin has exchanged his sun hat for a knitted woolen cap. This time, as he gives us a progress report, he is smoking a straight-stemmed pipe.

The trial dig at the second largest building has revealed it to be Masada's administrative center and it is now referred to as the western palace. Proper excavations will start there next week. The work on the main palace is going well: a huge, brightly colored fresco has been discovered, and Luciano Maranco of UNESCO has been flown in from Rome to take charge of its preservation. Silver-plated scales of armor have also been found in the palace; they are of a type that was worn only by high-ranking Roman officers. There have, in fact, been a number of finds, and not only within the palace itself; we will presently get to see them. At the moment, however, Yadin wishes to speak of more important discoveries.

The living quarters of the Zealots have been located: they lived within the double casemate wall itself, which was divided into separate rooms, each with its own cooking facilities. And the excavations have also revealed a good deal about the details of their lives, for the dry desert air has preserved even organic matter: olive and date stones, onion skins, a small, dehydrated pomegranate. “You can almost smell their last meal,” Yadin says.

He saves the biggest news for the end. Shmaryahu Goodman's team has unearthed a building by the west wall, and, inside it, a pottery fragment with the inscription Maaser Kohen (the priestly tithe). The evidence suggests that the building may have been a synagogue; if so, it would be the earliest synagogue ever discovered.

Yadin himself conducts the tour this time, so we are not permitted to linger; he moves us quickly from palace to wall to the remains of the presumed synagogue. Then we are taken to the main camp of the expedition, a series of tents four hundred feet below the summit, not far from where, long ago, the Roman Silva established his headquarters during the siege of Masada.

We inspect some of the finds. There are vessels for cooking, cosmetic implements, arrowheads, slingshots (all from the living quarters of the Zealots), tarnished and black coins, a bronze lamp that might have belonged to Aladdin, an ivory tool handle, a toga pin, a silver ring, a belt buckle. There is a letter in Aramaic, written on a piece of pottery; it orders the dispatch of 500 dinars to one Bar Na'azi.

Yadin is particularly pleased by a fragment of a talith (prayer shawl). Thin mauve threads run through its pinkish gold cloth. He tells us he found similar fragments in his explorations of the caves of Ein Gedi.


Friday, November 22

The mountain has come to Mohammed: Yadin is in Arad for a press conference. We are all assembled in the town's small museum. Clearly there is important news, but Yadin will not be hurried. He begins with a routine report, all the while sipping lemonade through a straw.

Herod's three-tiered palace has now been completely excavated. Two skeletons have been found there; one of them, a woman's, has a plait of brown hair still attached to the skull. Work on the storehouses is still in progress. After two months of clearing away stones, the proper work of digging has barely begun, but already more than forty jars have been unearthed. On the southern casemate wall, the excavation of the Zealot living quarters continues. The jars found here bear the names of their owners; one name, Hanan Bar Yosef, also occurs on a parchment list discovered in the same room. Apparently the Zealots had a system of rationing, or at least the jars, probably containing food or water, were systematically distributed to the defenders. The building by the west wall is almost certainly a synagogue constructed by the Zealots: a row of pillars has been unearthed and twenty-one oil-lamps have been found in the vicinity. There have been other finds as well: seventeen very rare silver shekels from the time of the Revolt; four papyrus documents, among which is a list of items of clothing that contains the terms tunica and palium. (Latin documents of this period are almost non-existent, Yadin informs us, for Greek was almost always used as the written language.)

“And finally,” he says, “it is my privilege for the first time to be able to tell Negev journalists of the discovery of two scrolls.”

One scroll, twelve inches wide and seventeen inches long, contains Chapters 81 to 85 of the Book of Psalms, apparently in a Masoretic version of the text. The little that has been deciphered of the second scroll is similar in style and terminology to the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran fifteen years ago. But whereas the date of composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls continues to be a matter of controversy, there is one factor of immense significance about the Masada find: discovered, as they were, in ruins “sealed” by the destruction of the fortress, the Masada scrolls must have been written before 73 C.E.

