Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who discovered the tomb of the Judean king Herod the Great and explored many other archaeological sites in Israel, including the famous site of Masada, died Oct. 28 after suffering a fall at the tomb site. He was 76.

Netzer was speaking with colleagues at the site Oct. 24 when a wooden handrail gave way and he fell a total of about 20 feet, fracturing his skull and neck vertebrae. He was taken to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, where he died.

"Ehud was the world's greatest authority on Herodian architecture," said archaeologist Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review. He also was "the rare archaeologist in Israel who had no enemies, no detractors. He was very firm in his beliefs, but wasn't obstreperous about them, wasn't confrontational. He was an excellent scholar."

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Netzer's death "a loss for his family, scholars of Israel's history and the science of archaeology."

Originally trained as an architect, Netzer started working with archaeologist Yigael Yadin on the excavation of Masada, a fortress built on a plateau by Herod that served as a refuge for Jewish rebels after the destruction of Herod's temple in AD 70. The Jews ultimately committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, an act that has become a powerful symbol for the beleaguered country.

Netzer spent nearly 35 years working at the site of Herodium, the man-made mountain-palace built by Herod the Great to memorialize himself and as his burial site. Herod, appointed by the Romans to rule Judea, was one of the foremost builders of antiquity, constructing massive projects for both Jews and non-Jews.

He also was one of the more blood-thirsty rulers of the period, killing a young brother-in-law, three sons and, according to the Gospels of the New Testament, all the newborn children of Israel when he was told a Messiah had been born. His son, Herod Antipas, was the king who sentenced Jesus to his fate.

Herodium, also known as Herodion, is located about 9 miles south of Jerusalem. Tall enough to be seen from the city, the site was, in essence, a country club, with a pool, baths, gardens, a large theater and other recreational facilities. The Historian Josephus wrote that Herod was buried there, but archaeologists had been unable to locate the tomb.

In 2007, however, Netzer announced that he had finally unearthed an ornately carved sarcophagus with decorative urns of a type never before seen in Israel. As had been written by Josephus, the sarcophagus had been shattered into hundreds of pieces by Jewish dissidents during the first revolt against the Romans between AD 66 and 72.

In other research, Netzer also excavated the oldest synagogue in the country, near Jericho, and a Hasmonean winter palace with gardens and pools. An excavation at Zippori in northern Israel yielded a well-known mosaic synagogue floor.

Ehud Netzer was born May 13, 1934, in Jerusalem, the son of two educators. He earned his architecture degree at the Technion in Haifa and his doctorate in archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he spent most of his career.

He is survived by his wife, Devora; four children, Chana, Ruth, Yael and Yosef, all of Israel; and 10 grandchildren.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com