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.
A new research paper published Friday takes another look at the remains of three people found at the site and given a state burial byas Jewish heroes. The remains, the study says, could actually be those of the Jews’ Roman enemies.
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.
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