Monday, July 30, 2012

The Qumran Excavations 1993-2004. Preliminary report. Summary

Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg
Jerusalem 2007

Much has been written about Qumran, and endless theories have been proposed, some of which have attained the status of fact upon which archaeological research has built over the past fifty years. Here, we wish to clearly distinguish between various hypotheses concerning the site and the archaeological evidence that we have exposed in our excavations.

The first settlement at Qumran was established in the Iron Age. When the site was again inhabited in the Hasmonean period it was built in exactly the same place. This fact itself, together with an analysis of the topography and of the water regime of the area, provide clear evidence that this was the optimal—and perhaps the only—location on the upper plateau of the marl terraces next to the fault scarp in which a settlement would not be swept away by floods and would be able to collect flowing water and potters' clay. The claim that the location was chosen because of its isolation, for the purpose of establishing a first Jewish monastery or a community center for the Judean Desert sect, is groundless.

Two important secondary roads from Jerusalem met at Qumran, one descended along the riverbed of Nahal Og and continued south along the fault scarp, and the other descended from the Hyrcania Valley. Qumran was thus not isolated at all, although it certainly was not located on a major crossroad.

The reestablishment of Qumran early in the Hasmonean period (the early first century BCE), at the beginning of Alexander Janneus' reign, is a solid archaeological fact supported by both pottery and coins. The building's plan, construction method, numerous pools and the huge effort expended on all, indicate that Qumran was an official state building project, with surprising similarities to two other sites on the Dead Sea shore: the docks of Rujm el-Bahr and Kh. Mezin. Qumran was part of the Hasmonean military presence along the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. The volume and quality of construction is not consistent with a private building project of the Judean Desert sect, nor with a rural villa or agricultural settlement. Qumran was a forward command post for the Dead Sea fortifications and docks, with the task of supervising coastal traffic and of maintaining communication with the main headquarters at Hyrcania.

The archaeological evidence refutes both theories that have been proposed concerning the initial purpose of the main building: a monastery or community center established as early as the Hasmonean period, or a rural villa or agricultural settlement. Except for date palms near the Dead Sea shore, no crops can be grown in Qumran; a rural villa or agricultural settlement would have been built near the sweet water springs and reeds next to the shore, as in Ein Feshkha, and not on the marl terrace. There was no connection between Qumran and Ein Feshkha, and neither was inhabited by members of the Judean Desert sect.

The plan, the architecture and the building technique of the main building at Qumran are distinctly Hellenistic. After the Roman conquest, the site was no longer used for military purposes and the building deteriorated. There is no evidence that any significant changes were made in the building in the days of Herod or later. The only tangible improvement made after the Roman conquest was the expansion of the water supply system, which brought about a dramatic change in the methods used for collecting water and a great increase in the capacity of the pools. But the new pools were built at the expense of the site's residential area, so that it is highly unlikely that the increase in the water supply was accompanied by an increase in population. During the first century CE, the site suffered from considerable neglect and was turned into a pottery production center, again contrary to the hypothesis that it was then inhabited by a growing number of sect members (eventually to reach 250 residents).

Another theory, that gained general acceptance among scholars and contributed in establishing the belief that Qumran was a religious site—a community center or monastery,—was that the stepped pools were ritual baths. According to this position, these pools were required by the hundreds of sect members, for whom ritual bathing was an important element of their faith. Upon reexamination, the hypothesis that every one of the pools was a ritual bath has been shown to be an unfortunate error, bereft of any scientific or halakhic validity. According to Jewish law, most of the pools were unfit for use as ritual baths because the water in them would have been considered "drawn water." The entire site contained perhaps two ritual baths, and even this is not certain. The purpose of the pools was to collect rainwater and potters' clay for the pottery industry.

Still another hypothesis that has been shown to be groundless is that animals were sacrificed at Qumran. In fact, all the animal bones that have been analyzed were cooked and not burned as offerings. The theory that sect members ate communal meals and that this was connected to the burial of animal bones inside the site also lacks any factual basis. Animal bones were buried in order to prevent attracting hungry animals, especially predators, from the surrounding desert.

For some reason, again without scientific basis, the cemetery and its field graves were taken by scholars to represent a unique burial method used only by the Judean Desert sect. Indeed, this burial method was typical of the Second Temple period in general, and at Qumran, was the only practicable one. The area chosen for a cemetery, east of the site, was protected from flooding and optimally suitable for its purpose. The cemetery may already have been in use in the Iron Age, and at the beginning of the Hasmonean period it was probably used for orderly mass burials, perhaps following a battle that had taken place in the vicinity.

One more baseless hypothesis concerns the number of sect members who lived at the site. This number ran, depending on the calculations of each scholar, from 200 to 250. In fact, at Qumran there is room for 20 to 30 people, at most. Certainly no evidence has been found, like ovens and cooking utensils, to indicate that 250 people had been fed twice a day for 170 years. Nor is there any evidence that members of the sect lived in caves on the fault scarp (together with the predators whose lairs the caves were) or in tents near the scarp (which would have been washed away in floods). Why should they have gone to such lengths when the plateau on which the site is located could easily accommodate 250 people?

