JERUSALEM - For more than three decades, Israeli archaeologist 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 contends, 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. Archaeologists have not found a body. Nor is there any written confirmation yet that King Herod, who ruled with Roman backing 2,000 years ago, is buried in that spot.
But Netzer, a 72-year-old archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said yesterday 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 long believed to have prepared his burial site on the cone-shaped mound.
Netzer said the discovery was the high point of decades of digging at the site. Additional digging is planned to find artifacts and more clues.
"It's a great satisfaction," Netzer told reporters. "I'm not sure I myself have digested it fully."
The discovery is important because Herod, elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, "was one of the greatest builders that land has ever seen," said James H. 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 Jewish Second 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.
"This is really quite a striking discovery," said James Strange, a University of South Florida religion professor. "This is the very first King of Israel whose tomb we have ever found."
Netzer appeared taken aback by all the attention. But he was clearly pleased to report a successful end to a long and arduous hunt.
Earlier digging focused on the hilltop palace site, and a California geophysicist armed with high-tech equipment claimed in the 1980s to have detected a hidden chamber in a tower that he said could be the tomb. But Netzer was convinced the grave was at the bottom of the mound.
He spent years digging in different spots at the bottom in an area that was found to hold two monument-type buildings and a ritual bath.
Last August, Netzer and his team shifted focus, moving halfway up the hill along its eastern slope. The archaeologists dug along a sloped wall they thought might be part of the tomb. It was not, but the excavation led the researchers last month to the spot that they now contend is the grave site.
There, they found pieces of what they believe was the sarcophagus, which they say originally was more than seven feet long and decorated with a pattern of rosettes and distinctive lines. A piece of a flower-shaped stone carving was on display as Netzer spoke yesterday.
Researchers found other chunks they say probably made up the base of the monument that housed the tomb.
"If we wouldn't have found this base, we wouldn't have gone to the public," Netzer said.
Other experts said the context was significant.
Eric M. Meyers, a religion professor at Duke University, said that "because of the context, it sounds like a royal tomb."
"I'm one of the most suspicious guys there is," he said, "but finding a tomb halfway up the side of Herodium is a pretty good indication that this is it."
The researchers say the monument probably measured about 30 by 30 feet and was decorated with stone urns. The team has found "tons" of pieces from the structure, said Yaakov Kalman, an archaeologist on Netzer's team.
But the red-tinted limestone sarcophagus was smashed to pieces, most likely by ancient vandals. The researchers believe that about 70 years after Herod's death, Jewish rebels destroyed the tomb in an act of posthumous vengeance against him and the hated Roman rulers he represented.
"He had a lot of enemies," Kalman said.
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