Whither Masada Siege Timber?

Masada Roman Ramp
Image via Wikipedia

From a University of Haifa press release:

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.

… on the machinery/weapons side of things, the Romans probably made use of equipment from the siege of Jerusalem, no?

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