JERUSALEM – An Israeli archaeologist on Tuesday said he has found the tomb of King Herod the Great, the legendary builder of ancient Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer said the tomb was found at Herodium, a flattened hilltop in the Judean Desert where Herod the Great built a palace compound. Netzer has been working at the site since the 1970s.
Netzer said the tomb was discovered when a team of researchers found pieces of a limestone sarcophagus believed to belong to the ancient king.
Although there were no bones in the container, he said the sarcophagus' location and ornate appearance indicated it is Herod's.
"It's a sarcophagus we don't just see anywhere," Netzer said at a news conference. "It is something very special."
Netzer led the team, though he said he was not on the site when the sarcophagus was found.
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Stephen Pfann, an expert in the Second Temple period at the University of the Holy Land, called the find a "major discovery by all means," but cautioned further research is needed.
He said all signs indicate the tomb belongs to Herod, but said ruins with an inscription on it were needed for full verification.
"We're moving in the right direction. It will be clinched once we have an inscription that bears his name," said Pfann, a textual scholar who did not participate in Netzer's dig.
The fragments of carved limestone found at the sandy site are decorated with floral motives, but do not include any inscriptions.
Herod became the ruler of the Holy Land under the Romans around 40 B.C. The wall he built around the Old City of Jerusalem during the time of the Jewish Second Temple is the one that can be seen today.
He also undertook massive construction projects in Caesaria, Jericho, the hilltop fortress of Massada and other locations.
[Herod the Great is also blamed in the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew for having ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, the execution of all male Jewish infants in Bethlehem, after having been told that the new King of the Jews had been born there.]
It has long been assumed that Herod was buried at Herodium, but decades of excavations failed to turn up the site until now. The first century historian Josephus Flavius described the tomb and Herod's funeral procession.
Herodium was one of the last strong points held by Jewish rebels fighting against the Romans, and it was conquered and destroyed by Roman forces in A.D. 71, a year after they destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Hebrew University had hoped to keep the find a secret until Netzer's news conference on Tuesday. But the university announced the find in a brief statement late Monday after the Haaretz daily newspaper found out about the discovery and published an article on its Web site.