MASADA, Israel – An Israeli anthropologist is using modern forensics and an obscure biblical passage to challenge accepted wisdom about mysterious human remains found at Masada, the desert fortress famous as the scene of a mass suicide nearly 2,000 years ago.
The remains of two male skeletons and a full head of woman's hair, including two braids, were found in a bathhouse by archaeologists in the 1960s.
They were long thought to belong to a family of Zealots , the fanatic Jewish rebels said to have killed themselves rather than fall into Roman slavery in A.D. 73, a story that plays an important role in Israel's national mythology.
The bathhouse remains became a key part of the site's story.
Yigael Yadin, the renowned Israeli archaeologist in charge of the first dig, thought they illustrated the historical account of Zealot men killing their wives and children and then themselves before Roman legionnaires breached Masada's defenses.
Upon finding the remains, the crew "relived the final and most tragic moments of the drama at Masada," Yadin wrote in his book documenting the dig, mentioning that the woman's "dark hair, beautifully plaited, looked as if it had just been freshly coiffeured."
"There could be no doubt that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada," he wrote.
Along with other bodies found at Masada, the remains were recognized as those of Jewish heroes by Israel's government in 1969 and given a state burial, complete with Israeli soldiers carrying flag-draped coffins.
But anthropologist Joe Zias and forensics expert Azriel Gorski write in a paper in the June issue of the journal Near Eastern Archaeology that the remains buried with honors may not have been those of Jews at all, but of Romans.
The paper focuses on the hair, noting the odd absence of a skeleton to go with it.
The researchers' new forensic analysis showed an even stranger fact — the hair had been cut off the woman's head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive.
Zias' attempt to explain the discrepancy led him to the Old Testament's Book of Deuteronomy, where a passage says that foreign women captured in battle by Jews must have all their hair cut off, apparently an attempt to make them less attractive to their captors.
Zias concluded the hair belonged not to a Jewish woman but to a foreign woman who fell captive in the hands of Jewish fighters.
In his scenario, the woman was attached to the Roman garrison at Masada in A.D. 66 when the Zealots seized the fortress and killed the soldiers.
Jewish fighters threw two Roman bodies into the bathhouse, which they then used as a garbage dump, judging by other debris found inside. The Zealots treated the woman captive according to Jewish law, cutting off her hair, which they threw in with the bodies.
Ehud Netzer, a veteran Hebrew University archaeologist who participated in the 1960s dig and later oversaw restoration work there, questioned the new findings.
Zias is "building a story on assumptions built on assumptions," he said.
"I think that with the existing information, you can't make such theories, and I think that those people should be allowed to rest in peace," Netzer said.
The new paper is only the latest in a series of attacks on the original Masada dig, which some scholars now think was colored less by scientific rigor than by a desire to enshrine the desert fortress in a national mythology of heroism and sacrifice.
Once a pillar of Israeli identity — army units used to be sworn in on the mountaintop, shouting the sentence "Masada will not fall again!" — the Masada story fell out of favor as Israelis became less comfortable with glorifying mass suicide and identifying with religious fanatics.
The very story of the suicide, as recounted in dramatic detail by the 1st century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius , also has come increasingly into doubt.
Many scholars now believe it was either greatly exaggerated or never happened at all.
The original archaeologists at the site, Zias said, "had the story and went around trying to find the proof."
No concrete evidence for the Zealot suicide has been found, he said.
But others have pointed out that many details of Josephus' story are matched precisely by archaeological evidence, and charged that for archaeologists today debunking the Masada myth has become as popular as creating it was 40 years ago.