I was in the country to research a book I’m writing about daily life in the time of Jesus, and I'd hired Brian, a biblical scholar, to show me as many first-century sites as possible. High on my wish list of places to visit was the Herodion, King Herod's monumental palace complex some eight miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean wilderness.
Not only was the Herodion the last in a series of lavish palace-fortresses Herod built, but it's also where the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us Herod was buried. Josephus describes an elaborate funeral: the ruler's body, wrapped in crimson, was carried 24 miles to the Herodion in a huge procession led by his surviving sons and followed by his army--plus 500 slaves and freedman bearing spices. Until now, many scholars had speculated that Herod was buried somewhere in the lower palace area of the site.
The day Brian and I visited the Herodion was sunny and windy. From the top of the fortress, we could see the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. On the hilltop, we explored the ruins of Herod's lavish palace: plastered and frescoed walls, a colonnaded court, a Roman dining room, and a bathhouse. Then we explored the vast cisterns and tunnels carved into limestone bedrock beneath the great fortress. We followed the tunnels out to an exit partway up the hill.
That’s when we noticed, off to the right, the Israeli Antiquity Authorities’ tape marking a new excavation. Brian said that it must have been a very recent dig, because it hadn't been there the last time he visited. We ducked under the tape and climbed the hill till we reached the dig. Here, where before there had just been grass and rock, they’d unearthed a smooth, stone wall—what appeared to be a glacis--a smooth, sloped wall intended to make it difficult for an enemy to climb or to attack. We also found an ancient doorway of some kind, with a stone threshold and doorpost.