The Siege of Masada: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Contributed by Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus ended his monumental, multi-volume account of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (the Jewish War) with the story of a mass suicide at Masada. According to Josephus, some 960 Jewish rebels holding out on top of Masada - the last stronghold to remain in Jewish hands after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. - chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Roman troops besieging the fortress. It is because of Josephus’ story of the suicide, which includes a speech allegedly given by the rebel leader Eleazar ben Yair, that Masada became a symbol of Jewish resistance and the modern state of Israel.

However, Yigael Yadin’s 1963-65 excavations atop Masada failed to turn up conclusive evidence of the mass suicide. In fact, the archaeological evidence from Masada can be interpreted either as proving or disproving the mass suicide story, depending on how one evaluates Josephus’ reliability as an historian. For example, a group of inscribed potsherds (ostraca) found at Masada, including one bearing the name “ben Yair,” might be the lots drawn by the rebels prior to committing suicide or could simply be food ration tickets. Most likely, some rebels committed suicide while others were killed or surrendered to the Romans and were taken captive.

However, archaeology sheds valuable light on other aspects of the Roman siege of Masada, which was conducted in the winter-spring of 72/73 or 73/74 C.E. and probably lasted no longer than 2-3 months. The Roman siege works, including eight camps that housed approximately 8000 troops and a circumvallation (siege) wall, still are clearly visible encircling the base of the mountain. In June-July 1995, I was privileged to co-direct excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada, together with Professor Gideon Foerster (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dr. Haim Goldfus (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), and Mr. Benny Arubas (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Photo of Camp F, taken from the top of Masada (photo by Jodi Magness).

We focused much of our attention on Camp F, which is located on the northwest side of the mountain and housed about half of the Tenth Legion (with the other half in Camp B at the eastern foot of Masada). Our excavations brought to light low stone walls over which the Roman troops pitched leather tents. The floors of the tent units were covered with broken potsherds; altogether we recovered 240 kilograms (about 530 pounds) of pottery. The overwhelming majority of the pottery belongs to local types of storage jars, a finding that sheds light on the provisioning of the Roman troops during the siege. Because Masada is in the desert, supplies (mainly food and water) likely were brought in skins, bags, and woven baskets from other parts of the country, transported overland on pack animals or on small boats across the Dead Sea. Upon reaching the camps at Masada, the supplies were emptied into large ceramic jars for storage. The jars protected the contents from dampness, insects, and vermin. Most of the soldiers probably prepared and consumed their food using utensils in their individual mess-kits. However, the commander seems to have dined in style, judging from delicately painted bowls with eggshell thin walls found in his tent unit, which were imported from nearby Nabataea (southeast of the Dead Sea).

For me archaeology is not a means of validating (or negating) personal faith and beliefs. Instead it is a means of recovering and understanding the past, often one potsherd at a time, as in the case of Masada. These potsherds are pieces of a puzzle which enable us to reconstruct part of a picture that was otherwise lost.