The grave and tomb of King Herod, the legendary builder of ancient Jerusalem, have been uncovered, ending an archeological mystery that has riveted scholars for decades, an Israeli archeologist said Tuesday.
The remains of Herod's grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum were uncovered in the beginning of April on the northeastern slopes of the Herodion, a hilltop in the Judean Desert where Herod had a palace and where archeologists had long assumed he was buried, said Hebrew University archaeologist Prof. Ehud Netzer.
The Roman-appointed king of Judea from 37 to 4 BCE known as Herod the Great was renowned for his many monumental building projects, including the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the palace at Masada as well as the sprawling complex at the Herodion, 15 km. south of Jerusalem.
Netzer said a team of researchers found pieces of a limestone sarcophagus, or stone coffin, enabling them to locate the tomb just above three previously uncovered water cisterns at the site.
"It's a sarcophagus we don't just see anywhere," Netzer said at a news conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "It is something very special."
The latest excavations on the slope of the mountain, which includes a palace, a fortress and a monument, began in August 2006.
Netzer first began excavating at the site in 1972.
The mausoleum itself was almost totally dismantled in ancient times. In its place remained only a part of its well-built podium, constructed of white ashlars in a manner and size not previously uncovered at the site.
The pieces of carved, reddish Jerusalem limestone thought to be part of Herod's stone coffin and found at the sandy site are decorated with floral motifs, but do not include any inscriptions.
The sarcophagus had been deliberately broken into hundreds of pieces.
The desecration and the destruction of the monument is attributed to Jewish rebels in 66-72 CE during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, when they took control of the site.
The Jewish rebels were known for their hatred of Herod and all he stood for as a "puppet ruler" of the Romans.
"The very fact that the sarcophagus has been smashed indirectly supports the view that this is indeed Herod's tomb," said Bar-Ilan University archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkai.
The search for Herod's tomb, which got underway three decades ago after Israel won control of the area in the 1967 Six Day War, had previously focused on the lower Herodion in an area that was apparently built for the funeral and burial of the king.
A church and a large ritual bath or mikve as well as two monumental buildings were uncovered in this area.
Netzer said that later in life Herod apparently had a change of heart and decided to be buried on the slope of the hill.
Three decades of on-again, off-again archeological excavation at the sun-drenched site, which is located near Gush Etzion, had been interrupted by Palestinian violence when work was stopped due to security concerns.
The critical sarcophagus find was uncovered by Netzer's two assistants, Yaakov Kalman and Roi Porath, at midday three weeks ago when Netzer was not at the site, he said.
He immediately knew that they had hit gold, he added.
"I have a feeling of great satisfaction, but am not sure that I myself have digested it fully," he concluded.