The three facets that constitute our knowledge of Qumran—manuscripts, historical sources, and the archaeology of the site—are based on the so-called Qumran-Essene hypothesis, which, for a long time, appeared to provide the most adequate explanation for the material and social context of the corpus of literature found at the site. A complete understanding of Qumran as an archaeological phenomenon requires scholars to confront all three of these complex, overlapping elements. One of the most intensively discussed features, for example, is the fact that the manuscripts from the caves and the Qumran site are both associated with a type of cylindrical jar which has no known equal in the ancient world. Historians find a reasonable Jewish socioreligious resonance in the Dead Sea Scrolls; however, the morphology and archaeology of the site are atypical enough to suggest that they were associated with a nonconformist Jewish sect.

The Manuscripts.

The name Qumran came to public attention in 1947 in Jerusalem, with the appearance on the antiquities market of the first manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ten years later, the manuscripts were calculated to originate from 800 to 900 scrolls, dated from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. The first manuscripts were found in a cave by Taʿmireh Bedouins, who traveled between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea and used the many caves along the northwestern cliffs of the Judean desert as shelter for their animals. The famous anecdote of the Bedouin boy looking for his goat and finding the manuscripts in jars has become a classic.

The Caves.

Not until 1949 did the Taʿmireh reveal the place of the manuscripts’ origin: the 1Q cave (each manuscript cave is called “Q” plus an individual number), a cramped crevice in the cliff that dominates the northeast coast of the Dead Sea. In 1952 a systematic exploration of the cliff, in collaboration with the American Schools of Oriental Research, identified 18 caves of modest dimensions. Five of these caves yielded manuscripts: caves 2Q, 3Q, 4Q, 5Q, and 6Q. In 1955 archaeological excavations of the terrace of Qumran discovered caves 7Q, 8Q, 9Q, and 10Q. Cave 11Q was saved from pillage by the Bedouins in 1956. The human-made cavities cut into the marl terrace (caves 4Q, 5Q, 7Q, 8Q, 9Q, and 10Q) are believed to be affiliated with the Qumran site because of their proximity and because the time and effort necessary for their digging required a permanent workforce.

It was thus concluded that the inhabitants of Qumran had taken the time to create the caves as a place of shelter for the manuscripts. The size and dispersion of the caves were immediately interpreted as intentional safeguards for an ancient library. The idea that all of the manuscripts belonged to a purposeful collection of manuscripts which was set up and exclusively used by the sectarian inhabitants of the Qumran site prevailed for some time but eventually was disputed.

The Jars.

The jars known as cylindrical jars or “scroll jars” have been authenticated at Qumran alone (especially in 1Q and 4Q), and every effort to find comparable jars at other sites has been in vain. The jars were accompanied by woven linen cloths, which were assumed to be sewn as protective covers for the scrolls. The typical jar is cylindrical; its form, without handles, reminds one of a large pottery pipe with a large opening on top. A few larger jars possess two or four small, ear-shaped handles, pierced to allow laces to pass through, a feature that is rarely paralleled elsewhere. The two types were closed by pottery lids, whose form is derived from the common bowl, streamlined. Petrographic analyses have proved that only a fraction of the jars and lids were made on site. It must be accepted that, at least as containers, most of them came from elsewhere.

In addition to the caves, around 10 cylindrical jars have been collected in the excavation of the site of Qumran since the first campaign of 1951. These attest to an irrefutable link between the inhabitants of Qumran and the safeguarding operation of the manuscripts in the caves.

An Archaeological Park.

The caves surround a ruin, Khirbet Qumran, to the west and south; following the discovery of the caves, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities quickly approved excavations at Qumran. Six archaeological campaigns were mounted between 1951 and 1958 by R. de Vaux (École Biblique et Archéologique Française, Jerusalem) and G. L. Harding (Department of Antiquities of Jordan). The settlement was excavated in 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956. Forty-one tombs from cemeteries to the east, north, and south were opened in 1951, 1953, and 1956. In 1952 exploration of the surrounding areas as well as the dam in the gorge, which supplied the area with water, followed. The coastal plain was examined in 1956. The small farmstead of Khirbet Ain Feshkha, 1.6 miles (2.5 km) south of Qumran, was excavated in 1958. The Israeli army conducted further research in the area (especially the caves) in the first decade of the twenty-first century; their work added several useful new details without substantially changing the picture. All the results so obtained supply an abundant and complex source of archaeological information.


