HERODIUM, West Bank – Israeli archaeologists excavating what they believe is the tomb of biblical King Herod said Wednesday they have unearthed lavish Roman-style wall paintings of a kind previously unseen in the Middle East and signs of a regal two-story mausoleum, bolstering their conviction that the Jewish monarch was buried here.
Ehud Netzer, head of the team from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, which uncovered the site at the king's winter palace in the Judean desert in 2007, said his latest finds show work and funding fit for a king.
"What we found here, spread all around, are architectural fragments that enable us to restore a monument of 25 meters high, 75 feet high, very elegant, which fits Herod's taste and status," he told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday at the hillside dig in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, south of Jerusalem.
Herod is known for extensive building throughout the Holy Land.
Netzer said that since finding fragments of one ornately carved sarcophagus in 2007, he and his team have found two more, suggesting that the monumental tomb may have been a royal family vault.
"A mausoleum like the one which we have here was generally built by a king but not (necessarily) only for himself, many times for his children and his family, like the famous mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, of Hadrian in Rome," he said. "It's not a surprise that we found here more than one sarcophagus."
Herod was the Jewish proxy ruler of the Holy Land under imperial Roman occupation from 37 B.C. and reigned for more than six decades.
The ruler is known to have had a taste for extravagance.
Netzer described the winter palace, built on a largely man-made hill 680 meters (2,230 feet) high, as a kind of "country club", with a pool, baths, gardens fed by pools and aqueducts and a 650-seat theater.
In Herod's private box at the auditorium, the diggers discovered delicate frescoes depicting windows opening on to painted landscapes, one of which showed what appeared to be a southern Italian farm, said Roi Porat, one of Netzer's assistants on the digs
Just visible in the paintings, dating from between 15-10 B.C., are a dog, bushes and what looks like a country villa.
Site surveyor Rachel Chachy-Laureys said they were executed using techniques unknown in the Holy Land at the time and must have been done by artisans especially imported from Italy.
"There has been no other discovery of this type of painting in the Middle East, as far as we know, until now", she said.
Gidon Foerster, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University not connected with this dig, agreed that the art is "unique" here. "The artists were most likely brought in from Italy to work on this," he said. "This kind of art has never been found in Israel before. King Herod is said to have been buried there and this proves it as much as it can possibly be proved."
Herod's most famous construction project was expanding the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem, but the Herod of the Bible and of Christian tradition was a bloodthirsty megalomanic, who flew into a paranoid frenzy when he encountered the three wise men on the way to Bethlehem with gifts for the baby Jesus and telling of the birth of a new king of Israel.
"Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceedingly wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under..." (Matthew 2:16).
The account, however, does not appear in other Gospels, and experts are not convinced of its accuracy.
Historians do agree that toward the end of his reign, Herod slaughtered many political rivals and perceived plotters, among them one of his 10 wives and three of his sons.
The first century A.D. historian Josephus Flavius wrote that as the elderly Herod lay riddled with disease, he ordered the cream of the local Jewish aristocracy to be executed on his death, so that his passing would bring widespread mourning.
Josephus describes Herodium and Herod's lavish funeral there.
After Herod's death in the first century B.C. Herodium became a stronghold for Jewish rebels fighting Roman occupation, and the site suffered significant battle damage before it was conquered and finally destroyed by Roman forces in A.D. 71, a year after they destroyed the Jerusalem temple.
The insurgents reviled the memory of Herod as a Roman puppet, and Netzer and his team believe that the violence with which the first stone casket was smashed suggests they knew it held his bones.
"That sarcophagus was found shattered all over the place, it seems it was taken from its place and was destroyed in a fit of rage," Porat said. "That, among other things, is what tells us it was the sarcophagus of Herod."
No human remains or inscriptions proving conclusively that the tomb was the king's have been found, but excavation work continues.