Tour guides leading thousands of visitors to Masada each year follow a similar routine: Where Roman troops breached the walls, they retell Josephus Flavius’s account of how a group of obsessive, fanatical Jewish rebels refused to concede to servitude or slaughter, and committed suicide instead.It sounds plausible that a range of refugees could have ended up seeking safety at Masada during and after the Great Revolt. The new and interesting thing about the current excavation is the use of sophisticated technology to squeeze vastly more information out of the material remains than was posssible in Yadin's day.
For decades, archaeology at the site has been calling the story of the suicide, so central to Israel’s national myth, into question. Now new discoveries may force a revision of the notion that the group atop the fort was much more diverse than the heroic band of brigands celebrated by the cherished story.
“We’re actually excavating a refugee camp,” said Guy Stiebel, the archaeologist leading excavations carried out earlier this year by Tel Aviv University. Masada’s inhabitants during the seven years of the revolt were “a sort of microcosm of Judaea back then,” comprised of refugees from Jerusalem and across Judaea, including priests, members of the enigmatic monastic group from Qumran that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and at least one Samaritan.
Cutting edge archaeological techniques helped glean a more detailed picture of the past that would have been impossible during Yadin’s time. The picture emerging from these new data about Masada’s inhabitants is far more complex than previously assumed.
“It’s not one monolithic group,” Stiebel explained, describing the people living at Masada before its fall “very vibrant community of 50 shades of grey” of Judea.
“We have the opportunity to truly see the people, and this is very rare for an archaeologist,” he said. Among them are women and children, who are too often underrepresented in the archaeological record. Through archaeology, the study of the material culture found on Masada, architecture and a restudying of Josephus, he and his team can even pick out where different groups originated from before coming to Masada.
We will have to wait for the peer-review publications to find out exactly what the excavators have learned. It remains to be seen how much the new information will make us reconsider Josephus's account of the fall of Masada. It certainly was not without problems already.
The article also reports that some new Hebrew ostraca have been recovered.
For past posts on the history and archaeology of, and revisionist views on, Masada, start here and here and follow the links.
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