A New Museum Confronts an Old Mystery at Masada

The exhibit at the end of the tour of the new museum at Masada consists of 11 tiny sherds bearing intriguing names.

Hundreds of inscriptions on sherds were found at Masada, including some on earthenware jugs. Some are only a single letters, others contain names and numbers from the days of the rebellion and the Roman siege. The archaeologists, in particular Yigael Yadin, were reasonably good at decipher the inscriptions on the various sherds, but the inscription on these 11 sherds was unusual.

They were all found in the same place, next to the network of internal gates that controlled the passage to the foodstores, and were not scattered over a wide area like the other sherds. They were all written in the same handwriting, and each sherd contained only one name.

Most important, the names were not regular names but rather nicknames, such as Ben Hanahatam (or Ben Hanahtum), Tzayda (or Hatzayad, "the hunter"), Ha'amaki (someone from a village in the Acre area). Among them was one well-known name - Ben-Yair, the name of the leader of the Masada rebellion, Elazar Ben-Yair.

When these sherds were found, Yigael Yadin came up with the theory that this was evidence of the terrible story of the mass suicide on the top of Masada.

The historian Josephus gave a detailed description of the words Ben-Yair used to persuade the almost 1,000 people entrenched there "to do a useful deed."

"We shall die before becoming slaves to our enemies, we shall take leave of life while we are still free men, together with our children and our wives," he reportedly said.

After embracing their wives and kissing their babies as their eyes filled with tears, the men chose from among them 10 men, who presented their necks for the terrible massacre. The 10 then chose one man, by casting lots, to be the last. He was to kill the other nine before killing himself.

The last man standing, Josephus relates, examined everyone to verify their deaths and then lit a huge fire in the palace, before finally finding the courage to stick his entire sword into his own body, falling dead alongside members of his family.

Are the names that appear on the 11 sherds the nicknames of those 10 men, under the command of Ben-Yair, who were the last to remain alive? Did they use these sherds to draw lots and find the last of their members who would finish off the matter of the massacre? This is a possibility but apparently we will never know.

So far, researchers have not made many attempts to confirm or deny the dramatic assumption; they have mainly focused on determing the credibility of Josephus (Josephus Flavius) - Yosef Ben Matitayahu, whom Jewish tradition ignored for 2,000 years, just as it ignored the Masada story.

The new museum, located at the foot of Masada and named after Yigael Yadin, was established with money from the Shuki Levy fund. (Levy is an Israeli who lives in Los Angeles who was one half of the Shuki and Aviva singing duo. He made a fortune from his partnership with Haim Saban in producing the TV series "Power Rangers," among others).

The first room in the museum is devoted to Josephus Flavius. This is an obvious choice since without his reports we would not have known a great deal about Masada and we would have known a great deal less about the Great Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem.

The problem is that even our information about Josephus Flavius himself is taken from what he wrote about himself, and not from other sources. The story of Masada, like most of his other writing, was written in Rome, and while most of his descriptions of the fortress are fairly exact, it is reasonable to assume that he never actually visited the site.

Other than his personal experience as one of the commanders of the rebellion in its early stages, his major sources were apparently the reports of the Roman commanders. Nevertheless, these reports appear to be fairly accurate, as was his report of the mass suicide, and the story of the two women and five children who hid, becoming the only survivors who lived to tell the story of the terrible end.

Museum curator Gila Horowitz and the team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Archaeology Institute, together with designer Eliav Nahlieli, understood that a museum of this type, located next to the most famous archaeological site in Israel, cannot compete with the site itself. For that reason, they decided to build it in a special format, which tries to give added value to the experience of visiting the plateau of the cliff.

The museum consists of nine rooms, each devoted to a separate subject, and in these one can see the most important archaeological finds that were dug up at Masada in addition to figures and theatrical settings.

All of these give the visitor the feeling that he is situated in the place where the events took place some 2,000 years ago. Three of the rooms are devoted to Herod. The first depicts a royal banquet in Herod's palace with the original table utensils used and a description of the choice dishes and drinks that were presented to the guests.

The second tells the story of the port of Caesarea, which Herod built and through which the luxurious products were carried. The third shows the columns and the colorful wall decorations that remained in Herod's palace from which it is possible to learn about the luxurious and expensive building.

When the rebellion broke out in 66 CE, the mountain was conquered by the zealots, the Sicarii (called after the short dagger they carried on them, known as "sica" in Latin ) and the rooms in the museum that are devoted to them depict their home utensils, the remnants of the scrolls that they used and a selection of the 4,000 woven bits that were found in the excavations and that remained intact at the site thanks to the dry desert climate. The zealots also brought with them to Masada a small trove of silver shekels that had been issued on the occasion of the revolt. An inscription on the shekels in ancient Hebrew writing reads: "Shekel Yisrael" and "Jerusalem the Holy." Their date of issue, which relates to the year of the revolt, also appears - from aleph for the first year throught hey for the fifth.

Since the last year of the Great Revolt was short (from Passover until the 17th of Tammuz, when the work in the Temple ceased and the revolt coins were no longer issued), only a few coins have been found anywhere in the world from that year - less than 20 - compared to several thousand coins from the second and third years.

Three coins from the fifth year were found at Masada, apparently brought by the rebels who escaped from Jerusalem when it was destroyed. This is an extremely rare find, for which collectors and museums are prepared to pay a fortune.

Another rare find in the museum is displayed in the room devoted to the Roman army - the pay slip of a soldier in the Roman army. He was Gaius Messius, the son of Gaius, from the Fabia clan in Beirut, who had a series of expenses that were deducted from his salary. The salary slip was written on papyrus, and so far only one other such payslip has been found anywhere in the world, in Egypt.

This soldier was obviously among the Roman soldiers whom Josephus Flavius says climbed up the mountain.

"There they found a mass of dead people, and they were not joyous in this victory in the way one usually is with enemies but rather gazed in wonder at the nobility of their deed and its execution without flinching, as a group and with total disdain for death.