At six in the morning, October 13, 1963, in the 10-months-old town of Arad, overlooking the Judean Desert, a stream of volunteers began to assemble. “They arrived by bus, or hitchhiked, with rucksacks, suitcases, banjos and typewriters, in shorts, jeans, slacks, and skirts”, wrote Jerusalem Post reporter Daniel Gavron who had come to record the event, “Bearded and bespectacled, clean shaven and clear-eyed, they came from all over Israel and all over the world”. They had come to volunteer at the biggest archaeological dig ever mounted in Israel, the excavation of Masada.
“For Israel, then, this expedition is more than an archaeological dig”, wrote London Observer correspondent Patrick O’Donovan, who had been sent by David Astor, the Observer’s owner, to report on the launching of the expedition. The Observer together with Miriam and Harry Sacher, Terence and Matilda Kennedy and Leonard Wolfson had raised the financial support needed for the expedition. “It is an act of piety. In its own terrible right, Masada presents a challenge to the present that Israel could not refuse”, reported O’Donovan.
The dig, was for the young state a project of national redemption. Led by archaeologist Yigael Yadin, under the auspices of the Israel Exploration Society it would be followed with awe by the Israeli and world press. Yadin was a world renown figure. He had been the IDF’s Chief Operations Officer during the War of Independence, and after the war the IDF’s second Chief of staff. Resigning from the army following disagreements with David Ben Gurion, prime minister and defense minister of Israel, he had completed his degree in archaeology, and organized the expansive excavations of Biblical Hazor. He had been involved in the purchase and research of the Dead Sea Scrolls – of which the first three of the seven intact scrolls had been acquired by his father, Prof. Eleazar Sukenik, and had unearthed the dramatic Bar Kokhba letters in a cave in the Judean Desert.
Masada was not just another archaeological site. Since the mid-1920’s the desert fortress, on top of a rock surrounded by sheer cliffs, had been a magnet for the youth of nascent Israel. In 1923 “The Jewish War”, the first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius’ dramatic account of the great rebellion against Rome, was translated into Hebrew from its original Greek. For the first time Zionist pioneers, looking for direction and connection, could read the story of the Jewish revolt against the superior forces of Imperial Roman in the first century. The eye-witness narrative ended with the destruction of the Temple, and three years later the heroic final battle of the last Jewish outpost, on the isolated rock fortress of Masada. The 960 rebels, after standing up against thousands of Roman legionnaires, ended their lives in a mass suicide, in order not to be enslaved by the Romans. 4 years after the translation of Josephus’ account, Hebrew poet Yitzhak Lamdan the epic poem of “Masada”, with its vivid image of Jewish pioneers dancing around a bonfire at the top of the rock fortress, proclaiming: “Masada Shall Not Fall Again”.
Masada was rediscovered by the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson in 1838, during a visit to Ein Gedi. Robinson didn’t actually reach Masada. But following his discovery other 19th century explorers managed to climb to the top of the rock of Masada, making note of the remains of the Roman siege wall, ramp and camps around the fortress and the ruined remains on the summit. In 1912 the Jewish Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem began to organize annual trips to Masada, arriving at the inaccessible rock on the shores of the Dead Sea, by boat from Kaliya, near Jericho. Once Lamdan’s poem was published, the hike to Masada became a central feature of the Jewish Youth Movements, and in the training of the pre-state clandestine fighting unit – the Palmah.
In 1951 the legendary Palmah fighter Shmarya Gutman began promoting visits and research of Masada, followed by the discovery of the Snake Path, that led to the summit from the east, and Herod’s amazing cliff-palace. In 1955 and again in 1956, two ten day archaeological surveys of Masada were launched by the Israel Exploration Society (IES). Following these initial surveys it was clear that a major excavation that would entail a massive logistical set-up was needed. It would take another ten years for the IES to persuade Yadin, who had the organizational abilities and army connections to launch the excavation.
Yadin’s charismatic personality persuades the London Observer that this was a story well worth telling. Following a few months of thrilling exposes on Masada and the soon to be launched excavations, together with a call for volunteers, thousands of applications from 28 countries flooded the offices of the Observer and the Israel Exploration Society.
The excavations lasted for two seven-month seasons, in 1963 and 1964, yielding an enormous amount of data and artifacts: 12 ancient manuscripts, 750 inscribed pottery shards together with a million and a half additional shards of pottery, and four thousand coins. Following the excavations Yadin wrote a popular book on the excavation’s and moved on the other fields of interest. Publications of the final reports, together with additional excavations, are still ongoing.
Yadin came to Masada with the purpose of solving the riddle of the Jewish rebel’s last stand. What really happened on Masada in the year 73, why did the Romans decide to invest such a large effort in capturing the fortress, who were the defenders, who built Masada, and what happened to the remains of the defenders.
This October will be the 50th anniversary of the Masada excavations. Research since then has been going on extensively, with a whole new body of knowledge added to what was known following the excavations half a century ago.
This fall ERETZ Magazine will publish a special album dedicated to Masada and the people who excavated the mountain – with in depth articles with the archaeologists involved in the excavations and new insights. The album will also focus on the thousands of volunteers who participated in the dig. If you were a volunteer at Masada, or know someone who was, please sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reminiscences, comments and pictures are more that welcome.