The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls
By Jodi Magness
Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts dating to about the time of Jesus that were discovered in the late 1940's and early 1950's in caves near the site of Khirbet Qumran (hereafter referred to as Qumran), by the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They include the oldest preserved copies of the Hebrew Bible and related works such as targums, ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic; pesharim, ancient commentaries on or interpretations of the Hebrew Bible; apocrypha, books such as Tobit and Ecclesiasticus which are included in the Catholic Bible/Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Bible/Protestant Old Testament; and pseudepigrapha, Jewish religious books like Enoch and Jubilees, which were written in the last centuries B.C.E. and first century or two C.E. and were not included in either the Hebrew Bible or Catholic Bible. Other scrolls, such as the War Scroll, the Manual of Discipline (Community Rule), and the Damascus Document are literary works describing the beliefs and practices of the Jewish sect to which the scrolls belonged.
Approximately 900 scrolls, mostly fragmentary, were discovered by Bedouins and archaeologists in eleven caves in the vicinity of Qumran. Many were found in 1951-1956, when an expedition led by Roland de Vaux, a Biblical scholar and archaeologist at the Dominican Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem searched the caves for scrolls and excavated the site of Qumran. In 1956 and 1958, de Vaux conducted excavations at Ein Feshkha, a site about two miles south of Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea. At Qumran, de Vaux uncovered the remains of a settlement, the occupation of which he dated from ca. 130 B.C.E. to 68 C.E. He believed that this settlement was inhabited by Jewish sectarians, whom he and other scholars identified as the Essenes mentioned in ancient sources such as Flavius Josephus, Philo Judaeus, and Pliny the Elder.
The descriptions of the beliefs and practices of the Essenes provided by these sources correspond roughly with the information in the sectarian scrolls (though whether Essenes are mentioned in the scrolls is debated). While differing in some details, the ancient sources and scrolls largely agree in describing this group as a radical Jewish sect of the Second Temple period in Palestine (first centuries B.C.E. to first century C.E.), which broke away from mainstream Judaism over differences in the interpretation and practice of Jewish law, including the cult in the Jerusalem Temple. Although some members were apparently married and lived in towns and villages around Palestine, there were also isolated communities consisting mostly of or entirely of adult celibate men. The members of this sect believed that an apocalyptic war, which is described in the War Scroll, was imminent. Their blueprint for the future Jewish Temple and holy city of Jerusalem is provided in the Temple Scroll.
According to de Vaux, members of this sect inhabited the site of Qumran and deposited the scrolls in the nearby caves. This is supported by a number of peculiarities in the archaeological remains. For example, the presence of a large number of miqva'ot (Jewish ritual baths) accords with the information provided by the ancient sources and the scrolls regarding the sect's concern with ritual purification. The absence of private dwellings or houses and the presence of numerous workshops and rooms used for communal purposes, including two large dining rooms, are suggestive of a communal social structure (many of the members apparently lived and slept in huts, tents, and caves outside the settlement). The approximately 1100 individual graves in a cemetery adjacent to the site contrast with the custom of burial in family tombs that was the norm among Judaean Jews in this period. In addition, the fact that most of the 43 graves excavated by de Vaux contained the skeletons of adult men points to a largely male community.
Although he produced a number of preliminary reports and a synthetic overview of the archaeology of Qumran, de Vaux died in 1971, before publishing the final report on his excavations. His material was "inherited" by the archaeologists who succeeded him at the Ecole Biblique and is now in the hands of the current archaeologist, Jean-Baptiste Humbert. Today all of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even those that are still unpublished, are accessible to everyone. This is not the case with the archaeological material from de Vaux's excavations at Qumran. Except for a volume containing photographs from the time of the excavations and de Vaux's unedited field notes (published by Humbert and Alain Chambon in 1994), no additional archaeological material from Qumran has been published since de Vaux's death, and none of the unpublished material is accessible to outside scholars (including me).
In the late 1980's, Humbert invited two Belgian archaeologists, Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute, to work on the final publication of the Qumran material with him. Within a few years, the team split up, and the Donceels returned to Belgium without producing a final report. However, the Donceels published several articles in which they suggested that Qumran was a "villa rustica" instead of a sectarian settlement. This theory received a great deal of publicity when it was broadcast in 1991 as part of a Nova television program.
Up until this point, I had no involvement with Qumran archaeology, and most of my research had focused on the fourth to seventh centuries C.E. in Palestine, especially the local pottery of Jerusalem. However, I had gained an intimate familiarity with the site of Qumran and other sites in the area in 1977-1980, when I worked as a field guide and naturalist at the Ein Gedi Field School on the shore of the Dead Sea. In 1992, I was invited to present a paper (published in 1994) on the pottery of Qumran at a conference organized by the University of Chicago at the New York Academy of Sciences.
In my paper, I argued that the almost complete absence of fine table wares (dining dishes) from the ceramic assemblage at Qumran contradicts the Donceels' interpretation of the site as a villa and supports its identification as a sectarian settlement. Soon after the conference, I began to receive other invitations. As a result, I have published numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals, and eventually I received an invitation from Eerdmans to write a book on the archaeology of Qumran.
In the meantime, a number of scholars aside from the Donceels have proposed alternative interpretations of the site of Qumran. They include Norman Golb, who has suggested that it was a fort; Humbert, who has modified the Donceels' theory and proposes that Qumran was a villa during its initial phase of occupation, before being taken over by the Essenes; Alan D. Crown and Lena Cansdale, who have interpreted Qumran as a commercial entrepot; and Yizhar Hirschfeld, who believes that Qumran was a fortified manor house.
However, the archaeological evidence does not support any of the alternative interpretations. For example, comparisons of the layout, interior decoration, and finds (such as pottery) associated with contemporary Judaean villas indicate that Qumran could not have functioned as a villa or manor house. Advocates of the alternative interpretations must also deny any connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the site of Qumran by arguing that the inhabitants of the settlement were not responsible for depositing the scrolls in the caves. It is true that scrolls were found only in the caves around Qumran and not in de Vaux's excavations at the site (probably because the settlement at Qumran was destroyed by fire, whereas the caves were not).
However, the proximity of the caves to the site (especially Cave 4, which contained approximately 500 scrolls and lies directly below the settlement) and the fact that the same pottery types (including some which are unique to Qumran) are found in both the caves and the settlement establishes an archaeological connection between them. I believe that de Vaux was correct in identifying Qumran as a sectarian settlement: “Khirbet Qumran is not a village or a group of houses; it is the establishment of a community. We must be more precise: this establishment was not designed as a community residence but rather for the carrying on of certain communal activities.”
A number of popular,
semi-popular, and scholarly books of varying quality have been
published on the Dead Sea Scrolls in recent years. Although many
contain a chapter on the archaeology of Qumran, none of the authors
is an archaeologist, and, aside from a 1973 reprint of de Vaux's synthetic volume, no book is devoted entirely
to this subject. My book, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea
Scrolls, is intended to provide a balanced, authoritative, and
up-to-date overview of the archaeology of Qumran.