UPDATED / Herod’s Tomb in Plastic: A Learning Aid, or “Disneyland”?

Four-meter-tall model of Herod’s tomb. Photo: Israel Nature & Parks Authority (via Ferrell Jenkins)

Today’s Haaretz newspaper carries an article about changes afoot at the Herodion (or “Herodium”, as I prefer) national park site in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. One change — already in place — is a 4-meter-high model of the mausoleum of Herod the Great installed on-site just last week (see photo).

The other change, which is in the planning stages and has just been publicly announced, is the actual focus of the story:  a proposed full-scale replica of this structure, rendered in lightweight plastic, which would apparently serve as a walk-in interpretive visitors’ center. It should be no surprise that the announced plan has immediately become the source of much controversy. For one thing, such things have simply never been done before on national park archaeological sites.

At the very end, I have reproduced the full text of the story as it appeared in Haaretz’ print edition. The story as it appeared in Haaretz’ on-line edition is HERE. The print edition version is found on-line HERE. (I have found there are many times differences, sometimes significant, between the two!)

A few comments: One, I cannot help thinking that the proposed structure is, at least in part, a monument to the long-time excavator of Herodium, Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who died in a tragic accident on-site a couple of years ago. (Really, it was like something out of a book: A makeshift railing gave way and Netzer fell about 20 feet, practically on top of the tomb of Herod — which he had spent much of his professional life in search of!). It’s not that Netzer is not worthy of such an honor — he certainly is!

Ehud Netzer

It’s worth noting, though, that the design of the replica — I’m assuming it would essentially be a large version of the present model — is Ehud Netzer’s. Netzer, trained as an architect, loved doing these kinds of reconstructions, but most often they are based on found bits and pieces, in this case the very lowest part of the podium, found intact (and in pristine condition), plus a handful of other fragmentary architectural elements. Yes, add to this Netzer’s considerable knowledge of Herodian period architecture and of known parallels in the ancient world. Taken together, his reconstruction could be very close, it could be spot-on, or…?? Who knows? [UPDATE: It turns out, with the unveiling of the 2013 Israel Museum exhibit (see below), that something like one-third of the mausoleum’s architecture survived intact or was recovered and pieced together, including much of the upper storey, the tholos.] And, perhaps it goes without saying, not all experts agree with his identification, that this is in fact Herod’s tomb (I myself think there’s a very strong case that it is.)

One other thought: Note who is pushing this highly questionable project: It is the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in league with the Gush Etzion Regional Council. The players here: Gush Etzion is the large and ever-expanding bloc of Jewish settlements (all illegal under international law) located between Bethlehem and Hebron, including the settlements near the Herodium. The Council therefore has, up front, an agenda to promote local tourism. Enter the newly-appointed head of the Parks Authority — who has trumpeted, to all who questioned it, the complete impartiality and transparency with which he would operate — one Shaul Goldstein. Goldstein is a settler, a resident of Gush Etzion, and until recently the head of the above-mentioned Regional Council (he is still shown as “mayor” on the Council web-site). It turns out he began promoting this plan in that former role, going so far as to secure funding from public institutions, and he also served as chairman of the Herodium site steering committee. Surprised? I’m not. It just goes to show how really cozy and enmeshed things get vis-a-vis Israel’s settler movement on the one hand and public life and public institutions on the other. Note too that Goldstein also wants to fill the ancient pool at the foot of Herodium with water, to help illustrate Herod’s grandiose, lavish lifestyle. To do so, I presume he would suck ever more water out of the local aquifers, from beneath the feet of the Palestinians — who most often are denied permission to dig a well or even a cistern on their own property (my commentary).

UPDATE / 14 FEB 2012

Just one more indication of the cozy/enmeshed relationship of the Parks Authority with the settler movement: It turns out that the head of the Jerusalem district of the National Parks Authority, Evyatar Cohen, was formerly senior manager of the right-wing Elad settler association which exercises more or less complete control over the City of David “national park”. I wish I were more surprised by this news. Anyway, Cohen was on hand in Jerusalem yesterday to oversee the demolition of a community center facility and children’s playground that had served the Arab residents of the Silwan (aka “City of David”) neighborhood. See the story HERE.

UPDATE / 13 FEB 2013

A Haaretz story today, found on-line HERE, announces the opening of a major new Israel Museum exhibition on Herod the Great, focusing on his death at Jericho, his elaborate funeral procession (which many experts believe included Jerusalem), and his burial at the Herodium, all described by Josephus. The exhibition will run through October 2013.

The article relates the current exhibition to the unfolding plans for the Herodium site, specifically the full-scale replica of Herod’s mausoleum proposed to be built at the national park. It seems that both constitute much more than a nod and a memorial to archaeologist Ehud Netzer — his fingerprints are in fact all over the two projects! Here are bits of this background:

“Professor Netzer came to us in 2007, right after the big discovery of Herod’s tomb at the Herodium,” [curator Dudi] Mevorach says, recalling how the project began. “Even then, at that early stage, he said it was important that the museum be involved in the reconstruction and the exhibit. Netzer was involved in the practical preparations for the exhibit. He sketched suggestions, proposed a concept and even wrote the introduction for the catalogue. After he fell near Herod’s tomb − he died of his injuries three days later − the museum staff continued the preparations for the exhibit, which is now dedicated to Netzer − the one who knew Herod best of all.

“We were with him at the site when he fell,” Mevorach recalls. “He prepared sketches and plans, and we took photographs that we still use today. Everything changed after he died, but we kept on without him, in his memory.”