Yadin counsels caution in our treatment of this news, reminding us that only fragments have been found and that further work is necessary. But at the same time his voice and manner suggest that a momentous discovery has taken place. We know we have a headline story.


Saturday, November 23

The story will attract little attention in the newspapers. Yesterday the President of the United States was assassinated.


Friday, December 27

Amid the luxury of Beersheba's Desert Inn Hotel, Yadin, arriving punctually at one, shaking the dust from his clothes, ordering brandy from a waiter in a dinner jacket, looks out of place, but acts the same as always. Not until he has reported on the progress of work at all the sites, and not until he has lectured us on the intricacies of archaeology and ancient history, does he consent—after pausing to finish his brandy and clear his throat—to talk about the scrolls.

The second scroll, it has now been established, is much more than merely “similar in style and terminology” to the Dead Sea Scrolls; it is part of the same literature. It deals with the liturgy of Sabbath sacrifices and makes use of a calendar year of 364 days, 12 months of thirty days plus 4 intercalary days. This calendar is unique to the Qumran settlement. The scroll in question is a part of another scroll found previously in cave IV at Qumran. Therefore the Dead Sea Scrolls must also have been written before 73 C.E.: all theories ascribing a later date to them have been invalidated.

So much is clear, but Yadin does not let it go at that, for he is aware that the discovery of a Qumran scroll at Masada casts doubt on all those scholars—including Yadin himself—who had maintained that Qumran was an Essene community. What would bring the pacifist Essenes to the warlike Zealots of Masada? A minority of scholars—most notably Professor Cecil Roth of Oxford—has always maintained that Qumran was a Zealot settlement.1 Is not the new discovery compelling evidence in favor of the minority theory?

Yadin points out that one Yohanan the Essene was listed by Josephus as a Jewish area commander. Therefore the Essenes did sometimes fight. He maintains that a group of Essenes fled to Masada after the fall of Qumran and joined the Zealots. These non-pacifist Essenes probably brought some scrolls along with them.


Friday, January 31, 1964

The last press conference has evoked a controversy in the Jerusalem Post. Cecil Roth wrote to the effect that the name of one area commander constituted very flimsy evidence for Essene belligerency. And if (or since) the Essenes were indeed pacifists, what would they be doing in a Zealot fortress? Roth appealed to Yadin to admit his past mistakes and to help restore the Zealots to their rightful place in Jewish history. Yadin, in a very brief reply, suggested that the controversy be delayed until the relevant material was published. Whereupon a. partisan of the “medieval theory,” which holds that the Dead Sea Scrolls were medieval forgeries, demanded that Yadin take his own advice. Yadin did not reply.

We have not driven to Masada since November. In the meantime eight inches of rain have fallen (in recent years the average rainfall has been only two inches). The desert hills are carpeted with green and there are flowers everywhere—white, yellow, mauve, pink. An occasional scarlet poppy punctuates the landscape. The camels of the Bedouin can be seen now; usually their sandy-brown color blends into the arid desert background. It is bitter cold.

The summit of Masada is covered with purple and gold flowers. Josephus: “The plateau was of rich soil, more workable than any plain.”

Only a few of the original volunteers are left, among them the bearded sociologist from South Africa. I see him each time he comes to Arad. He has told me of the many hardships, the sudden and fantastic floods, the tents blown away by the winter wind; and he has told me of his admiration for Yadin, who is on the move from early morning to late at night, at which time he pores over the day's finds.

Having nothing sensational to report, Yadin confines himself to a detailed report of progress. Afterward, as usual, we tour Masada.


Wednesday, April 29

Our final press conference. The land is burned and brown again; the hamsin (desert wind) has done its work. Yadin tells us that today he will meet with us after our tour of Masada for a final summing-up. He promises news of another scroll discovery.

We move from site to site, noting the progress since last October.

Northern Palace. They have dug beneath the terrace of the top tier and found the remnants of a building even older than Herod's palace, possibly the fortress of the high-priest Jonathan. It is more likely than ever that the man called Jonathan by Josephus was Alexander Janneus, since twenty coins bearing the latter's inscription have been found.

Western Palace. The excavations have shown it to be almost as elaborate as the northern palace. It is now assumed that Herod received his guests and deputations here.

