Masada—for many, the name evokes the image of a cliff rising dramatically above an austere desert landscape. The name is famously associated with the Masada siege, the final stand between the Jewish rebels and the relentless Roman army at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 73 C.E. Trapped in the desert fortress-palace Herod built in the previous century, the rebels chose—as Jewish historian Josephus tells us—to commit mass suicide rather than be captured and enslaved by the Romans. Discover what archaeology can tell us about Herod’s fortress-palace, the Roman siege, and the rebels’ final moments in a BAS Library special collection of Biblical Archaeology Review articles selected specially for BAS Library members.

Scroll down to read a summary of these articles.

Yigael Yadin’s famous excavations of Herod’s Masada desert fortress in the 1960s brought the final chapter of the First Jewish Revolt vividly to life. What was uncovered on this long abandoned mountaintop? In “The Last Days and Hours at Masada,” Ehud Netzer reviews Yadin’s finds, from Herod’s two palaces to the casemate wall that Josephus reports the Romans set ablaze to gain entry into the fortress. Discover how well Josephus’s dramatic—and dramatized—account of the siege of Masada holds up to the archaeological evidence.

The large and diverse array of arms and armor discovered all over Masada offers a unique perspective to the Roman siege. Yigael Yadin believed that a cache of arrowheads found in two palace rooms, for example, were among the supplies the Jewish rebels set afire before committing mass suicide. Was he right? In “Masada: Arms and the Man,” Jodi Magness’s investigation into the context of these arrowheads and other weapons at Masada sheds light on the Roman and Jewish warfare tactics in the final chapter of the First Jewish Revolt.

In the siege Masada, the Romans waged both literal and psychological warfare to impress upon the Jewish rebels that their situation was hopeless. In “The Masada Siege—From the Roman Viewpoint,” Gwyn Davies examines the archaeological remains of the Roman siege works—the most complete surviving siege system of the ancient world.

Scholars have long assumed that the ramp built by the Romans to breach the rebel stronghold at Masada required a huge effort in men and material. The Masada desert fortress sat atop a lofty mesa with cliffs soaring 300 to 1,000 feet high. But a study of the geology of the region, as described in “It’s a Natural: Masada Ramp Was Not a Roman Engineering Miracle” by Dan Gill, reveals that the Romans may not have had to do much at all.

Today, Masada is a well-visited UNESCO World Heritage site that had undergone several excavation seasons since the 1960s—and it’s now being excavated once again. In “Masada Shall Never Fail (to Surprise) Again,” dig directors Guy Stiebel and Boaz Gross give readers an inside look at some of the expedition’s preliminary findings, as excavations shed new light on the dramatic site.


The Last Days and Hours at Masada
Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1991 By Ehud Netzer

The last stand in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome took place on the nearly diamond-shaped mountaintop of Masada, site of a palace-fortress completed by Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.E.). Jewish Zealots who occupied Masada at the start of the revolt in 66 C.E. held the site throughout the war and became the last […]

Masada: Arms and the Man
Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1992 By Jodi Magness

Sometimes we make discoveries not by digging in the ground, but by digging in the records of past excavations. So it is with Masada, Herod’s nearly impregnable palace-fortress in the Judean wilderness, occupied and defended by Jewish Zealots during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Masada was excavated in the 1960s by Israel’s most […]

The Masada Siege—From the Roman Viewpoint
Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2014 By Gwyn Davies

The dramatic archaeological site of Masada, perched on an isolated mesa-top in the Judean desert above the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, is justifiably one of Israel’s premier visitor attractions. The thousands of tourists who come here every year to visit the spectacular ruins of the Herodian fortress-palace exposed by Yigael Yadin’s famous […]

It’s a Natural: Masada Ramp Was Not a Roman Engineering Miracle
Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2001 By Dan Gill

Hollywood could not have scripted it better: A band of 967 Jewish rebels retreats to a desert mountaintop fortress following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Two years later the Roman army sets out to quell this last vestige of the Great Jewish Revolt. Finally, in a massive construction effort, […]

Masada Shall Never Fail (to Surprise) Again
Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2018 By Guy Stiebel , Boaz Gross

Masada—the remote mountain-plateau in the Judean Desert, where Herod built a palace-fortress and where Jewish Zealots made their last stand against the Romans—is being excavated once again. Get an inside look at some of the expedition’s preliminary findings, as excavations shed new light on the dramatic site.