In 1924, a British pilot flew over the ancient fortress of Masada and took photographs that have been preserved at University College London. Examining them, the archaeologist Guy Stiebel found something overlooked by previous excavations, and this led to a new discovery. Robin Ngo writes:
Stiebel . . . noticed next to the Byzantine church [atop the fortress] an oblong shape that seemed to be covering a subterranean structure—something that couldn’t be seen at the site at the time. As it turns out, not knowing that anything was there, the Israel Nature and Parks authority had covered this structure around 45 years ago—providing an excellent candidate for excavation. With this undisturbed section of Masada in mind, Guy Stiebel and Boaz Gross launched a new archaeological project under the sponsorship of Tel Aviv University. . . .
The project has uncovered evidence of agricultural activity, aqueducts, and irrigation systems from the time of King Herod, [the Judean king who built a palace on Masada in the fourth decade BCE]. Although Masada is situated in the middle of the Judean desert, such excessive use of water for agriculture was not unheard of in antiquity. Scholars were already familiar with Herod’s lush gardens at Jericho, Caesarea, and Herodium; moreover, the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus describing the soil at Masada offered clues.
“Learning from Josephus’ account that the soil of Masada was allegedly fertile, we wondered if we could identify evidence of such agricultural activity atop the mountain,” write Stiebel and Boaz Gross in [a report on their findings]. “We excavated a series of probes in the semi-hemispheric feature of the northern palace’s upper terrace, which had been suggested to be a viridarium, a plantation of trees constituting what many call a ‘pleasure-garden.’ The semi-hemispheric balcony provided the royal residences of the northern palace with a spectacular view of the Dead Sea, the Moab mountains, and the oasis of En Gedi.”