King Herod may have been buried in a crypt with lavish Roman-style wall paintings of a kind previously unseen in the Middle East, Israeli archaeologists said Wednesday.
The scientists found such paintings and signs of a regal two-story mausoleum, bolstering their conviction that the ancient Jewish monarch was buried there.
Ehud Netzer, head of Jerusalem's Hebrew University excavation team, which uncovered the site of the king's winter palace in the Judean desert in 2007, said the latest finds show work and riches fit for a king.
“What we found here, spread all around, are architectural fragments that enable us to restore a monument of 25 meters high, 75 feet high, very elegant, which fits Herod's taste and status,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at the hillside dig in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, south of Jerusalem.
No human remains or inscriptions have been found to prove conclusively that the tomb was Herod's, but excavation continues.
Herod is known for extensive building throughout the Holy Land.
Netzer said that since finding fragments of one ornately carved sarcophagus in 2007, he and his team have found two more, suggesting the monumental tomb may have been a royal family vault.
Herod was the Jewish proxy ruler of the Holy Land under imperial Roman occupation from 37 B.C. and reigned for more than six decades. He is known to have had a taste for extravagance.
Netzer described the winter palace, built on a largely man-made hill 2,230 feet high, as a kind of “country club,” with a pool, baths, gardens fed by pools and aqueducts and a 650-seat theater.
In Herod's private box at the auditorium, diggers discovered delicate frescoes depicting windows opening onto painted landscapes, one of which shows what appears to be a southern Italian farm, said Roi Porat, one of Netzer's assistants on the digs. Just visible in the paintings, dating between 15 and 10 B.C., are a dog, bushes and what looks like a country villa.
Site surveyor Rachel Chachy-Laureys said the paintings were executed using techniques unknown in the Holy Land at the time and must have been done by artisans imported from Rome.
Gidon Foerster, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University not connected with this dig, agreed that the art is “unique” for the region. “King Herod is said to have been buried there and this proves it as much as it can possibly be proved,” he said.
The Herod of Christian tradition was a bloodthirsty megalomaniac, who flew into a frenzy when he met the three wise men on the way to Bethlehem carrying gifts for the baby Jesus and telling of the birth of a new king of Israel.
Herod purportedly ordered the slaying of all children in his realm younger than 2, but historians are not convinced of the story's accuracy.