Qumran - the site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls - is located eight and a half miles south of Jericho, by the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The site was excavated from 1951-1956 by Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jerusalem. More recently, other expeditions have explored different parts of the site, including the settlement and cemetery (Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg), residential caves to the north (Magen Broshi and Hanan Eshel), and the cemetery (Broshi, Eshel, and Richard Freund). From ca. 100 B.C.E. to 68 C.E. Qumran was occupied by members of a Jewish sect. There are also remains of a late Iron Age (pre-586 B.C.E.) settlement and evidence of a brief phase of Roman occupation after 68 C.E.
The sectarian settlement at Qumran probably consisted of about 150-200 members, although the number likely fluctuated seasonally and over time. Most of the members of the community apparently lived outside the settlement, in tents, huts, and some of the caves. The rooms inside the settlement seem to have been used mostly for communal purposes: dining and assembly rooms, a room for the preparation of scrolls (the “scriptorium”), kitchens, workshops, and industrial installations. A cemetery with about 1,100 trench graves dominated by adult male burials is located to the east of the site.
One ongoing debate about Qumran concerns the nature of the settlement and the identity of the community that lived there. De Vaux identified the inhabitants as Essenes, a Jewish sect described by ancient authors such as Flavius Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder. Members of this sect refused to participate in the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem temple, which they considered polluted by the impure practices of the priesthood. They therefore withdrew, constituting their own community as the biblical desert camp. Full members observed priestly purity laws because they believed that God’s presence dwelled in their midst. Scholars have noted that the sectarian scrolls
from Qumran display many similarities with descriptions of the Essenes provided by ancient authors, such as the holding of communal meals, frequent ritual purification by immersion in water, and even peculiar toilet habits. Some of these features are reflected in the archaeological remains at Qumran. For example, the large number and large sizes of the miqva’ot(ritual baths) attest to a concern for ritual purity. Communal meals apparently were held in two dining rooms at Qumran. Bones belonging to sheep, cows, and goats that had been butchered, cooked, and eaten were deposited under potsherds or inside pots in the open-air spaces outside the dining rooms. These bones may represent the remains of animals consumed at the communal meals and perhaps reflect a sectarian belief that these meals were a substitute for participation in the temple sacrifices.
Both dining rooms had adjacent pantries stocked with hundreds of dishes consisting mostly of plates, cups, and bowls. The large number of dishes should be understood in light of the sectarian belief that ritual impurity could be transmitted through food and drink. For this reason, members were served individual portions instead of dining from common dishes. The sectarian concern with the transmission of impurity also explains the presence of a potters’ workshop at Qumran, which enabled the community to ensure the purity of the pottery by manufacturing it themselves. The pottery types manufactured at Qumran include the cylindrical jars (or “scroll jars”) that reportedly contained some of the scrolls found in Cave 1 and which were found in large numbers in other caves around Qumran as well as inside the settlement. These distinctive jars may have been used as storage containers for the pure food and drink of the sect.
In recent years, some scholars have identified Qumran not as a sectarian settlement but as a villa, manor house, fort, commercial entrêpot, or pottery manufacturing center. All of these highly publicized theories assume that there is no connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran settlement – an assumption contradicted by the location of some of the scroll caves in the plateau on which the settlement sits, and by the discovery of the same types of pottery (including types peculiar to Qumran) in the settlement and the scroll caves. Another theory which identifies Qumran as a Hasmonean fort before ca. 100 B.C.E. (de Vaux’s Period Ia) is contradicted by an absence of evidence of occupation during this phase, and by a lack of similarities between the Qumran settlement and Hasmonean forts.
Scholarly disagreements about the identity of the Qumran community stem from difficulties understanding and reconciling our three main sources of information: 1) sectarian scrolls (works composed by members of this sect); 2) archaeological remains at Qumran; and 3) descriptions of the Essenes provided by ancient authors. These sources provide different – albeit complementary or overlapping – types of information, and each has limitations. For example, whereas the sectarian scrolls served the internal needs of the movement (containing legislation and regulations governing the everyday life of members), Josephus wrote for an external audience that included non-Jews, and his presentation was affected by his biases and agenda. In addition, many scholars question the relationship between the sectarian scrolls (such as the Damascus Document) and the Qumran community. Furthermore, these sources are not all contemporary; whereas Josephus’ description of the Essenes was written after 70 C.E. and focuses on the sect during his lifetime, the relevant sectarian scrolls probably date to the first century B.C.E. and were redacted over time. The archaeological evidence is no less problematic. The failure to publish fully the finds from Roland de Vaux’s excavations means that there are gaps in our knowledge of the Qumran settlement. Furthermore, archaeological remains present their own interpretive challenges. For example, even if we assume that the animal bone deposits represent the remains of ritual meals, archaeology cannot indicate how frequently these meals were held – one a week, once a month, or once a year?
Despite these challenges, De Vaux’s interpretation of Qumran as a sectarian settlement still makes the most sense and has the broadest support, and many scholars identify this community as Essenes. Although members of the Essene movement lived around the country, Qumran is the only sectarian settlement identified so far in the archaeological record.
Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002).
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