AN ISRAELI anthropologist is using modern forensic techniques and an obscure biblical passage to challenge the accepted wisdom about human remains found at Masada, the desert fortress famous as the scene of a mass suicide nearly 2,000 years ago.
A new research paper re-examines the remains of three people found in a bathhouse at the site - two male skeletons and a woman's full head of hair, including two braids.
They were long thought to have belonged to a family of Zealots - the fanatic Jewish rebels said to have killed themselves rather than fall into Roman slavery in the spring of 73AD, a story that became part of Israel's national mythology.
The bodies found at Masada were recognised as Jewish heroes by Israel in 1969 and given a state burial.
But now it seems Israel might have mistakenly bestowed the honour on three Romans, according to the paper, published yesterday in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology by anthropologist Dr Joe Zias and forensics expert Azriel Gorski.
Yigael Yadin, the renowned Israeli archeologist in charge of the original 1960s dig, thought the remains of the three were key in illustrating the historical account of Zealot men killing their wives and children and then themselves before the Roman soldiers breached Masada's defences.
"There could be no doubt that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada," the archaeologist wrote in his book documenting the dig.
The new paper focuses on the hair, noting the absence of a skeleton to go with it. Forensic analysis showed the hair had been cut off the woman's head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive.
Dr Zias' attempt to explain the discrepancy led him to the Old Testament's Book of Deuteronomy, where a passage says that foreign women captured in battle by Jews must cut off all their hair, apparently in an attempt to make them less attractive to their captors.
He thus concluded that the hair belonged not to a Jewish woman but to a captured foreign woman.
In his scenario, the woman was attached to the Roman garrison stationed at Masada at the time the Zealots took over the fortress and killed the Roman soldiers. Jewish fighters threw two Roman bodies into the bathhouse, and then treated the woman captive according to Jewish law, cutting off her hair, which they threw in along with the bodies.
Once a pillar of Israeli identity - army units used to be sworn in on the mountaintop, shouting "Masada will not fall again" - the Masada story has fallen out of favour as Israelis became less comfortable with glorifying mass suicide and identifying with religious fanatics.
The very story of the suicide, as recounted in dramatic detail by the first century AD Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, has come increasingly into doubt, and many scholars now believe it was either greatly exaggerated or never happened at all.
The original archeologists at the site, Dr Zias said, "had the story and went around trying to find the proof". No concrete evidence for the Zealot suicide has been found, he said.
....It seems that for about three years, the Zealots were a thorn in the side of the Roman occupiers, who eventually sent a trouble-shooter General to fix it.
First, he had a retaining wall with guard towers built encircling the rock to contain the Zealots and prevent their escaping. Then he built the ramp to bypass the very good defensive approaches up the side of the rock face, "wearing out" over 5,000 slaves in the process. It was protected by hide-covered shelters on wheels which were pushed up the ramp as it was built to shelter the workers from attack from above while they toiled and, eventually, they were able to storm the flat top where the people lived.
Much of the ramp can still be seen, as can water cisterns dug into the rock and grain stores etc.
I recall that there was also a "palace" built down the side of the rock.
....According to the writer and traitor, Josephus who was there at the time, the troubleshooter general was Roman governor of Judea Lucius Flavius Silva, who had a slanging match every day with his opposite number Eleazar ben Yair, head of the Zealot Jews, the Sicarii. It was the X Fretensis who were the Legion attacking Masada.
The account of the siege of Masada was related to Josephus by two women who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, and repeated Eleazar ben Yair's final exhortation to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans