JERUSALEM -- For more than three decades, Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer scraped at the ancient man-made hillock. He searched the top. He dug at the bottom. Finally Netzer carved into the midsection and there, he claims, found his prize: the grave of Herod the Great.
The evidence, in the form of shards of decorative stonework that may have been a coffin and pieces of a structure thought to have been the mausoleum, is still far from ironclad proof. Archaeologists have not found a body. Nor is there any written confirmation that King Herod, who ruled with Roman backing 2,000 years ago, is buried in that spot.
But Netzer, a 72-year-old archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said this week that he had little doubt that the find is Herod's tomb. Herod built a palace at the site on a West Bank hill south of Jerusalem and is long believed to have prepared his own burial site on the cone-shaped mound. Netzer said the discovery is the high point of decades of digging at the site. Additional digging is planned in order to find artifacts and more clues.
"It's a great satisfaction. I'm not sure I myself have digested it fully," Netzer said during a news conference at Hebrew University that drew scores of Israeli and foreign journalists.
The discovery is important because Herod, elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, "was one of the greatest builders that land has ever seen," said James H. Charlesworth, a professor of religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. "He was one of the most influential people in the Roman Empire - a friend of Anthony, a friend of Cleopatra."
Herod's projects included an expansion of the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., decades after Herod's death.
He was also the ruler who, according to the book of Matthew in the New Testament, ordered the slaying of all the infants in Bethlehem, forcing Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus to flee to Egypt.
"This is really quite a striking discovery," said James Strange, a professor of religion at the University of South Florida. "This is the very first King of Israel whose tomb we have ever found. We have some other candidates, but the tombs are all empty. If they really have kingly artifacts," then it will stand as a major discovery.
Netzer, with close-cropped silver hair and an unassuming manner, appeared taken aback by all the attention. But he was clearly pleased to report a successful end to a long and arduous hunt.
Netzer was introduced to Herod's legacy as a big-scale builder while helping out during the 1960s on a dig at the ancient fortress of Masada. Netzer, then an architect, switched to archaeology and later focused on Herod's reign, which stretched from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Netzer has also excavated Herodian palaces in Jericho, about 17 miles east of Jerusalem.
It is the 300-foot stone mound known as Herodium where Netzer devoted most of his energy since he began digging there in 1972. The flat-topped hill about nine miles from Jerusalem was built by Herod into a fortress palace with rounded lookout towers, baths, irrigated gardens and a commanding view over a parched desert landscape.
Netzer and his colleagues said the majesty with which the site was built strongly suggested the burial place of a king, rather than some other prominent person. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote about Herod's funeral though he lived some years later, is a key source for the belief that the king had prepared his grave site at Herodium and was buried there.
Josephus described the funeral in luxurious terms: "The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the scepter beside his right hand."
Netzer said Herod was moved from Jericho after death and interred at Herodium. The problem was that no one could figure out where.
Earlier digging focused on the hilltop palace site, and a California geophysicist armed with high-tech equipment claimed in the 1980s to have detected a hidden chamber in a tower that he said could be the tomb. But Netzer was convinced the grave was at the bottom of the mound.
He spent years digging in different spots at the bottom in an area, dubbed the "tomb estate," that was found to hold two monument-type buildings and a ritual bath. That, Netzer said, is where Herod probably first planned to be buried but for some reason changed his mind. No tomb was found.
In August 2006, Netzer and his team shifted focus, moving halfway up the hill along its eastern slope. The archaeologists dug along a sloped wall they thought might be part of the tomb. It was not, but the excavation led the researchers last month to the spot that they now claim is the grave site.
There, the archaeologists found pieces of what they believe was the sarcophagus, which they say originally was about 7 1/2 feet long and decorated with a pattern of rosettes and distinctive lines. A piece of a flower-shaped stone carving was on display as Netzer spoke Tuesday. Researchers found other chunks they say probably made up the base of the monument that housed the tomb.
"If we wouldn't have found this base, we wouldn't have gone to the public," Netzer said.
Eric M. Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University, said that, "because of the context, it sounds like a royal tomb."
"I'm one of the most suspicious guys there is, but finding a tomb halfway up the side of Herodium is a pretty good indication that this is it," he said.
The researchers say the monument probably measured about 30 feet by 30 feet and was decorated with stone urns. The team has found "tons" of pieces from the structure, said Yaakov Kalman, an archaeologist on Netzer's team.
But the red-tinted limestone sarcophagus was smashed to pieces, most likely by ancient vandals, the archaeologists said. The researchers believe that some 70 years after Herod's death, Jewish rebels destroyed the tomb in an act of posthumous vengeance against him and the hated Roman rulers he represented.
"He had a lot of enemies," Kalman said.
The archaeologists said it was unlikely the tomb held anyone other than Herod because of its apparent grandeur. Kalman said the workmanship was exquisite; stones fit tightly together without mortar to bind them.
"You cannot say for 100 percent until you find something written: 'Herod,'" Kalman said. "But all the facts are showing that is the one."
Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.