When King Herod the Great died in 4 BC, he was transported from his palace at Jericho to his fortress palace of Herodium, near Bethlehem, to be buried. Prior to his death, Herod had made arrangements that his final resting place would be a mausoleum constructed at Herodium around 10 BC. However, Herod chose and built Herodium long before in memory of his great victory over the Parthians there (Josephus, Wars). When the funeral procession from Jericho arrived at Herodium to bury Herod, he was clothed in purple, wore a diadem and golden crown, and had a scepter in his right hand (Josephus, Wars). Herod was then interred in a sarcophagus, which was placed in his mausoleum. At the time of Herod’s death, Jesus and His family were temporarily living in Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (Matthew 2:19). Before the possible discovery of his tomb, archaeologists and historians agreed that the tomb of Herod was built at Herodium, but scholars were and continue to be divided on the issue of the mausoleum being located in lower or upper Herodium (Magness, “Where is Herod’s Tomb at Herodium?”).
When remains of a mausoleum and sarcophagus were finally discovered at Herodium in 2007, many were hopeful that the tomb of Herod had finally been found. Netzer, the archaeologist directing the project, had searched lower Herodium for years without finding a monumental tomb, even though the writings of Josephus and the layout of the site and an unidentified monumental building seemed to indicate that the lower plain of Herodium was the probable location of the tomb. After the search there was unsuccessful, Netzer suggested that Herod had originally intended for his tomb to be built in the lower area, but that he had changed his mind and chose to be buried somewhere on the actual mountain. Eventually, hundreds of red limestone fragments, some with rosette designs common on tombs, ossuaries, and sarcophagi of the period, were uncovered on the mountain. Reconstruction of the fragments revealed an original sarcophagus about 2.5 meters (over 8 feet) long, topped with a triangular cover (Netzer, “In Search of Herod’s Tomb”). The craftsmanship of the sarcophagus was certainly elaborate, but not on the level of famous monumental sarcophagi such as the one made for Alexander the Great. Further, no inscription was discovered on the fragments that could identify the deceased. However, the intentional and intense destruction of the sarcophagus is consistent with what many residents of Judea would have done to the burial place of Herod in retaliation for his tyrannical and violent acts, his friendship with the Romans, and his syncretism with Hellenistic and Roman culture and religion. Materials discovered in the area of the mausoleum and sarcophagus, such as pottery and coins, along with the writings of Josephus, demonstrate that the site was occupied during the 1st Judean revolt against Rome from ca. 66-73 AD (Josephus, Wars). However, it is far more likely that the tomb of Herod was desecrated soon after he died rather than 70 years later when the generations that knew his rule were no longer alive. This probably happened decades earlier—perhaps as soon as the Herodian Ethnarch Archelaus was expelled and the Roman prefect Coponius took over Judea in about 6 AD (Josephus, Antiquities).
The mausoleum structure itself, while partially destroyed, was obviously made with precision and in the style of monumental Hellenistic type tombs of the period. Built against the side of the mountain, the base of the mausoleum was about 30 feet by 30 feet and has been estimated at approximately 80 feet high. It was built of the shining white limestone seen throughout Jerusalem and typical of monumental structures built by Herod. In design and stone, the mausoleum is similar to the 1st century BC “Tomb of Absalom” in Jerusalem. To reach the mausoleum, a ramp and staircase beginning in the lower palace complex and winding around the mountain was constructed. In addition to the red sarcophagus tentatively identified as that of Herod, the remains of two white limestone sarcophagi were found around the tomb. These have been suggested as belonging to Malthace, his fourth wife and mother of Archelaus, and Glaphyra the second wife of Archelaus. Since Archelaus took over the rule of Judea following his father’s death, it is plausible that the others buried at Herodium were closely related to him (Matthew 2:22). Bone fragments were also found around the tomb, demonstrating that people had indeed been interred there rather than only an intended burial place.
While it is certain that Herod the Great was buried at Herodium and the currently known evidence is convincing, many scholars have also challenged the identification of the mausoleum on the mountainside as the tomb of Herod. Criticisms include the lack of an inscription to substantiate the claim, the supposed modesty of the tomb, and the location of the mausoleum (Wiener, “Herodium: The Tomb of King Herod Revisited”). It is obvious that this tomb belonged to one of the Herodians, but alternate suggestions place the tomb of Herod at the top of the mountain or in another area of lower Herodium. However, since no other structure clearly identified as a tomb has been discovered at the site, and no sarcophagi have been found in any other building at Herodium, it is probable that the desecrated tomb of King Herod the Great has been discovered.