Overview of the “scriptorium.” Baker Photo Archive

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The settlement of Qumran was atypical. Nevertheless, there is a recognizable primitive square core, 121.4 to 164 ft (37­–50 m) on each side, including a fortified tower in the northwest corner. On the west flank, a courtyard separates a rectangular building (B), which shelters a large, round cistern (l.110), the only original water source. The whole site is enclosed by a wall. De Vaux discovered that the main building rests on top of leveled traces of an Iron Age–II fort, proven by several potsherds of the seventh to sixth centuries B.C.E. Around this central ensemble, which presents a nice internal coherence, other buildings are attached. To the north is a low-walled enclosure, augmented farther to the west by a ritual bath (L.138). To the west and south grand walled rooms with mortar floors were built carefully, the longest measuring 72.2 ft (22 m) (L.77). The occupied space thus extends to the terrace to the south separated from the south escarpment by a long wall. An aqueduct distributed water to basins and cisterns throughout the occupied space; the number of these cisterns (about 10) seemed exceptional (but not all were in use at the same time).

Occupation lasted a long time, from about the very late second or early first century B.C.E. to 68 C.E., when the Romans conquered and destroyed the site. During this period the construction underwent repeated restorations and modifications; at the end of the site’s occupation it included workshops for artisans. On the basis of the proximity of the first scrolls, which had been identified as belonging to the Essene group by Eliezer Sukenik shortly before, and the peculiarities of Qumran’s archaeology, de Vaux interpreted the site as the settlement of a religious community, specifically Essene.

The Traditional View: The “Essene Community of Qumran.”

Before showing how the interpretation of the archaeology of Qumran has changed, it is necessary to explain the theory elaborated by de Vaux, based on the discoveries of the excavations and relying on a close reading of ancient authors. The Jewish Essene sect is well documented in the historical sources: Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder, Flavius Josephus, Dio Chrysostomos, and the Damascus Document (Damascus Rule) are the most useful for this purpose. These texts describe a strict Jewish community that separated from Jerusalem during the Maccabbean crisis (second century B.C.E.). Upon the appearance of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Sukenik (Hebrew University) attributed them to the Essenes. The archaeologists, following Sukenik, immediately adopted the Qumran-Essene hypothesis. The content of the manuscripts, the religious anthropology supplied by the historical sources, and the understanding (suggested by Pliny the Elder) that the Essenes had settled north of Engedi reinforced the assumption that Qumran had been settled by the Essenes. Convinced by this hypothesis, de Vaux conducted his excavation and formed his interpretations based on the idea that Qumran was the site of a religious community governed by the Community Rule (1QS) and the Manual of Discipline (1QSa), manuscripts of which were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and are thought to reflect Essene theology in a very direct way. Nevertheless, he prudently called the site a “settlement.” The inadequate term “monastery” is frequently used for the site.

Often enough, the interpretation of the archaeological remains employs terminology usually connected to medieval monasteries, reinforcing the impression of a religious, quasi-monastic character of the site and its inhabitants: council room (L.4), scriptorium (L.30), refectory (L.77 and 86), community ritual baths (L.56, 138, 117, 118, 48, 71), etc. Finally, a cemetery of ca. 1,100 remaining tombs belonged to the community. The function of the workshops west of the main complex was determined by activities attributed to the Essenes: tanning of hides (Ain Feshkha), copying of manuscripts (L.33), producing pottery in a pure context, and a workshop with kilns for manuscript jars. The interpretation has the advantage of appearing coherent and rational; it seemed to provide the necessary context for the manuscripts. The strengths of this hypothesis explain the resistance to all opposition which arose.

