It was the most famous archaeological excavation of the century after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. For years in the Sixties archaeologists worked at Masada, the mountain fortress which towers over the southern end of the Dead Sea, seeking evidence of the last battle and mass suicide in AD73 of Jewish rebels against the Roman empire.
The story of the last redoubt, of Jews fighting to the end against the Roman legions, had instant appeal in Israel and abroad. Soldiers of the Israeli armoured corps used to trek to Masada to hold their annual swearing- in ceremony.
But Masada is no longer a symbol of unity. And, within the past week, exactly what happened on the mountain top 2,000 years ago has provoked charge and counter-charge. Were its defenders the heroic hard core of the great Jewish revolt against Rome, or a gang of killers who became victims of a last Roman mopping-up operation? Was Elazar Ben-Yair, the commander, right to persuade his 960 followers to kill each other - if, indeed, the suicide occurred at all? As a result of the controversy, Aryeh Barnea, head of a Jerusalem school, last week called off a trip by pupils to Masada. "I decided to cancel the ceremony in which it is customary to present Elazar Ben Yair as a hero," he said, "since he apparently murdered hundreds of innocent persons before the siege." Dr Ze'ev Moshel, one of the original excavators, was outraged. He said that the collapse of the Masada myth was unjustified and its defenders "believed they embodied Jewish independence". Most Israeli archaeologists now accept that what really happened at Masada was very different from the picture painted by Professor Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist and former chief of staff of the Israeli army, who carried out the highly publicised excavations in 1963-65. At a cost of about pounds 920,000 in current values, mostly provided by British donors including the Observer newspaper, Professor Yadin claimed to have found evidence for the heroic version of what happened at the fortress. The project was always more bizarre than the hundreds of Israeli and foreign volunteers who worked on the site might have realised. The only literary source is Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian who had himself taken part in the revolt before joining the Roman side. His account says that the defenders of Masada took no part in the war against Rome during the siege of Jerusalem, but instead plundered local villages including En Gedi on the Dead Sea, where "women and children, more than 700 in number, were butchered". Professor Nachman Ben-Yehuda, the author of The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel, published in 1995, traced the development of the Masada mythology and the tailoring of archaeological evidence to promote its status as a nationalist icon. He is scathing about Professor Yadin's conclusions, and says these were systematically modified to support the story of Josephus. Yadin was anxious to find bones of the 960 defenders and their families, and in November 1963 the remains of three skeletons were found, identified as a man aged 20-22, a woman of 17-18 and a child of 11-12. …