The Bones of Masada

Ruins on top of mount MasadaWe have heard how the Jewish rebels took refuge on the cliff top plateau of Masada towards the end of the Great Jewish Rebellion 66AD-73AD. In 73AD, after a nine month long siege, 15,000 Romans scaled Masada only to find that the 960 Jewish rebels had committed suicide rather than be captured and murdered by the Romans. Men, women and children decided it was more honorable to end their lives than wait for the Romans to take them. That’s a lot of dead bodies and bones on a cliff top plateau, the remote location and arid conditions would have preserved the bones to some extent. So where are the bones?

The ancient historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37-c.100AD) wrote that when the Romans entered the fortress they found the 960 Jews had burnt all the structures to the ground and committed mass suicide. He told of the ten men chosen by lot to kill the others before taking their own lives and he wrote that two women and five children survived.

In the archeological excavation led by Yigael Yadin in the 60s skeletons were uncovered. However not the skeletons of 960 people but rather 28 skeletons (and according to some reports 27) were recovered. In Herod’s Northern Palace bones were found belonging to a male in his 20s, a female aged approximately 17-18 years old and a child about 12 years old. In the bathhouse two men were found and the hair of a woman. In a cave at the base of Masada, to the south, the bones from 25 bodies were found. The bones of 14 males, 6 females, 4 children and one fetus were found. Carbon dating of textiles found in the “Cave of the Skeletons” showed that they came from the same period as the Great Jewish Revolt. In 1969 the bones were given a military funeral usually preserved for fallen soldiers or heroes, they were buried at the foot of the Roman rampart which leads to the top of Masada.

Masada ruinsHowever not everyone agreed with the findings described above. Some claim that the whole “discovery” and burial of the bones was a hoax to strengthen the Jewish identity, their claim on the Land of Israel and to give the young nation heroes.  Anthropologist Joe Zias believed that the remains found in Masada’s bathhouse belonged to Romans captured by the Jews when the Jews originally took the garrison. It was a Jewish practice to cut off the hair of captured women in this way. In 1981 Yadin told a reporter that the bones found in the cave were mixed with pig’s bones and other experts claim that this was a Roman burial custom and not something Jews would ever do. Explorer Yoram Tsafrir claimed that the only 208 human bones were discovered with the pig bones and that the human body has 220 bones and so it could not possibly be the remains of 25 people.

So the mystery of the Masada bones continues, or as others claim the “Myth of Masada”. Perhaps the bones still remain to be discovered, perhaps they were burnt or removed by the Romans or perhaps Josephus’ account of events was inaccurate. Only time will tell…


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