The close link between the archaeological evidence, the population of the site, and the proximity and sectarian content of the manuscripts led to the implication that the Essene community (identified with the yahad [community], as mentioned, e.g., in 1QS) was limited to Qumran itself, which the sources do not suggest. The corpus of manuscripts is considered to be the library of the settlement and Qumran, the ideological and intellectual center of the sect. The site is thus historically overvalued.

Stratigraphy and the Chronological Chart.

The weaknesses of de Vaux’s stratigraphy and problems with the chronology of the site encouraged radical questioning. The geographic and historic indications gleaned from the Rule, the Manual, and the Damascus Document are few and often unclear. De Vaux nevertheless drew his opinion about the chronology and the function of the site from the ancient historians. The stratigraphy he proposed, though imprecise, was adapted to correspond to the historical sources. From the beginning, the site was perceived as an architectural whole built in one piece. The excavation, therefore, proceeded room by room but revealed irregularities in stratifications from one room to the other. De Vaux saw evidence, roughly, of three successive occupations; but the stratigraphy did not allow him to synthesize the excavation’s chronology according to stratigraphic levels. He fell back on a designation informed more by the current interpretation of historical sources than by actual stratigraphic evidence and divided his chronology into periods Ia and b, II, and III.

The excavation ascertained that the settlement had been founded by the Essenes after their separation from Jerusalem between 152 and 135 B.C.E., after which Jonathan was the high priest. According to de Vaux, there are even more correspondences between the archaeological and textual records: the exile of the Essenes, recorded in the Damascus Document, corresponds to the destruction of the area caused by the earthquake of 31 B.C.E. and described by Flavius Josephus. The sheltering of the manuscripts corresponds to the Roman threat around the middle of the first century C.E. Qumran was evidently destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. For de Vaux, the archaeological remains followed this same pattern. The beginnings of Qumran in period Ia were slow. Period Ib saw the expansion of the sect and ended with traces of the earthquake of 31 B.C.E., which, for de Vaux, were obvious: traces of fire and the spectacular fracture of a cistern (L.48). The Essene exile signals the beginning of period II, with the consolidation of walls to contain the fortified tower (L.8–10), the pillars to support the roof, and the complete clearing of the site. The level of the site’s general structure corresponds with the end of the First Revolt and of period II. Finally, a modest reoccupation, period II, does not extend past the middle of the second century C.E., in line with the chronology of the Second Revolt.

The numismatics of Qumran more or less corroborate his chronology. Half of the collection of coins found at the site were made under Alexander Jannaeus (r. 103–76 B.C.E.) and reflect the beginnings of the occupation. The rarity of Herodian coins corresponds to the Essene exile of period II, and those dated to the time of the First Jewish Revolt signal the destruction of the site.

Problems in Interpreting Qumran Pottery and Furniture.

Justice is restored to de Vaux as archaeologist when one recalls that in 1951 he was a pioneer in this domain in Palestine and the first to tackle late Hellenistic and Roman deposits in the area around the Dead Sea. Moreover, he lacked comparative material, for the Herodian sites that would have provided necessary context to his work at Qumran had not been excavated yet: Jericho, Hyrcania, Callirhoë, Herodium, Engedi, Masada, Machaerus, and Jerusalem.

De Vaux’s presentation of the pottery clearly illustrates the Essene perspective at the beginnings of research: in 1949 de Vaux did not hesitate to assign the cylindrical jars of cave 1Q to the second century B.C.E. He was not able to distinguish the evolution of the pottery of period Ia–b, from the middle of the second century until the earthquake of 31 B.C.E.

The furniture of Qumran is sometimes attributed to periods Ib to II in order to mark a transition. The furniture of period II was more correctly assigned to the first half of the first century C.E. The cylindrical jars found in the ruins are linked to the manuscripts and, thus, to the supposed Qumran library. The thousand vases piled up in L.86 were believed to have been used for community meals taken in the refectory (L.77). A practice on the site of burying pots and scrap jars containing the remains of meat-based meals (L.131, 132, and above all 130) remain inexplicable: de Vaux initially thought that they were the remains of sacrifices, but he gave up this theory since the manuscripts stipulated that the Essenes did not practice sacrifice.

