JERUSALEM — For more than three decades, Israeli archeologist 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 says, 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. Archeologists have not found a body. Nor is there any written confirmation yet that King Herod, who ruled with Roman backing 2,000 years ago, is buried in that spot.
But Netzer, a 72-year-old archeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Tuesday 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 was the high point of decades of digging at the site. Additional digging is planned.
"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 in 40 BC, "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 second Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, 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" it will stand as a major discovery, he said.
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.
"Over the years, it became the mission of his life -- to find the tomb," said his daughter, 41-year-old Chana Netzer-Cohen, who recalled accompanying her father to the dig site, known as Herodium, many times as a youngster.
Netzer-Cohen said her father studied the former ruler and his famed building projects in Israel and the West Bank so deeply that he felt he knew the ancient ruler. "He really got into him. He got to know him," she said.
Indeed, during the news conference, Netzer sounded as if he knew Herod when he said the king had "changed his mind" about where to be buried.
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 archeology and later focused on Herod's reign, which stretched from 37 BC to 4 BC. Netzer has also excavated Herodian palaces in Jericho, 17 miles east of Jerusalem.
Netzer says he has devoted most of his energy to a 300-foot stone mound known as Herodium since he began digging there in 1972. The flat-topped hill, about nine miles from Jerusalem, was transformed by Herod, who built a fortress palace with rounded lookout towers, baths, irrigated gardens and a commanding view over a parched desert landscape.
Netzer and 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 1st 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.
Flavius 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.