The following two paragraphs seem to have appeared only in the Haaretz print edition, not on-line:

[Archaeologist Roi] Porat explains that the original idea [for the on-site tomb replica] was Netzer’s — that Netzer allowed himself to plan something unusual at the site that would show visitors the monument’s size and power. After hesitating for a moment, Porat adds, “Intuitively, it’s hard for me. As an archaeologist, I know very well that things like this should never be done before we deal properly with the remnants at the site. But maybe after we complete the excavation, it will be legitimate, in order to attract visitors to the site.”

On March 11 [2013], the Israel Nature and Parks Authority will hold a public hearing to discuss the ramifications of the project, which is planned to be 25 meters high, equivalent to eight stories. 

UPDATE / 18 APR 2013

This story appeared in Haaretz on-line today. Seems the full-size plastic replica has been scrapped. I guess some folks deemed it too “Disneyland” after all.

Here’s a screen-shot of the blurb. The wording of the teaser is misleading, particularly the words “rebuild”, “reconstruction” and “fully restored”, which all miss the point: It was to have been a full-scale, walk-through replica or model, rendered in plastic. For the full story, you’re on your own: it’s “premium content” — almost everything is now — and I’m too cheap to subscribe. (NOTE: Anyone can register at Haaretz.com for up to 10 free articles per month.)

Haaretz on-line / 18 APR 2013

Haaretz on-line / 18 APR 2013

RELATED  (29 MAY 2012):  “Disneyland” coming to the City of David…

Why are we not surprised? According to a Haaretz story today, Israel’s National Parks Authority is teaming up with the Ministry of Tourism to bring a $1 million-plus sound and light show to the City of David. One of the highlights apparently will be “Jeremiah’s Cistern” — which its excavator, Ronny Reich, insists dates from the Byzantine period, a thousand years later!. Oh, well… No need to let archaeology get in the way of a good story.

NOTE:  Some of the content on the Haaretz site is now by subscription only. BUT anyone can access up to 10 articles per month for FREE by registering (not subscribing), at http://www.Haaretz.com.

* * *

Archaeologists slam plan to rebuild Herod’s tomb

The plan, promoted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Gush Etzion Regional Council, includes rebuilding the tomb of Herod the Great in West Bank.

By Nir Hasson

A plan to rebuild King Herod’s tomb at Herodion, southeast of Jerusalem, is sparking objections from leading archaeologists. The plan is being promoted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Gush Etzion Regional Council, and focuses on reconstructing the original grand mausoleum out of lightweight plastics and turning it into a visitors center.

This would be an unusual step never undertaken before at any excavation site in Israel, whose managers usually make do with installing miniature models of the historic buildings or partially recreating the sites using original materials found there.

The tomb was uncovered some five years ago by the archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who died as the result of a fall at the site in October 2010. Before his death, Netzer was able to recreate the grand structure, which soared to a height of 25 meters and had a cone-shaped roof. A four-meter tall model of the structure was built at a cost of NIS 50,000 and installed at the site last week.

“It’s crazy. Archaeology is not Disneyland,” said a senior archeologist who chose to remain anonymous. “You don’t take an archaeological site and make a joke out of it.”

Prof. Haim Goldfus, head of the archaeology department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, added: “Herodion is impressive in its own right, and the new structure will just distract attention away from the real thing. A public committee should be formed to decide on such a move.”

Prof. Gideon Foerster, who managed the excavations at Herodion together with Netzer, noted that the drafting of the tomb model based on the findings has yet to be completed. Beyond that, other archeologists doubted the definitive identification of the tomb’s location.

However Shaul Goldstein, recently appointed head of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, is trying to persuade archaeologists that reconstructing the building in its original dimensions will not damage the existing findings. Goldstein started pushing the project while he was still head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. He also served as chairman of the Herodion site steering committee, and managed to secure funding for the project from the Ministry of Tourism and the National Heritage Site program.

Goldstein rejected outright the criticisms voiced by the archaeologists. “Disneyland attracts 50,000 people every day,” he said. “I oppose the distortion of history, but support an approach where it is possible to recreate the site and leave an opening for the imagination. I also propose filling the pool beneath Herodion with water, so that it will be possible to understand Herod’s wealth and the power of the period.”

King Herod ruled the Kingdom of Judah during the first century BCE and died in 4 CE. Among other things, he is credited with refurbishing the Second Temple and the construction of Caesarea and Masada.

Goldstein added that he visited the Shivta National Park near Nitzana and came away with a negative impression of the ruins at this archaeological site. “It takes a lot of imagination to understand what happened at the site. After all, it is possible to show what a two-story building looked like in the ancient world. When you have a pile of stones, the visitor doesn’t understand what is there. Caesarea and Beit She’an are attractive sites because they are well preserved.”

This entry was posted in Archaeology & Politics, Herod the Great, Herodium, Israel-Palestine Scene, Issues in Archaeology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to UPDATED / Herod’s Tomb in Plastic: A Learning Aid, or “Disneyland”?

  1. Patrick Russell says:

    Thanks, Tom, for the update on this new development. The thing that really jumped out in the Haaretz article is that it quotes Shaul Goldstein, the Israel Nature Parks Authority head, as saying that he had a negative impression of Shivta because ” “It takes a lot of imagination to understand what happened at the site. . . . When you have a pile of stones, the visitor doesn’t understand what is there.” This is quite a scary comment given the rather high degree of preservation at Shivta, which is rather impressive and quite understandable. If Shvita does not meet Goldstein’s standards for an “acceptable” archaeological site, then maybe Disneyland is indeed coming to Israel!

    Patrick Russell

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