Reexamination of the Materials at Qumran.

The manuscripts are published, but the archaeological evidence remains incomplete. The subject is nevertheless far from being ignored since numerous articles and commentaries on the archaeology have appeared, beginning with the theories fleshed out by de Vaux himself.

Weaknesses of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis.

The Essene theory that de Vaux promoted suffers from unproven assumptions, which offer numerous opportunities for legitimate criticism. In the texts, as in the excavations, proof that the site indeed was “Essene” is lacking; this idea depends only on Pliny’s claim of the geography of the Essene settlement. In the manuscripts, however, the term “Essene” never occurs. One can hold that Qumran (both the texts and the site itself) presents some obvious evidence of sectarian settlement, but Jewish sects other than the Essenes might also be responsible.

The beginning of the traditional chronology is too stretched and uncertain. The stratigraphy shows weakness, and the proposed architectural evolution of the settlement is oversimplified. The interpretation of the site as a religious community settlement appears arbitrary and simplistic.

The principles of serious research allow one to take up the investigation from its beginning. The link between the settlement and the caves (and thus the manuscripts they contained) has been subject to criticism; such criticism leads inevitably to the possibility that the site did not have a religious function. The secularization of Qumran created some surprising propositions of the site’s function: a villa rustica (farming house) with perfume production, a zealots’ fort, a school for scribes, a seat of the regional governor, a harbor inn on the Dead Sea, a pottery factory, etc. The authors of these theories, however, failed to take into account all the components of the available evidence. The intersections and divergences of manuscripts, historical sources, and site archaeology can be interpreted in widely different ways. The archaeological restudy of the site must be restarted with an objective critique of the Essene hypothesis.

Morphology of the site.

The settlement of Qumran does not align with any of the clear architectural categories of the region. It is not identifiable as a village settlement or a public, administrative, religious, or military site. Its general configuration is atypical, isolating the settlement and the south terrace by the long eastern wall on one side and the western ravine on the other. The installation with two lone narrow northern gates (L.19 and 136) confirms a social withdrawal toward the end of the occupation but before 68 C.E.

The installation was not designed for one continuous occupation. The plan reveals two phases of noticeable occupation, interlinked with each other: a large square edifice constitutes the primary nucleus around which constructions were added by stages. The evolution of the site occurred by successive additions, rather than by the accumulation of layers. One may attribute the two phases of occupation to two unrelated societies.

Late Hellenistic inhabitation.

Fragments of an elaborate architecture were reused in the masonry of later phases: six column bases, a recut Doric capital, a fragment of molding, and several fragments of jambs and keystones of doors that could complete the double doors in situ of L.13. The concentration of these reuses in the south part of the square core suggests that they originated there, taken either from a portico or from the bay of a triclinium (dining room) with a couch along three walls. There are around 10 floor tiles of polished black or white stone that indicate the existence of an opus sectile pavement (colored cut stones set in a geometric pattern). The core square, 123 ft (37.5 m) long, must have been an aristocratic residence. The regular distribution of its space follows the Greco–Roman model, with an interior courtyard around which the rooms are distributed. The rectangular constructions around the round cisterns (L.110), separated by a courtyard, served as annexes. The main entrance to the area is located just west of the large tower and faces north toward Jericho. There are two other doors, one of which falls along the median axis of the building. In the corner of the courtyard, L.35 (de Vaux’s dyeing workshop) is a bathroom with a bathtub, a copy of the Ptolemaic domestic baths like in Tabiet al-Rableh (Egypt) or the Palestinian domestic baths of Hellenistic Gezer. A stairway leads to a level by which one accesses the second story of the tower. The dimensions and distribution of the building’s layout exactly follow the Citadel Palace of Dura-Europos from the end of the second century B.C.E.