Of all the theories concerning the site, one is supported by incontrovertible evidence: the flourishing, decades-long pottery industry. Some scholars—but not de Vaux—have explained the evidence by postulating a pottery workshop, perhaps a kind of occupational therapy to mitigate the boredom of life in the first Jewish monastery. Others have claimed that members of the sect produced their own pottery because of their strict observance of the laws of ritual cleanliness. Needless to say, both claims are entirely groundless.

Qumran possessed a large, highly developed and sophisticated pottery production center. Already in the Hasmonean period, the site's inhabitants had discovered the potential value of the potters' clay that entered the site with the channeled flow of rainwater. De Vaux believes that pottery production at Qumran began in Stratum la. The great number of intact vessels and their distribution, the extensive use of intact vessels for the disposal of animal bones, and the tremendous amount of production waste on the site all indicate the existence of a pottery production center, whose raw material came in with the rainwater. The three tons of clay found in the pools we excavated, in particular Pool L-71, provide positive evidence for this. We estimate the total amount of clay in the Qumran pools to have been in the region of six to seven tons, sufficient for producing tens of thousands of clay vessels, with enough raw material left over that it could be exported to other areas. It is quite possible that, in addition to this extensive industry, the inhabitants of the site also utilized the dates growing on the Dead Sea shore to produce date honey, or packed dried dates in clay vessels of the kind that has been mistakenly called "scroll jars." In any case, the main activity at the site was the production of pottery, a fact that we find is hardly consistent with the identification of Qumran as a communal center for the Judean Desert sect.

We are fully aware that it may not be easy for readers to accept our conclusions. Certainly it has not been easy for us to express them aloud, let alone put them in writing. But after ten years of excavations, these conclusions are inescapable. From the outset, we have chosen not to become involved with the issue of the scrolls and the Essenes, but only to analyze the archaeological finds from the perspective of the field archaeologist. However, since reaching the conclusion that Qumran was a pottery production center and not a communal center or monastery—as most scholars believe—we feel that it is only fair to ask ourselves how the scrolls came to be in the caves, and whether there was any connection between the scrolls and the site.

Such a connection was assumed before excavations began. Furthermore, the site was in fact excavated for the express purpose of discovering an explanation for the scrolls, which had begun to be found in the caves north of Qumran. But no association between the site and the scrolls was ever proven, even in the wake of de Vaux's lengthy excavations. Surprisingly, however, belief in such a link became so firmly entrenched that it became a supposedly proven fact. The association between Qumran, the caves and the scrolls is thus a hypothesis lacking any factual archaeological basis, although it is very convenient for all parties concerned, historians as well as archaeologists. Whoever severs the link between the site, the Essene community there, and the scrolls found in the caves, of necessity also undermines all previous ideas about the nature and the provenance of the scrolls. Qumran scholarship is not yet ready for such a revolution, even after 50 years. The theory linking site and scrolls has survived for so long only because it is so convenient.

We now turn to a completely different issue, one that has unfortunately been disregarded almost entirely by Second Temple-period scholarship: the flight of people from Judea and the Land of Benjamin during the Great Revolt in an attempt to escape the Roman army. Despite our knowledge of the siege of Masada and of the areas where the Bar Kokhba Revolt broke out, thus far no one has asked how Jews came to be in places where no Jews had resided before.

In any war, individuals or groups may decide to escape with their lives, the lives of their families and their property. Taking with them their most prized portable possessions—money, documents, books, and so on—they flee to a remote place where they hope the enemy will not reach them. The prophet Jeremiah, writing after the destruction of the First Temple, reported that Jews fled to Moab, Ammon, Edom, and also to what would in the Hellenistic period be known as Idumea (namely the Hebron Hills and the northern part of the Negev desert; Jer. 40:11—12).

Following the campaigns of Cestius Gallus and Vespasian, Jewish villages and towns were abandoned. Amass exodus took place, some escaping to Jerusalem, others to southern Judea—Idumea, the Judean Desert, the Shephelah and the southern shores of the Dead Sea. The latter were all uninhabited or only sparsely settled and featured a great number of accessible caves where thousands of refugees could have found shelter. These remaining survivors of the Great Revolt later became the nucleus around which the Bar Kokhba Revolt developed, and the survivors of that second revolt then founded the settlements and synagogues in the southern Hebron Hills, at En Gedi and in the Shephelah. Had scrolls survived in these areas, their quantity would surely have exceeded tenfold the number of scrolls found in the Qumran caves and at Masada.

As already mentioned, Qumran was located at the terminus of two roads. One road descended to Qumran from the fault scarp north of Nahal Qumran along an accessible route that had probably been constructed in the First Temple period and then renovated during the Hasmonean period. It connected with many roads and paths from Jerusalem and from the numerous Jewish settlements that surrounded it on the north, east and south. From the Kidron Valley one would walk toward the Hyrcania Valley and from there descend to Qumran. The second road was the "Salt and Sugar" road, descending to Qumran from the north along the bottom of the fault scarp. The many caves along the way enabled the fleeing populace to hide during the day and continue walking at night. In order to continue southward from Qumran, one had to descend to the Dead Sea shore, continue south for a while on foot and then board a boat to En Gedi, Masada, the eastern coast of the Dead Sea, or to the southern Hebron Hills. It was therefore no coincidence that the scrolls were hidden in the Qumran caves, since these were located on the route of the fleeing refugees. Qumran was the last spot where they could hide their scrolls before descending to the shore. Confusion reigns when refugees flee in time of war, and certainly there may have been refugees who took their scrolls with them to En Gedi, and from there to Masada, but most would have hidden them in the Qumran caves before descending to the Dead Sea shore.

