According to a patriotic legend still current in Israel, in 73 C.E., 960 Jewish rebels committed mass suicide at the desert fortress of Masada rather than surrender to the overwhelming force of their Roman oppressors. This version of what happened at Masada is based on perhaps the most famous Israeli archaeological dig in recent history-the 1963-1965 excavation of Masada led by Prof. Yigael Yadin, whose work at this site elevated him to the status of a national hero. Is this story a true picture of the real events at the ancient wilderness stronghold? According to sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Masada provides a casebook study of how the search for scientific truth can be influenced by the pressures of a cultural agenda.
In this fascinating analysis of history in the making, Ben-Yehuda closely examines the day-by-day transcripts of the archaeologists' conversations at Masada to determine the way in which they evaluated the findings. He skillfully demonstrates that the interpretation of the artifacts uncovered during the dig was significantly affected by the process of nation-building and the forging of a national identity, which was then underway in Israel. Nation-building required a heroic past, and the pressure of this requirement subtly led to concealing facts and even falsifying the historical evidence.
Why did the archaeologists involved, all scientifically trained scholars, ignore scientific evidence in favor of a version of history that now appears to be largely a myth? The answer to this question is the focus of this study, which looks not only at Masada but at the whole issue of deception in science and the social construction of knowledge. Beyond this, Ben-Yehuda considers the larger question of how society creates the symbolic moral boundaries between truth and deception, as well as the subtle interplay of science, politics, and ideology.
This absorbing and thoroughly researched work makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the construction of cultural meaning.
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About the Author
Nachman Ben-Yehuda (Jerusalem, Israel), is professor and dean of the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew University and the author of The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel.