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.

Building an exhibit-The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story

 Ossuary used in Jewish funeral practices
1st century B.C.E
On display in The Birth of Christianity:
A Jewish
Story
starting tomorrow.

Registrars have many duties and wear many hats but one of my favorite registration duties is condition reporting.  Which is exactly what it sounds like; I report what the condition is of an object. 

Last week, I had the privilege of working with the staff from the Hebrew University on the installation of our new exhibit, The Birth of Christianity:  A Jewish Story. As each crate was opened and its artifacts unpacked, HMNS Collections staff worked along side of the Hebrew University staff checking every detail of the artifacts to assure they had survived the long journey from Jerusalem intact and unchanged.  So I’ve really been up close and personal with a lot of antiquities lately.  (Ossuaries are even cooler when you can see the chisel marks.) 

Once we agreed that all was good, it was time for the objects to be moved into the cases for the duration of the exhibit.  The movement and positioning of high-value artifacts that are fragile or delicate or heavy or any combination of the three is a tricky thing, always left to professionals.  And that’s what I really want to tell you about: the guys.

Every museum has them, formally called exhibition preparators, more commonly (and affectionately) known as the exhibit guys.  You know that expression ‘jack of all trades, master of none’?  Yeah, that doesn’t apply to our guys.  If the exhibit designer and the curator want something to look just so, it’s the guys that make it happen.  They can build temporary walls and exhibit cases, paint ‘em any color; hang signage, labels, artwork; and wire up the electronic stuff too. They pretty much do it all and do it well.  I’ve been working with and watching them for years through many, many exhibit installations but the best is watching them handle the objects.

 These are bottles, plates, amphoriskos, beakers,
modiolus (measuring-cup) and unguentarium
created during the 1st century CE
On display in The Birth of Christianity:
A Jewish
Story
starting tomorrow.

For The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, all the guys moved large heavy crates right where we needed them in the gallery.  I observed Carlos and Victor gently placing delicate Roman glass and slender metal implements into their exhibit case.  Glen, Mike, Carlos, and Victor lifted thousand year old stone ossuaries out of crates, onto tables where we examined them, then smoothly moved them to their exhibit platforms.  While all this movement of artifacts was going on they communicated verbally and visually.  Their physical movements were steady, exact, cautious, sure-footed, and rarely wasted.  Verbal communication was usually short and direct, mostly in English with a little Spanish thrown in.  However, the patter can become jokey and teasing once an object, crate, or case bonnet is secure and everyone relaxes for a minute or two.  Mike and Carlos are usually the instigators of this behavior.

 Some of “The Guys” lower a 2000 yr old bath tub
that weighs one and a half tons into the exhibit.
You can see it, starting tomorrow in
The Birth of Christianity:A Jewish Story.

In every exhibit, there’s at least one ‘hoo-boy-this-is- HEAVY’ object.  For this particular exhibit, it was the stone tub.  I haven’t a clue what its actual weight is, the Hebrew University staff and the guys could certainly tell you, but it needed some special equipment and handling by the guys. 

So, they brought in a gantry that they’ve rigged themselves.  It breaks down into a few large parts, a large long I-beam at top, triangular sides with wheels, so they can easily transport and assemble it where it’s needed.  There are also differently sized shackles and rope chains that are kept in a big wooden box Glen made.  Included in all this are straps of strong but lightweight material that can wrap around an object to steady it while being moved.  So the guys expertly got everything in place, always moving slowly and carefully.  The tub got lifted out of its crate and the gantry moved over to the exhibit platform.  Then oh so slowly, slowly, cautiously, gingerly the tub was lowered to its exact spot.  Well, ok, exact spot more or less.

That’s a really brief description of a process that took quite a bit of the morning.  Those of us not directly involved with the movement (like your truly) stood way the heck outta of the way but ready to rush in if needed.  The guys were doing their standard excellent job but we sorta held our breath from time to time anyway.  It’s not so much that a moment like that is tense as it is that everyone is really hyper-focused on what’s happening.  But it is a wonder to behold the guys in action, way more entertaining than most sports.  And I shake my head in amazement most every time I watch them.  Thanks guys!

Special thanks to Eydie Rojas for the installation photo.