Where did the Romans get the wood to brace the main body of the stone-and-earth-filled assault ramp at Masada? A well-known study conducted by researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science began with the assumption that the Romans gathered the wood in the immediate area. The researchers analyzed the carbon and oxygen isotopic composition of the ramp’s timber remnants (which were primarily Tamarix jordanis) as well as the isotopic composition of modern samples of T. jordanis from the Masada region and from sites in the central Negev and the Judean foothills.1 Comparing the ancient and modern samples, the Weizmann researchers concluded that the wood from the first-century ramp came from an environment that was more humid than what exists in the Judean desert today and proposed that the region experienced significant climate change over a period of two millennia.
A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Haifa, however, concludes that the Romans must have imported the wood from elsewhere.2 Examining the botanical, archaeological and textual evidence, the Haifa researchers created models of local wood availability, wood consumption during the occupation of Masada and the timber needs of the Romans to construct the siege ramp. The study demonstrated that even if the area around Masada had more than a normal amount of timber available, this would not have met the needs of the Romans for their large-scale siege. By the time the Romans arrived at Masada in 72 or 73 C.E., the entire area would have already been denuded of trees due to the massive exploitation of local timber from the time of the cliff-top’s occupation in 150 B.C.E. up to the time of the Roman siege. The Haifa researchers suggest the Romans may have imported the wood from a more humid and cooler region, such as from the wadis fed by the Moab Mountains to the east of the Dead Sea.