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Books: Mythmaking at Masada Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Eric M. Meyers

[image]Despite his unease with the identification of bones from Masada as Jewish martyrs, archaeologist Yigael Yadin spoke at their 1969 reburial. (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, State of Israel) [LARGER IMAGE]

Masada has loomed large in the Israeli national consciousness as a symbol of resistance since the 1960s, when celebrated archaeologist Yigael Yadin first excavated the hilltop fortress near the Dead Sea. Yadin's interpetation of the site seemed to confirm the account of the siege as recorded by the first-century A.D. historian Josephus, who says that Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman troops in A.D. 72-73. This interpretation has often been challenged, most recently by sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda, dean of social sciences at Hebrew University, in Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2002; $35). Building on his largely unnoticed 1995 book, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; $24.95), Ben-Yehuda draws on extensive personal interviews and transcripts of Yadin's staff meetings during the excavation to argue that the archaeologist crafted from Masada an ideology of heroic resistance by freedom fighters that he believed was in the best interest of the newly created state of Israel.

Ben-Yehuda is most devastating when he analyzes the way Yadin treated archaeological field data after it was uncovered. While transcripts often reveal Yadin's objective skills in weighing the evidence, they also show how quick he was to advance interpretations with a clear political agenda. This was especially true in respect to discussions surrounding the absence of bones for nearly all the 960 so-called suicides. When other caches of human bones found far away from the purported suicide site were honored as the remains of Jewish martyrs and reburied with a state funeral, Yadin did not intervene, despite his early misgivings that the dead were Roman soldiers. Ben-Yehuda not only provides alternative ways of understanding the archaeological data but places Yadin's systematic and heavy-handed control of the data and its authorized significance within the larger framework of the sociology of knowledge as well as the history of Zionism.

As a former student of Yadin, and one who stood in awe of his towering presence and commanding knowledge, I don't find it easy to deal with so negative an assessment of him as a man of science. On the other hand, in reflecting on Yadin's role in Israeli society as statesman, warrior, and molder of ideas, one can only be impressed at the vision he had of Israel; Masada offered an opportunity for him to bolster a nation's inner strength with a lesson from history that was full of compelling if not gripping images from an archaeological site that is one of the glories of the Roman period in ancient Palestine. As a former volunteer at the excavation site, I recall that the medallion we all received at the end of our work was inscribed with the words "Masada shall not fall again," the essence of Yadin's interpretative narrative.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America