A programme called “The Masada Myth” on Britain’s Radio 4 recently focussed attention on the claims made by some in Israel that the events related by the Jewish historian Josephus are, in fact, a myth. “A few of the things are true,” one sceptic claimed, “but the rest is just fairy stories – and that is being generous.” Another claimed, “there was no war, there was no attack by the Romans, there was no mass suicide.”
It is difficult to see on what basis these people make their allegations. The remains of the Roman siege camps and the wall built by General Silva to surround the fortress are clearly visible and the massive ramp built on the west was certainly not constructed to facilitate disabled access! The large numbers of ballista stones discovered by the excavators, together with the evidence of extensive and severe fire damage, are another indication that the end of Masada was not a peaceful affair.
More cogent are the allegations that the so-called “heroic defenders” of Masada were, in fact, a band of murderous thugs who, during their three year occupation of the fortress conducted numerous raids on nearby settlements such as Engedi, in the course of which they slaughtered considerable numbers of peaceful Jewish civilians. (This, of course, is entirely in line with the view that the defenders of Masada were sicarii rather than zealots. The mark of a genuine terrorist – from the Mau Mau to the Vietcong, from the murderous Islamic bands of Algeria to the equally murderous groups in northern Ireland – is that they kill more of their own than of the enemy. The logic of this seeming anomaly is that anyone who is not actively fighting as they are is, ipso facto, a traitor and deserving of a worse death than the enemy.)
If anyone wishes to look for myths, however, Masada certainly has plenty, chief among them the activities of Yigael Yadin, the Israeli army general and dilettante archaeologist who excavated the site. His claims to scientific credibility were fairly effectively disproved when he employed a mechanical digger on top of Tel Hazor, but they are further damaged by a close examination of his record at Masada. Take, for example, his account of the discovery of three bodies in the ruins of the lowest terrace of the northern palace.
“When, however, we came to clear the formidable pile of debris which covered the chambers of the small bath-house, we were arrested by a find which it is difficult to consider in archaeological terms, for such an experience is not normal in archaeological excavations. Even the veterans and the more cynical among us stood frozen, gazing in awe at what had been uncovered; for as we gazed, we relived the final and most tragic moments of the drama of Masada. Upon the steps leading to the cold-water pool and on the ground nearby were the remains of three skeletons. One was that of a man of about twenty, perhaps one of the commanders of Masada. Next to it we found hundreds of silvered scales of armous, scores of arrows, fragments of a prayer shawl and also an ostracon with Hebrew letters. Not far off, also on the steps, was the skeleton of a young woman, with her scalp preserved intact because of the extreme dryness of the atmosphere. Her dark hair, beautifully plaited, looked as if it had just been freshly coiffeured. Next to it the plaster was stained with what looked like blood. By her side were delecately fashioned lady’s sandals, styled in the traditional pattern of the period. The third skeleton was that of a child. There could be no doubt that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada. In describing the last moments Josephus writes, ‘And he who was the last of all, took a view of all the other bodies lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain should want his assistance to be quite despatched; and when he perceived that they were all slain, he set fire to the palace and with the force of his hand ran his sword entirely through himself and fell down dead near to his own relations.’
“Could it be that we had discovered the ones of that very fighter and of his kith? This, of course, we can never know for certain.” (Masada p. 57)
The reader might be forgiven for assuming that here were three skeletons – a man, a woman and a child – one of which could be identified as a fighter by the scale armour he was wearing. On the basis of his interpretation – that here were the remains of a family group who had committed suicide on the last fatal night – Yadin, ever the publicist, used his army connections to arrange for a full military funeral for the remains.
An examination of Yadin’s excavation notes, however, reveals that there was no female skeleton – there was a head of hair that was undoubtedly female, but there was no skeleton. The other two skeletons were far from complete, making any identification far from certain: the supposed child was, in fact, a young man who may or may not have been related and the scales of the armour were scattered over the whole of the area rather than being associated with either of the bodies.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to turn to the scientific report of the Masada excavations, for although Yadin found time amidst his busy political career to write (and profit by) his best-selling popular account of the dig, he never troubled to write a proper report of his work. He is not the first archaeologist to have neglected this vital part of an excavation and doubtless will not be the last, but in view of the fact that archaeology irretrievably destroys that which it investigates, there are few more heinous crimes an archaeologist can be guilty of than failing to commit the results of his work to writing for the benefit of future generations.
Despite the controversy, however, it is unlikely that the place which Masada holds in the popular imagination will be affected. The site itself is sufficiently dramatic that even if the whole story was fiction, visitors would still flock to see the amazing fortress and marvel at the incredible work that went into providing water and luxury in the desert. Groups of Israeli school children still climb up the winding Snake Path and sing patriotic songs on the summit and although the Israeli Army no longer swears in new recruits in the shadow of the mount, that probably has more to do with the presence of hordes of tourists than with doubts concerning the historical nature of the story.
Israeli National Park authorities, who have the oversight of the ruins, expect that the year 2000 will see between one and one and a half million visitors taking advantage of the new cable car to travel to the summit and stare in wonder at the palaces, baths and storerooms built by Herod as the last refuge for his family. You, too, can be one of that number by joining the Diggings Tour, for the fortress of Masada is one of the many highlights of our Middle Eastern journey.
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