The first century Jewish historian Josephus had a lot to say about Herod’s horrible death, and even gives a good description of his opulent funeral. He writes that “all the royal ornaments” were brought forth for the procession that took the king from Jericho, where he died: “The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in a purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the sceptre beside his right hand.” Flanked by his sons, servants, officers and troops arrayed as for battle, “The body was … conveyed for a distance of two hundred furlongs to Herodium, where, in accordance with the directions of the deceased, it was interred. So ended Herod’s reign.”

The problem is, nobody has ever found Herod’s tomb.

In 23 B.C., Herod had a natural hill 8 miles south of Jerusalem topped with fill, to create an impressive cone that rises 2,460 feet above sea level. Sunken like a volcanic crater into the artificial mountain’s flat summit is a 207-foot-wide circular courtyard, bounded by double walls into which are set four towers (see cover photo). In the courtyard were several buildings, including a reception area, a peristyle courtyard, and an elegant Roman bath. During the First and Second Jewish Revolts against Rome (67–70 C.E. and 132–135 C.E.) the mountain palace also served as a hideout for rebels, who converted the reception area to a synagogue and also dug extensive defensive tunnels under the hill’s northern slope (although it isn’t known if the system was ever actually put to use against Roman attackers).a

Since 1972, Hebrew University professor Ehud Netzer has dug at Herodium and made many important discoveries, such as the defensive tunnel system; and guided by aerial photographs, he has also unearthed buried structures at the foot of the hill. Over his many years digging at the site, Netzer has uncovered a whole palace complex called Lower Herodium, situated at the base of the hill’s northern slope. The complex was dominated by a huge palace and a 135- by 210-foot swimming pool with a pavillion in the middle. However, the Holy Grail of Netzer’s archaeological quest continues to elude him: Herod’s final resting place.

Although many scholars feel that the tomb must be on top of the hill somewhere, Netzer has bucked conventional wisdom by concentrating his search in Lower Herodium, where he believes he has found clear evidence of structures built specifically for Herod’s funeral and burial. Running east-west just north of the lower palace is a 1,100-foot-long, 80-foot-wide terrace, called the Course. Although he initially identified it as a hippodrome, Netzer now is certain that this long platform was actually built for the king’s funeral procession. Even more significant is the Monumental Building at the Course’s west end, which Netzer believes was probably Herod’s mausoleum. Built partially into the hill bedrock and originally decorated with frescoes, it is an elaborate hall enclosed by 10-feet-thick walls with niches formed by pilasters—a typical Roman-Herodian feature—and is similar in layout to the Roman temple to Diana at Nimes, France. (For more about the Roman influences on Herodian architecture, see David Jacobson’s article, “Herod’s Roman Temple,” in this issue). The thick walls were probably necessary to support a dome, a second story or a monumental roof. Unfortunately, excavations to the north (away from the hill) and south (towards it) have so far yielded no signs of the tomb entrance that Netzer had hoped to find near this edifice.

Netzer found a number of beautifully carved ashlars adjacent to the Monumental Building, and he believes they may originally have come from the tomb’s facade or vestibule. To the southeast of the Monumental Building he has also found a mikveh (ritual bath), further suggesting that the tomb entrance could have been nearby (since those who had interred the body would have been required to purify themselves in a mikveh afterwards). Unfortunately, much of the evidence has been scrambled by the subsequent occupation of Lower Herodium during the Byzantine period: The ashlars had been moved from their original location for use in the construction of a church, so their position now provides little clue to where the tomb entrance might be.

Is Netzer searching in the wrong place?

Possibly so, in the opinion of scholars who see the imposing construction on top of the hill as a more fitting (and Roman-style) mausoleum for such an imposing king as Herod.1 And one man—retired geophysicist Lambert Dolphin, a specialist in remote sensing—claims to have evidence that there is something inside the apparently solid base of the large (east) tower. With his colleagues from the Menlo Park, California research firm SRI International, Dolphin used ground-penetrating radar and seismic instruments to detect underground chambers at several sites in Israel and Egypt. In 1983, with the approval of Netzer, Dolphin’s team used geophysical instruments to search in Upper and Lower Herodium for signs of hidden chambers or subterranean voids that could be tombs. On their very first day, two groups—one using radar, the other using seismic equipment—independently found what appeared to be a room hidden deep inside the east tower’s base.2

According to Dolphin, “The radar and the seismic echoes from the Eastern Tower at Upper Herodium are striking echoes— not typical of a fault or crack, but more likely due to a room.” Dolphin doesn’t know what is in the room, and there is no way of knowing without looking inside; to date it remains unexcavated. (During their stay, Dolphin’s team also found several underground cavities in Lower Herodium, including underneath the Monumental Building.)

Proving or disproving the theory that there’s a room within the east tower would be a relatively simple matter, according to Dolphin: “[It] could easily be done by drilling a few small holes (1 to 4 inches in diameter), and inserting a TV camera. This would avoid damaging the tower unnecessarily.”

Netzer’s opinion, however, is that the SRI team’s 1983 findings were not as clear as Dolphin claims. Like so much in science, he says, their data are subject to a good deal of interpretation. And even if there is a cavity of some sort inside the tower, the idea that it could be Herod’s elusive burial chamber is, Netzer says, “quite nonsense.” The east tower was one of four, he points out—it didn’t stand alone—and he adds that it was common to build towers on solid bases—so there’s no reason to conclude from its design that the tower was really a tomb.

But there’s a much more fundamental reason why Herod cannot be buried in Upper Herodium, according to Netzer: “The ancient Jews did not bury their dead inside buildings,” he wrote in a 1983 BAR article, “especially buildings that had been used as dwellings. They did not even use places attached to dwellings for burials. Tombs and cemeteries had to be isolated.”b The archaeologist still stands by this view—is more sure than ever of it, in fact: “I have no doubt that the mountain was built as a palace,” he says, “and Jews didn’t bury in palaces.”

Which is not to say that the burial chamber isn’t somewhere beneath that palace. Even if it is not above ground in the buildings or tower at the top of the hill, it could be “20 or 50 meters under it,” Netzer concedes—reached by a long cave or passage that probably has an outlet somewhere in Lower Herodium. It’s just a matter of finding it, and Netzer hasn’t given up his dream of doing just that.