Sunday, June 27, 2010

Masada - The archeological “evidence”

The results of the excavation between 1963 and 1965 in many aspects supported the account given by Josephus. As it was the only literary source researchers could rely on, they compared the detailed description of the physical site witnessed and described by Josephus, and cited its discrepencies and mistakes.

One of the most interesting findings was some ostraca with inscription of names, including “Ben-Yair”, identical with the name of the leader – quoted by Josephus. Interpretations of these findings agreed that it supports the suicide account of Josephus, where the men who were fighting the Romans decided the suicide-order by casting lots for themselves by using the ostraca.

Invoking further political controversies was the finding of remnant of skeletons. In October 1963 the skeletons of a number of people were discovered at two locations: three skeletons were found in the lower terrace of the northern palace-villa, a location described by Josephus as the site of suicide, and twenty five additional skeletons in one of the caves at the northern end of the Masada cliff.

This news was immediately reported by all news media and speculations started that the remains were most probably of the fighters of Masada.

Yadin’s 1966 Masada book reports the finding of the twenty-five skeletons, and by process of elimination he states that these can only be of the defenders of Masada.

In March 1967 Shlomo Lorentz, representing the ultra-orthodox party (Agudat Israel) in a speech in the Knesset demanded that the skeletons found on Masada be given a Jewish burial. The minister of culture and education, A. Jadlin not being able to decide delegated the issue on to the Knesset committees. Yadin was consulted and the committee stated that it was a matter of historical and national importance to determine the identity of the skeletons. Long and serious discussions started as to the manner in which to establish the identity of the skeletons, while the orthodox party pushed for fast resolution.

The issue was not resolved by March 1969 when Yadin announced that he is opposed to the public funeral ceremony, and stated that the evidence regarding the identity of the skeletons was not conclusive enough, and he lacks definite proof. Even the place of the planned burial ceremony was questioned, and opinions differed as to Jerusalem (where some of the rebels originally escaped) or Masada (where they died) should be the place.

Again, the committee was asked to decide. By the entire Israeli government was involved in the debate and took sides. By July 1969 the committee decided that the Israeli Military Rabbinate should be in charge of the burial. On July 7, 1996, almost five years after the discovery of the skeletons they were buried in a full and formal military ceremony, not on Masada, but near to it, on a place called “the hill of the defenders”. Evidently controversy regarding the skeletons lingered on, mainly in professional circle where scholars attacked the methods implied for the identification of the remnants.

The symbol of Masada was further re-enforced by the excavations, and Israeli chief-of-staff and politician Moshe Dayan wrote the following in the introduction of the book Masada edited by him:

“Today, we can point only to the fact that Masada has become a symbol of heroism and of liberty for the Jewish people to whom it says: Fight to death rather than surrender; prefer death to bondage and loss of freedom.”

The signal value of heritage possession was also the point made by soldier-scholar-mythmaker Yigael Yadin, to Israeli army recruits sworn in at Masada:

“When Napoleon stood among his troops next to the pyramids of Egypt, he declared: “Four thousand years of history look down upon you”. But what would he not give to be able to say: “Four thousand years of your own history look down upon you”.

1 comment:

  1. Would anyone out there have any information on where I can further research the 7 survivors of Masada? I am fascinated by the fact anyone did survive. According to Josephus' writings two women and three children hid in a water cistern for a number of days. If anyone can lead me to further research sites or anything, I would be most humbly grateful. Peace to all, Janeth