The key to archaeological discovery, they say, is a lot of research, hard work, and luck—being in the right place at the right time. And though it was by sheer dumb luck that I stumbled onto Herod the Great's tomb at Herodium in the West Bank three weeks ago, it was more a matter of being in the wrong place at the right time.

Exclusive: An Unexpected Find

I say the wrong place, because my guide, Brian Schultz, and I had to duck under tape that closed off the excavation site to the public. But we were there at the right time, because it was a Saturday afternoon, the Sabbath, and except for a few Israeli soldiers observing the West Bank from the top of a fort above us, we were the only souls there. And we had a video camera. It was April 14, and archaeologists at the site had not yet announced the discovery of the tomb of the first-century king who, according to the New Testament, tried to have the infant Jesus killed.But as the ancient stone structure that the archaeologists had unearthed came into our view, we realized we were seeing architectural features that no one for hundreds or perhaps a thousand or more years knew existed. So we started videotaping everything we saw.

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. Herod's Tomb

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.