In fact, evidence for such refugees has been found in the caves of Qumran and at En Gedi, but was misinterpreted by the excavators. Broshi and Eshel excavated a number of natural caves formed by floodwater in the riverbeds around Qumran, which they thought, mistakenly, had sheltered members of the Essene sect for whom there was no room at the site. Most of the finds discovered in the caves belonged to refugees who stayed at Qumran before continuing on their way. No one could have resided in these caves nor in those in the fault scarp for an extended period of time. Those who stayed there did so because they had no choice; they would hide from the Romans during the day and continue on their way after nightfall.

Another find, from En Gedi, was discovered by Hirschfeld and, in our opinion, also misinterpreted. During excavations, some temporary dwellings were found and dated from the second half of the first century until the early second century CE. Hirschfeld argues that a group of Essenes lived in them. We, however, believe that they were built by refugees who had fled from the Romans. Many more finds, which are to be ascribed to these refugees, have been found in the many surveys earned out along the riverbeds of the Judean Desert.

We have no way of knowing how long refugees continued to pass through Qumran. Nor do we know whether the site was already abandoned at the time or whether it was burned later. At any rate, the refugees found here a site full of clay vessels, including cylindrical jars of the type that were mistakenly called "scroll jars," which we believe were originally used for storing fresh and dried dates as well as date honey. We believe that refugees took some of these jars and hid scrolls inside them. The complete lack of order in the way the scrolls were hidden in the various caves, some located more than a kilometer from the site, indicates that concealing the scrolls was not an orderly project undertaken by members of the sect, but rather a random, hasty act, probably performed at night. Only someone desperate, a refugee on the run, would hide scrolls in the lairs of predators. If the scrolls had been hidden by the 200 to 250 sect members at Qumran, they would surely have gone about it in a more orderly fashion, and would probably have found a better hiding place inside the site.

In short, the scrolls found in the caves of Qumran were not placed there by an organized community of several hundred men, but rather by refugees, probably at night, without any planning, except for the intention to one day return and retrieve the scrolls.

Among the scrolls found at Qumran and Masada were both sectarian and non-sectarian texts. Clearly these texts did not originate in the official libraries in Jerusalem and in the Temple, which were under priestly control. Rather, they originated in sectarian libraries, as well as in libraries in Jewish towns outside Jerusalem.

Further evidence for the claim that the Qumran scrolls originated in various locales lies in the high number of biblical scrolls found among those in the area of Qumran, approximately half. Additional support lies in the large number of copies of these biblical texts: about 20 copies of Genesis, 16 copies of Exodus, 27 copies of Deuteronomy, 36 copies of Psalms, 21 copies of Isaiah, etc. Why would Qumran's sectarian library require so many copies of biblical texts—or were the scrolls, as said, brought in from other areas?

Moreover, C-14 testing dates the scrolls from the third century BCE to ca. 70 CE. The Qumran scrolls are textually multifaceted: they differ in writing, spelling, language and content. Some are similar to the Samaritan version of the Torah, others to the Septuagint translation, and still others—especially the later texts—to the Massorah version.

The biblical scrolls from Qumran are non-sectarian; they reflect the state and tradition of the biblical text in all of the Land of Israel. Can we state the same of sectarian scrolls found at Qumran? These were sectarian texts, but not all were necessarily composed by the Essenes—and certainly not by Essenes inhabiting Qumran, but, as noted by Josephus, in every city and village in Judea (War II, 124). We will go one step further and ask whether the Qumran sectarian texts may in fact represent not only the Essenes, but all sects and streams of opinion present in Judaism at the end of the Second Temple period.

It is our contention that every community decided what to do with its sacred books. Josephus states that the Essenes were represented in every city and town. In this context we should mention another significant fact emerging from recent excavations that scholars have generally ignored: every village and town that survived until the end of the Second Temple period contained a synagogue. These synagogues served mainly for the reading of the Torah and for studying the commandments. It is possible that some of the non-sectarian texts originated in the many synagogues that existed in the vicinity of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple and were then smuggled out as described above, ending up in the Qumran caves.

The scholarly literature on Qumran contains few scientific facts supported by the archaeological finds—but a great many conjectures. Archaeological evidence can usually be interpreted in more than one way; here we have attempted to interpret them in a way that we believe to be more consistent with what we know of life in the Second Temple period. In the process we have brought the site down from the unwarranted heights to which it had been raised by various scholars to serve their scientific interests, and placed it firmly on the somewhat mundane ground of the Second Temple period and the destruction of Jerusalem.

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