Herod the Great, the king of Judea who ruled not long before the time of Jesus, seems to have eluded historians once again.

Back in 2007 archaeologists announced they had found the great king’s tomb, having identified it with a mausoleum which was part of the “Herodium”, the massive complex he built on a hill outside Jerusalem. Still, the structure is too small and modest for the ostentatious king; its mediocre construction and design are at odds with Herod’s reputation as a master planner and builder, archaeologists now say.

A Genius and a Madman

King Herod, who lived from 74 B.C. to 4 B.C., was a vassal king for the Romans. In the New Testament, he is said to have ordered the slaughter of thousands of innocent babies after prophets predicted one would grow to be a rival. What is known from historical records however, is that he executed many of his family members but doted on his mother and father. He built lavish building complexes, including the famous fortress of Masada, though he funded such huge projects by burdening the people with backbreaking taxes.

Documents from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus suggest Herod was buried at the Herodium, laid out on a gold bed draped with opulent fabrics, and thronged by the entire army and a massive funerary procession. But Herod’s exact burial place remained a mystery for thousands of years.

Then, in 2007, the late archaeologist Ehud Netzer announced he had discovered the king’s final resting place. The tomb was a 32-by-32-foot (10 by 10 meters) building with a pointy roof and three coffins. One of these coffins, an intricately carved red stone, was alleged to be the tomb of the great king.

Unfit for a king

While a large exhibit about the tomb is currently on display this month at the Israel Museum, a number of archaeologists led by Joseph Patrich (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and his colleague Benjamin Arubas, also of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, are claiming the tomb isn’t Herod’s at all. Their findings, which have not been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, were presented Oct. 10 at the “Innovations in Archaeology in Jerusalem and the Surrounding Area” conference in Jerusalem.

According to them, compared with other royal tombs of the day, the rather modest structure is too small for the master builder to have envisioned for himself, and the poor planning and design are also uncharacteristic.

“These are quite moderate dimensions if you are thinking about a king of the stature of Herod the Great,” Patrich said.

Moreover, the tomb has only one pyramid, whereas the tombs of the Hasmoneans — the royal dynasty that preceded Herod — have seven pyramids. In addition, while royal tombs at that time had elaborate courtyards, this complex has no gate or courtyard for visitors to come and pay their respects to the departed.

“There is hardly place for 20 people to stand conveniently, and there is no respectable gateway to lead in,” Patrich told LiveScience.

Furthermore, the building has an awkward layout, with two staircases above the mausoleum barring entrance to the tomb below on one side, and two shabbily constructed walls on the other side. The complex isn’t aligned symmetrically with the axis of the rest of the Herodium complex, Patrich added, a design faux-pas that would have been out of character for Herod. Finally, the coffins in the tomb were made of local limestone and red stone, not the elaborate marble, or even gold, that would have suited Herod’s grand tastes.

Who Is It?

But if the tomb isn’t Herod’s, then whose is it?

To build the Herodium, Herod covered other buildings in the area but left this one intact, suggesting that the person buried there was “very dear to Herod,” Patrich said. So it’s possible that Herod’s close family members — such as his mother, father or brother — may occupy the building.

The great king’s exact whereabouts remains a mystery, but there are many parts of the complex that have yet to be excavated, Patrich said.