» Home > In the News

Masada Investigations

14 July 2020

Gary also sent in this link to https://aeon.com/essays/decoding-the-ancient-tale-of-mass-suicide-in-the… … the Masada mystery. Decoding the tale of mass suicide as described by Josephus. Have archaeologists exploited this  ancient tale of mass suicide for political ends? The jury is out. The story goes back to AD73 and the demise of 960 Jewish zealots as a result of suicide. They did this to avoid capture by the Romans is the claim, fearful perhaps of a long drawn out execution, or slavery. The tale is told by Josephus – but did it happen. Archaeologist Yigael Yadin excavated Masada in the 1960s and he thought, or claimed, the mass suicide did take place. At the time Yadin was a very popular archaeologist and tutor. Since those days the shine has come off Yadin and he is marginalised by accusations of bias and nationalism. One particular critic, a sociologist of all things, has been particularly vocal. Sociologists probably have their own agenda and in this case that is almost certain. Ben Tor, another archaeologist, wrote a book in defence of Yadin, 'Back to Masada' (2009). The problem of course is that archaeologists often rely old texts for information in order to interpret sites being excavated. For example, the Bible was used extensively by early archaeologists in the southern Levant. Yadin, instead, seems to have trusted in the words of Josephus.

Masada lies at the southern end of the Dead Sea and is scorching hot and bleak in the summer. Yadin and his team unearthed two palaces on the summit, one embedded in the side of a cliff face in order to catch a wind to cool the middle of the day. Tanneries, workshops, a synagogue, and storage areas for food and provisions were also found. They had adapted Masada in preparation for a seige. Their weak point was a lack of water but to counter this had constructed a system of huge cisterns which caught the winter rains. They were able to withstand a lengthy seige. They also found lots of small objects such as jewellery, pottery fragments, and coins.

The First Revolt broke out in AD66. The Jews, or a section of them, rose up against the Romans – and the conflict lasted until AD70. The zealots at Masada hung on for another 3 years until the Romans became tired of the situation and built a ramp up towards the summit. Remains of the ramp can still be seen. Meanwhile, the Romans had already captured Jerusalem and burnt it to the ground – including the Temple. So, did the people under seige commit suicide as the Romans came closer, or were the defenders simply killed by soldiers and ballista balls and various other seige breaking methods of the Romans. Only 30 bodies have been found. No evidence of the 900. Was Josephus making it up.

Skip to content