The Excavation of Masada

Following the dramatic historic events on Masada when King Herod established his hill top palace complex followed by the Great Jewish Revolt (66-77AD) and Masada’s occupation by Jewish zealots the cliff top remained one of several unremarkable “rocks” in the desert for the next 19 centuries. The arid surroundings and difficult approach to the plateau helped to maintain the site’s integrity for almost 2 millennium.

Mt Masada


1838 – Edward Robinson and E. Smith, two visiting Americans identified Masada through their telescope from the shores of the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi.  S. W. Wolcott an American missionary and the British painter Tipping visited Masada when the artist was illustrating Josephus’ The Jewish War. 1842 – Masada was identified as an historic site and expeditions from France, Germany and the USA followed.

1930s – Left wing Zionists living in Palestine would take youth groups to visit Masada to inspire and feed their nationalistic sentiments. 1934 – The Jewish National Fund bought Masada making it readily accessible to Jewish visitors.

1949 – With the birth of the Jewish nation in Israel the historic sites attesting to the link between the land of Israel and Jewish heritage became even more important. Together with other sites Masada became a national symbol of patriotism and national pride. And so the excavation of the site took on a new significance – the uniting of a people with the land of their ancestors. Following the War of Independence the Israeli flag was raised on the hill top plateau. Shemariyahu Gutman conducted an initial expedition. 1953 – 56 – Archaeological surveys began and in the 1960s the archaeological excavations continued.

1963-65 – Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin headed a full scale archaeological expedition on behalf of the Hebrew University. Thousands of volunteers from around the world participated in the excavations together with members of the Israeli Army who provided equipment and logistic consultations. During this period Herod’s western palaces were uncovered with its store rooms, mosaic floors and ritual baths and also a synagogue. Most of the sites we know today were uncovered during this time and much restoration was done.

Yigael Yadin wrote about the steps of the excavation and the findings in his book “Masada”. Findings confirmed the single source of historic information that exists from the 1st century given by Josephus retelling the story of the Jewish Zealots. Both the writings of Josephus and inscriptions on ostraca (clay potshards) found on Masada name Ben-Yair as the Jewish leader. Further evidence of Jewish occupation was found in the synagogue where fragments of scrolls revealed parts of Deuteronomy and other books of the Bible.

1963 – The remains of several skeletons were found where Josephus had indicated that the mass suicides took place – 3 skeletons on the lower terrace of the north palace and 25 skeletons in a cave at the northern end of the hill top. The findings gave anthropologists invaluable insights into the lives of the Jewish zealots. One of the unique discoveries on Masada in the 60s was a 2000 year old seed which was successfully germinated and cultivated into a date plant.

1989 – Professor Ehud Netzer conducted a short excavation and in 1995 the work continued in cooperation with Guy Stiebel for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Further excavations where done between 1995 and 2000 as part of a government project. These later excavations focused on the northwestern sector, the Roman breach, the casemate wall, water installations, storage caves, a 5th-6th century Byzantine church and the Northern Palace. An inscription was found addressed to Herod for a shipment of wine. The excavation of the Roman breach produced proof of weapons as well as a complete wooden wheel. The archeologists consulted with restoration experts from Italy on the best way to protect and preserve the frescoes.  The frescoes were originally removed, cleaned up and returned to the walls within frames and with stronger backing. This worked for a while but in 1999 further restoration work was carried out.

The phenomenal findings on Masada led to it being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. You can see many of the findings from Masada in the archeological museum located at the base of the site.


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