An Israeli anthropologist is using modern forensics and an obscure Biblical passage to challenge the accepted wisdom about mysterious 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 published Friday takes another look at the remains of three people found in a bathhouse at the site - two male skeletons and a full head of women's 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 73 A.D., a story that became an important part of Israel's national mythology.
Along with other bodies found at Masada, the three were recognized as Jewish heroes by Israel's government in 1969 and given a state burial, complete with Israeli soldiers carrying flag-draped coffins.
But Israel might have mistakenly bestowed that posthumous honor on three Romans, according to a paper in the June issue of the journal Near Eastern Archaeology by anthropologist Joe Zias and forensics expert Azriel Gorski.
The remains of the three became a key part of the site's story when Masada was excavated in the 1960s. Yigael Yadin, the renowned Israeli archeologist in charge of the dig, thought they illustrated the historical account of Zealot men killing their wives and children and then themselves before the Roman legionnaires breached Masada's defenses.
Upon finding the remains, the crew "relived the final and most tragic moments of the drama at Masada," Yadin wrote in his book documenting the dig, mentioning that the woman's "dark hair, beautifully plaited, looked as if it had just been freshly coiffeured."
"There could be no doubt," Yadin wrote, "that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada."
The new paper focuses on the hair, noting the odd absence of a skeleton to go with it. The researchers' new forensic analysis showed an even stranger fact - the hair had been cut off the woman's head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive.
The new findings could not be reconciled with the original identification of the remains.
Zias' attempt to explain the discrepancy led him to the Old Testament's Book of Deuteronomy, where a passage requires that foreign women captured in battle by Jews cut off all their hair, apparently an attempt to make them less attractive to their captors.
Zias concluded that the hair belonged not to a Jewish woman but to a foreign woman who fell captive in the hands of Jewish fighters.
In his scenario, the woman was attached to the Roman garrison stationed at Masada in 66 A.D., when the Zealots took over the fortress and killed the Roman soldiers. Jewish fighters in Masada's northern palace threw two Roman bodies into the bathhouse, which Zias thinks the Zealots used as a garbage dump because of other debris found inside. They took the woman captive and treated her according to Jewish law, cutting off her hair, which they threw in along with the bodies.
The new paper is only the latest in a string of attacks on the original Masada dig, which some scholars now think was colored less by scientific rigor than by a desire to enshrine the desert fortress as a national myth of heroism and sacrifice.
Once a pillar of Israeli identity - army units used to be sworn in on the mountaintop, shouting the sentence "Masada will not fall again" - the Masada story has fallen out of favor 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 Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius, has come increasingly into doubt, and many scholars now believe that it was either greatly exaggerated or never happened at all.
The original archeologists at the site, 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.
But others have pointed out that many details of Josephus' story are matched precisely by archeological evidence, and have charged that for archeologists today debunking the Masada myth has become as popular as creating it was 40 years ago.
Ehud Netzer, a veteran Hebrew University archeologist who participated in the Masada dig in the 1960s and later oversaw restoration work there, questioned the new findings.
Zias is "building a story on assumptions built on assumptions," he said.
"I think that with the existing information, you can't make such theories, and I think that those people should be allowed to rest in peace," Netzer said.