Herod, Herod in a land so arid,
How did your garden grow?
With cypress, pine, and bonsai olive trees,
That’s how your garden grew!
Herod was a masterful builder who mimicked the Roman style. Therefore, it is no surprise that in and around Herod’s monumental building projects evidence has been found for gardens. In archaeology, gardens are identified by the presence of special soil brought into an area in order to nurture the growth of plants.
Modern archaeological methods have gone beyond the simple existence of gardens to trying to identify which plants grew there. Looking at seeds found within the soil is a first step and is the easiest way to identify plants. Even decades ago, seeds were found on Masada within Herod’s storage facility. As was the case in Masada, seeds could be the remnants of consumption, however, and not necessarily cultivation.
Determining the types of wood in charcoal is another method, but carries with it the caveat that the wood could have come from garden furniture or trellising. Again, charcoal cannot definitively tells us what grew in the garden.
The most clear indicator of something being grown in a particular place is pollen. Believe it or not, this ephemeral wind-blown plant product can survive for thousands of years in soil and trapped in plaster. Enough integrity is maintained to allow for analysis and identification of the parent plant. Through this research, pinpointing the plant species helps to reconstruct a more complete picture of how Herod’s complexes could have appeared, beyond the structures themselves.
In the case of Herodian, when looking at Herod’s artificially shaped mountain which served as his funerary place, gardens help answer one mystery. Why would Herod build his mausoleum on the side of the hill and not at the top? Herodian is in the Judean desert which has almost no significant vegetation. Around Herod’s tomb was found imported soil. Pollen analysis identified cypress, date palm, pine, olive, sage, cabbage family and rose. The sand-colored mountain surrounding the tomb would have framed this square of green and made it more visible from afar. Herod is not only king over men, he also rules over nature itself by creating this island of green in the middle of the desert.
Another example shows how Herod borrows from the Roman palatial style even in his gardens. In one of the gardens in Herod’s complex in Jericho, 77 planting pots were found buried under the floor. The pollen found here was extracted from samples taken 30 years ago by Kathleen Gleason but only analyzed recently. Cypress, date palm, pine, and olive were found as in Herodian. Also identified were Plane tree, (indigenous in the Upper Galilee and in Lebanon) and Cedar of Lebanon (indigenous in Lebanon) showing the lengths to which Herod went to showcase his wealth. Speculation by archaeobotonists is that planting in pots not only minimized the amount of soil needed for the project, but also reduced the size of the trees. Pictures of bonsai trees are depicted in the frescoes from Pompeii and other places around the Roman Empire.
Advanced technologies increasingly contribute to our understanding of the past. Examining minute pollen particles gives us an additional insight into the larger-than-life character of Herod and his overarching ability to shape his world into his own (and Rome’s) likeness.