Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The wood from the siege of Masada

THE WOOD FROM THE MASADA SIEGE is the subject of a University of Haifa press release posted at IMRA:
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
University of Haifa Media release: Where did the Roman Legion find wood for their siege on Masada?

Division of Marketing and Media
August 2, 2011
Media release

Where did the timber for the Roman rampart at Masada come from?

Earlier studies claimed that the Judean Desert was much more humid 2,000 years ago, but a new study has revealed: The Romans reaching Masada faced arid desert conditions that could not supply timber for their siege, and the isotopic composition of the wood probably reflects a distant wood source.

The Roman Legion that lay siege on Masada some 2,000 years ago was forced to use timber from other areas in the land of Israel for its weapons and encampments, and was not able to use local wood as earlier studies have proposed. This has been revealed in a new study conducted at the University of Haifa, refuting earlier suggestions that described the Judean Desert area as more humid in the times of the Second Temple.

Despite all the historic and archaeological evidence that has been revealed about the Roman siege on Masada, scholars are at difference over the large quantities of timber and firewood that were required for the Jewish fortress defenders on the mountain and for the Roman besiegers. A previous study by researchers from the Weizmann Institute of wooden remains found on the siege rampart showed that they originated from a more humid habitat, and assuming that the timber was local, claimed that this was proof of the Judean region being more humid some 2,000 years ago. The University of Haifa researchers maintain that the wood originated in a more humid region: not from the local habitat but brought from a more humid region to the foot of Masada by the well-organized Roman military supply unit.

The new study, conducted by Prof. Simcha Lev-Yadun of the University of Haifa's Department of Biology and Environment at the University of Haifa-Oranim, Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, and D. S. Lucas, a student from Ohio University, included botanic, archaeological and cultural examination and modeling to verify by means of comparison to parallel traditional societies, the uses of timber and firewood from the beginning of settlement at Masada, some 220 years before the siege, and until its fall.

First, the researchers examined the amount of wood that exists today in the Judean Desert and in the wadi deltas in the vicinity of Masada, and thereby were able to estimate the amount and types of wood that the desert could supply. Next, they calculated the amount of timber and firewood that would have been needed for the inhabitants of Masada, from 150 BCE, when it was a small fortress, through the Herodian period, when the fortress as we know it was constructed, and up to the siege, which ended in 73 CE. According to the researchers, in those times, timber was mostly used for construction, heating and cooking. Based on accepted evaluations of wood consumption for these purposes in traditional societies, on the conservatively estimated number of Masada inhabitants in each time period, the harsh climatic conditions in the desert and Masada's topography, the researchers were able to conclude that by the time the Romans arrived at Masada and began their siege (73 CE), the entire area was void of timber and firewood, due to 2,220 years of massive exploitation of the immediate environment up to that point. The Romans would have had no choice but to import wood from other areas for their weapon machinery, ramparts and basic living requirements.

The researchers were able to construct a model of the Roman Legion's timber utilization in various siege scenarios, and concluded that even if the Masada area had more than its normal availability of wood, it still would not have been sufficient for the Romans' needs, so that in any event, they would have been forced to ensure a continuous supply of wood. As such, the researchers explained, the earlier claim that the region of Masada was more humid some 2,000 years ago, was in all probability not well established.

For more information:

Rachel Feldman
Division of Marketing and Media
University of Haifa
Joseph Lauer points to the technical article that is the basis for the above. This article is behind a subscription wall:
Modeling the demands for wood by the inhabitants of Masada and for the Roman siege

S. Lev-Yaduna, D.S. Lucasb, and M. Weinstein-Evronc

a Department of Science Education – Biology, Faculty of Science and Science Education, University of Haifa, Oranim, Tivon 36006, Israel

b Department of Geography, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA

c Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, Israel
Received 25 April 2008;
revised 19 January 2010;
accepted 29 January 2010.
Available online 24 February 2010.


Modeling the demands for wood, especially firewood, for the inhabitants of the unique desert fortress of Masada during the major period of its occupation (beginning about 150 B.C.E. and ending with its fall after the Roman siege in 73 C.E.) is based on the well-documented history of the site, of the number of inhabitants in each phase of occupation, and the current demand for firewood in traditional societies. The previously analyzed ancient botanical remains from Masada provide base-line data of the types of wood used. We have concluded that when the Roman siege began in C.E. 73, the vicinity of Masada would have been denuded of trees and shrubs as a result of ca. 225 years of occupation. Therefore, the Tamarix wood used to construct the upper parts of the Roman siege rampart was probably not local. The isotopic composition of the Tamarix beams probably indicates that they were imported from a different region, such as the more humid and cooler river banks east of the Dead Sea, rather than the result of climate change as previously proposed.

Keywords: Dead Sea; Desert; Environmental impact; Firewood
Article Outline


The geographical setting

Current woody vegetation in the region of Masada

The model
4.1. Chronology and estimated population size of Masada
4.2. The wood remains from Masada and the Roman siege rampart
4.3. The use of firewood in light of the botanical remains from Masada

5.1. Demands for wood and its possible origin in each phase of occupation
5.2. The possible origin of the wood of the Roman siege rampart