Following-up Ben-Yehuda's 1995 book on the "Masada myth" in Israeli society,[1] in which he discussed the Masada story's singular role as focal point for developing Israeli national identity, the Hebrew University sociologist now examines the actual excavations at Masada. Ben-Yehuda suggests that the chief archeologist on the dig, Yigal Yadin, distorted archaeological results to support the story line of the "heroic defeat" of Masada's Jewish defenders. Ben-Yehuda accuses him of scholarly misconduct.

Ben-Yehuda presents a minutely detailed examination of how the Masada narrative developed among Israeli archaeologists, with emphasis on the excavations of 1963-65 and their aftermath. He draws many insights from 205 hours of taped conversations among Yadin's staff dating from that period. As the staff debated alternative explanations for uncertain finds, Yadin had a choice of three competing interpretations: the archaeological artifacts in front of him, the ancient historian Josephus, and the "Masada myth." Ben-Yehuda shows how he repeatedly privileged the latter two at the expense of the former.

For example: what to make of pig bones on Masada among human remains that were presumed to be those of Masada's Jewish defenders? Yadin expressed periodic concern that these were not in fact the remains of Masada's Jewish defenders, yet he settled on an interpretation that they were Jewish remains that had been treated with disrespect. Later analyses have suggested that these remains may have belonged to the Roman besiegers: the sacrifice of pigs was a Roman burial custom. But the bones were caught up in a firestorm of public interest and political outcries and given a military funeral in 1969. And then why did Masada yield the remains of only twenty-five humans, as opposed to the 960 mentioned by Josephus?

Archaeology may appear scientific, but the process of analyzing observations which cannot be reproduced makes it something quite different. Archaeologists often prefer to harmonize their artifacts with textual accounts; and behind this, all of them operate from unarticulated preconceptions. As Ben-Yehuda notes, narratives are constructed in social contexts.

All this is true, but accusing Yadin of misconduct at Masada is too strong. A famed archaeologist and war hero, Yadin also had a singular ability to marry archaeological data with written historical sources to create narratives of unparalleled elegance and compelling emotional power. For better or worse, his work was a high-profile example of what all archaeologists do, working uneasily from the known to the unknown. Motivated by emotion, ego, artistry, as well as nationalism, the Masada conclusions conformed initially to mythology. But archaeology is typically self-correcting. Ben-Yehuda makes it clear that interpretations of Masada have changed dramatically to conform to more careful analyses of data. Early interpretations may have been skewed, but it was not fraud; and the archaeologists' own carefully collected data led eventually to a reassessment.

If Ben-Yehuda is too severe in his standards, he does offer an important contribution to Israeli history. His detailed investigative approach, a vital contribution to developing the proper relationship between archaeology and society, should be emulated.

[1] Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).