Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

King Herod's Tomb Found in Israel

JERUSALEM -- For more than three decades, Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer scraped at the ancient, man-made hillock. He searched the top. He dug at the bottom. Finally, Netzer carved into the midsection and there, he says, found his prize: the grave of Herod the Great.

The evidence, in the form of shards of decorative stonework that may have been a coffin and pieces of a structure thought to have been the mausoleum, is still far from ironclad proof. Archeologists have not found a body. Nor is there any written confirmation yet that King Herod, who ruled with Roman backing 2,000 years ago, was buried in that spot.

But Netzer, a 72-year-old archeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Tuesday that he had little doubt that the find was Herod's tomb. Herod built a palace at the site on a West Bank hill south of Jerusalem and is believed to have prepared his own burial site on the cone-shaped mound.

"It's a great satisfaction. I'm not sure I myself have digested it fully," Netzer said during a news conference at Hebrew University.

The discovery is important because Herod, elected "king of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C., "was one of the greatest builders that land has ever seen," said James Charlesworth, a professor of religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. "He was one of the most influential people in the Roman Empire -- a friend of Anthony, a friend of Cleopatra."

Herod's projects included an expansion of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, decades after Herod's death.

He was also the ruler who, according to the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, ordered the slaying of all the infants in Bethlehem, forcing Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus to flee to Egypt.

Netzer, with close-cropped silver hair and an unassuming manner, appeared taken aback by all the attention. But he was clearly pleased to report a successful end to a long and arduous hunt.

"Over the years, it became the mission of his life -- to find the tomb," said his daughter, Chana Netzer-Cohen, 41, who recalled accompanying her father to the dig site, known as Herodium, many times as a youngster.

Eric Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University, said, "Because of the context, it sounds like a royal tomb."

"I'm one of the most suspicious guys there is, but finding a tomb halfway up the side of Herodium is a pretty good indication that this is it," he said.

The researchers said the tomb probably measured about 9 meters by 9 meters and was decorated with stone urns. The team has found "tons" of pieces from the structure, said Yaakov Kalman, an archeologist on Netzer's team.

But the red-tinted limestone sarcophagus was smashed to pieces, most likely by ancient vandals, the archeologists said. The researchers believe that about 70 years after Herod's death in 4 B.C., Jewish rebels destroyed the tomb in an act of posthumous vengeance.

The archeologists said that because of the apparent grandeur of the tomb, it was unlikely that it held anyone other than Herod. Kalman said the workmanship was exquisite; stones fit tightly together without mortar to bind them.

"You cannot say for 100 percent until you find something written: 'Herod,'" Kalman said. "But all the facts are showing that is the one."

Netzer, his long quest apparently over, could declare victory and quit his lifetime of digging in the desert heat. His daughter said that wasn't likely, though.

"He will work harder," Netzer-Cohen said. Why? "To prove to himself and the world that it's really the tomb."