The Siege of Masada: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Our guest blogger today, Jodi Magness, Ph.D., holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A noted archaeologist, she has spent a lot of time working at Masada, the location of a famous siege during the First Jewish-Roman War. In conjunction with our current special exhibition, The BIrth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, she will explore the significance of this event in a lecture at HMNS on March 9: Masada: Last Stronghold of the Jewish Resistance Against Rome.

Masada and Dead Sea
Creative Commons License photo credit: heatkernel

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus ended his monumental, multi-volume account of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (the Jewish War) with the story of a mass suicide at Masada.  According to Josephus, some 960 Jewish rebels holding out on top of Masada – the last stronghold to remain in Jewish hands after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. – chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Roman troops besieging the fortress.  It is because of Josephus’ story of the suicide, which includes a speech allegedly given by the rebel leader Eleazar ben Yair, that Masada became a symbol of Jewish resistance and the modern state of Israel.

However, Yigael Yadin’s 1963-65 excavations atop Masada failed to turn up conclusive evidence of the mass suicide.  In fact, the archaeological evidence from Masada can be interpreted either as proving or disproving the mass suicide story, depending on how one evaluates Josephus’ reliability as an historian.  For example, a group of inscribed potsherds (ostraca) found at Masada, including one bearing the name “ben Yair,” might be the lots drawn by the rebels prior to committing suicide or could simply be food ration tickets.  Most likely, some rebels committed suicide while others were killed or surrendered to the Romans and were taken captive.

Roman encampment_1465
Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg

However, archaeology sheds valuable light on other aspects of the Roman siege of Masada, which was conducted in the winter-spring of 72/73 or 73/74 C.E. and probably lasted no longer than 2-3 months.  The Roman siege works, including eight camps that housed approximately 8000 troops and a circumvallation (siege) wall, still are clearly visible encircling the base of the mountain.  In June-July 1995, I was privileged to co-direct excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada, together with Professor Gideon Foerster (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dr. Haim Goldfus (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), and Mr. Benny Arubas (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

We focused much of our attention on Camp F, which is located on the northwest side of the mountain and housed about half of the Tenth Legion (with the other half in Camp B at the eastern foot of Masada).  Our excavations brought to light low stone walls over which the Roman troops pitched leather tents.  The floors of the tent units were covered with broken potsherds; altogether we recovered 240 kilograms (about 530 pounds) of pottery.  The overwhelming majority of the pottery belongs to local types of storage jars, a finding that sheds light on the provisioning of the Roman troops during the siege. 

Because Masada is in the desert, supplies (mainly food and water) were likely brought in skins, bags, and woven baskets from other parts of the country, transported overland on pack animals or on small boats across the Dead Sea.  Upon reaching the camps at Masada, the supplies were emptied into large ceramic jars for storage.  The jars protected the contents from dampness, insects, and vermin. Most of the soldiers probably prepared and consumed their food using utensils in their individual mess-kits.  However, the commander seems to have dined in style, judging from delicately painted bowls with eggshell thin walls found in his tent unit, which were imported from nearby Nabataea (southeast of the Dead Sea).

For me, archaeology is not a means of validating (or negating) personal faith and beliefs.  Instead it is a means of recovering and understanding the past, often one potsherd at a time, as in the case of Masada.  These potsherds are pieces of a puzzle which enable us to reconstruct part of a picture that was otherwise lost.

For more information on Masada and the Jewish resistance, hear Jodi’s lecture at HMNS on March 9th. For more information on our distinguished lecture series, click here.

Can’t get enough Judeo-Christian history?
Attend one of our upcoming lectures
Check out this video with the curator.
Go behind-the-scenes to discover how the exhibit was built.

On the first day of HMNS…a new exhibit debuts

Ring-oil lamp, 1st century B.C.E
On display in The Birth of Christianity:
A Jewish
Story
starting today.

The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, a new special exhibition, makes its world premiere today, on the first day of HMNS. And that’s just the beginning – we’ve got 11 more days coming up, with great ideas for family fun this holiday season. You can check them all out now, at our spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site – or watch them roll out here until Christmas Eve.

For the first day of HMNS, we’re featuring our brand new exhibition, The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story – opening today. In the exhibit, you’ll embark on an adventure that spans the three centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ, and the first decades after that – as the new religion of Christianity began to take shape.

Through a diverse array of artifacts, experience Jewish life during the reigns of Alexander the Great and the infamous King Herod. Return to the days of the Jewish War against the Romans and the stirring story of Masada, and learn the significance of Jewish burial customs. Finally, observe the dawn of the Christian Era. Along the way, marvel at ancient scrolls, objects and artifacts – such as one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls; original New Testament manuscripts, including an excerpt from the Gospel of Luke that contains the Christmas story; a large-scale, stone model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period; and much more.

We’ve also developed an optional audio guide to go along with the exhibit, that allows you to explore what you see in greater depth. The voice of Flavius Josephus, a 1st century Jewish historian who survived the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem and lived during the development of early Christianity, is your guide through the exhibit. You can hear a preview of the audio guide here.

And, in case you missed it in our earlier post – in the video below, you can see guest curator Matthias Henze discuss how the artifacts gathered in this premiere exhibition are “the closest we can get to the historical Jesus,” how important it is to understand the “Jewish roots of early Christianity;” and the many commonalities these two religious traditions share to this day.

Learn more about The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story:
Ancient artifacts are delicate – but they’re sometimes very heavy. See how the exhibit came together.
Take a preview Walk Through the Exhibition online.
Get a sneak-listen of the new audio guide, developed specially for this exhibition, and based on the latest archaeological evidence.