A chamber at first thought to be a guard room has turned out to be the largest Roman bath house ever discovered in Israel, even larger than the one at Jericho. It is in a uniquely good state of preservation and very much resembles a modern Turkish bath. There are hot rooms, cold rooms, dressing rooms, even a sit-down lavatory—the oldest one known—with a flushing system. Many of the heating pipes set into the walls of the hot room are still in position.

The Synagogue. No doubt remains that it was a synagogue. Among the finds in its vicinity is an ostrokon—an ink inscription on pottery—reading Letohorot Hakodesh (to the Holy Law). Under the floor of the synagogue are Herodian ruins, which suggests that the building was one of the very few built by the Zealots, who usually merely added to what they found.


A good deal more is known about the Zealots now than when the Masada excavations started, making us less dependent upon the testimony of Josephus. We know from the many coins found that they had a money economy; it is likely that even when under siege they paid for their provisions. We also now know some of their names—Nahum ben Eleazar, Yaacov bar Ezra. And we even have an eloquent, if silent, comment by the Zealots on Herod's luxury. In the western palace one can see where a Zealot cooking stove appears to have burned a portion of a Herodian fresco. The scene evokes a picture of bearded, angry men and their disdain for ornamental works of art.

We are told that they put the bath house to their own use; in all probability they converted it into a mikveh (ritual bath).


We gather in a hut of the camp below the summit to attend Yadin's final briefing. Cheese sandwiches, halvah, and orangeade are served, and then Yadin begins. He shows signs of weariness and is smoking cigarettes instead of his usual pipe.

He starts with statistics. The six-and-a-half month dig was the longest ever undertaken in Israel. Thirty-five thousand workdays were contributed by over two thousand volunteers from the army, the kibbutzim, all parts of Israel, and thirty-two foreign countries. To date, the expedition has cost over $250,000, which has been contributed by the Sacher and Kennedy families, the Wolfson Foundation, and the Observer—all of London.

On the basis of the various finds alone, the expenditure has been worthwhile: 2,200 coins, including 20 silver shekels; nearly 200 ostrokons; scrolls of Psalms, Genesis, Leviticus, liturgy, and one resembling the Book of Esther. Another $400,000 must be raised in Israel so that the site can be preserved. Future projects include the strengthening and partial reconstruction of as many buildings as possible, as well as the restoration of mosaics and frescoes. Work will resume in November, and, hopefully, the site will be open to visitors by April of 1965.

He pays tribute to the “quite outstanding” work of his team, the army, and the volunteers. There were only two rules in effect for volunteers: they had to be at work on time, and they were forbidden to wander alone in any area. With deep regret Yadin reports that there was one casualty: a workman who fell to his death from a twenty-foot cliff.

Finally, he tells us of the latest scroll to be discovered: a Hebrew version, dating to the first century B.C.E., of the book of Ben Sirah. He appends a lesson in history so that we may understand the significance of this find.

Some time during the 2nd century B.C.E., Yehoshuah Ben Sirah wrote the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus in Hebrew, but hitherto the earliest available version of the work was a 2nd-century copy of an earlier Greek translation by Ben Sirah's grandson. In 1896, to be sure, with the opening of the Cairo Geniza by Professor Solomon Schechter (then of Cambridge University and later president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) a Hebrew text had been discovered. Since, however, that manuscript could be dated to the 9th century C.E., it might well have been a re-translation into Hebrew from Greek or Latin or Syriac. The Masada scroll, which can be dated by its style of lettering to 50 B.C.E., is thus not only the earliest copy of Ecclesiasticus ever found; it also authenticates the later and more completely preserved Geniza version.


Friday, May 8

The newspapers report that the skeletons found at Masada have been buried in the cemetery at the Galilean town of Yodfat, which fell to the Romans in the early years of the Jewish Revolt. In the presence of ten witnesses they were laid to rest in a communal grave.2


1 See Professor Roth's articles, “A Solution to the Mystery of the Scrolls,” and “New Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls,” COMMENTARY October 1957 and June 1964.—Ed.

2 Yadin has since denied this story categorically—Ed.

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