The original site must have been a Hasmonean residence. The numismatic evidence dates the site to no earlier than the early first century B.C.E. The house owned and exploited the oasis and gardens that, in antiquity, extended from Qumran to Ain Feshkha. The site may also have been the winter vacation spot of the fortress of Hyrcania, which was exposed to harsh weather and only one hour’s walk away. The same relationship (fortress–vacation area) is seen between Machaerus and the oasis of Callirhoë (Ez-Zara), where residences contemporary to those at Qumran were excavated. The small Hellenistic house with a central courtyard at Ain Feshkha might have been a pavilion in the Ain Feshkha oasis south of Qumran. The Qumran residence shows traces of a destruction or dismantlement occurring around the middle of the first century B.C.E., perhaps attributable to the Roman expedition of Gabinius (54 B.C.E.) or to a Parthian raid (40 B.C.E.). The destruction of nearby Hyrcania, attributed to a little after 40 B.C.E., suggests that Qumran was also affected.

The reoccupation after abandonment.

When the ruins were rebuilt, the site underwent a radical transformation. The modifications attest that the new settlement fulfilled a specific function. The residence was not restored as it originally existed but compartmentalized, and the courtyard entirely disappeared. Two wings were added to the core that was the previous residence, with good masonry and floors and walls made with quality mortar. The main buildings to the north (L.111, 120, and 121) and to the south (L.77 and 86) with vast dimensions were not houses. In the space that formed the courtyard of the ancient residence, L.30 presents the same picture. These new constructions signal the activities of a group that had come to rebuild the ruin and, with time, to adapt and develop the space gradually according to their needs, producing the complexity found in the excavations.

The north enclosure (L.135) must have been settled quickly since it preceded the construction of the water-supply system, which would have fed into cistern L.91 had construction begun with it. In a second stage the increased need for water necessitated the creation of cisterns L.56–58 and L.48–49 and then, in a third stage, the largest of the cisterns, L.71. The eastern annexes, which had a triangular layout, and the ritual bath L.138 were among the latest developments. The slow, recurring partition of spaces could have been caused by an abrupt or gradual change in the function of the settlement. The large rooms were divided (L.86, 120, 121) and later abandoned (L.86, 120). The large number of workshops documents the final building activity of the site in the last decades before its destruction in 68; these were possibly intended to ensure a strict control of the purity of the products made there. The second group’s occupation would have lasted about a century, long enough for a society to evolve normally, even more so in a period so rich with surprises.


Jar for the storage of scrolls. Kim Walton, courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago

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Continued Essene occupation and chronological rectification.

The occupation continued, without interruption, because the earthquake that damaged the site did not take place in 31 B.C.E. Three major parallel fissures, attributable to an earthquake, affected the site. Each one offers proof that the earthquake occurred only after the definitive abandonment of the site. The cracked basin L.48–49 was not restored and its site never redivided (de Vaux layout, periods II and III). De Vaux noted that the water supply had been broken and never repaired, which would have made it impossible to supply the cisterns after the supposed earthquake in 31 B.C.E.; de Vaux does not take this discrepancy into account. On the west side of the square nucleus, the second fissure is discernible across the walls and partitions all along in between L.91 and 140; de Vaux saw here an abandoned foundation trench. Finally, the excavations by the Israeli army revealed a long fracture on the eastern side of the site, filled by erosion with layers from the deserted site. The earthquake thus did not affect the inhabited site. The date 31 B.C.E., which formed the linchpin of de Vaux’s chronology, thus ceases to be a point of reference, and a chronological rectification is necessary.

A destruction of the original residence toward the middle of the first century B.C.E., followed by a possible abandonment, suggests that the new group’s settlement of the site occurred in the beginning of the Herodian period. Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.) reconquered the basin of the Dead Sea shortly before 30 B.C.E. The religious character of Qumran is noticeable, and its occupation by the Essenes is again the most probable. Flavius Josephus insisted upon the benevolence of Herod toward the Essenes (Ant. 15.371–379), which supports the possibility of their settlement in the reconquered, vacant site. An Essene Qumran would therefore have begun a little before 30 B.C.E.

Clarification regarding the dispersion of the yahad.

Despite Josephus’s extensive description of the Essene sect, the proximity of the manuscripts and their early attribution entirely to the archaeological site strongly encouraged a confused assimilation of Qumran and the Essene community (yahad). But the attribution of the manuscripts to Qumran itself is in question, and the site does not show a community morphology. Some proponents of the community theory postulate at least 200 residents. The distribution of the site could hardly have accommodated more than about 30 people as no more than 10 percent of the space was devoted to housing. The density of the internal buildings would not have facilitated the presence and mobility of large groups, and no single room could comfortably contain more than 30 people. The large cisterns were not community baths but large water reserves, normal in an area with little rainfall. De Vaux theorized that the followers could have dwelled in nearby caves or under tents, the type of lodging mentioned in the Damascus Document. But habitable caves are scarce and cramped; they do not show any modifications for use as residences, and excavations have not revealed any traces of more permanent occupation. Instead, the small amount of Qumranian pottery recovered suggests only use as sporadic shelter. An occupation lasting a century, like at the settlement itself, would certainly have left traces on the ground, which are nowhere to be seen; and tents in the summer would have been unbearable to occupy in that area. And what nonnomadic society would have lived for 100 years under tents without constructing any shelters in an area where stone abounds?

Ownership of the caves.

Not all manuscripts from the corpus are Qumranian, and archaeological traces suggest separate stages of deposition. Exploration showed that 11 cavities concealed cylindrical jars (“manuscript jars”) that were intact or broken but empty. The caves had thus been visited sometime in the years since antiquity. According to two classical accounts (Origen in the third century C.E. and Timothy in the seventh century C.E.), manuscripts in Hebrew or Greek had been found in the cliffs on the Jericho side. In addition, it is very likely that some of those who had hidden the manuscripts would have quickly returned to retrieve them, once the Jewish Revolt was over. Others never returned. The protection of the manuscripts was the work of groups that were familiar with, but distinct from, each other. Caves 1Q, 2Q, 3Q, 6Q, and 11Q are natural and suggest a second wave of a hurried emergency rescue, undertaken by groups from Judea or elsewhere. Caves 7Q to 10Q are accessible only through the site itself and were under control by its inhabitants. Their contents would be the legacy of the settlement.

The identity of the cemetery.

The planned configuration of the cemetery is notable; the vast majority of the ca. 1,100 graves are arranged in regular rows. Two aisles demarcate three distinct sections, an organization that reveals careful management. Extensions on the east hills contain the most recent sepulchers. The presence of women in the cemetery incited polemic because this fact ruins the identification of Qumran with the celibate Essenes of Pliny and its religious character in a single blow. If Qumran was not a community settlement, the cemetery did not belong only to its inhabitants; and the certainty that the Essenes lived along other shores of the Dead Sea furnishes the explanation. The tombs belong to followers, men and women in remote communities, who had to be buried in the Holy Land, which in this area is limited by the Dead Sea. The presence of certain coffins shows that the bodies were brought from afar, and several graves attest to secondary burial. One gravestone in Hebrew from the beginning of the era, from Zoara south of the Dead Sea, recounts that a Yemeni Jew came to bury the bones of his father “in Israel.” At Beth Sheʿarim in Galilee, the custom can be seen in a necropolis of Jews from Syria and Anatolia. And more simply, the burials were placed here because Qumran would have acquired the status of a holy place.

Attempted religious reinterpretation.

As a close reading of Dio Chrysostomos and Pliny shows, the Essene community (yahad) need not be limited to Qumran. There consequently remains an option to interpret the site in the light of aspects of its Essene, religious identity.

A convincing explanation has not been found for the burial of numerous stores of animal bones, often in broken pots or jars. Their stratigraphic position shows that the burial began in the second half of the first century B.C.E., continued into the first century C.E., and then stopped. These finds are distributed around the square nucleus of the residence and in several cases date from before the addition of new building parts. A concentration of the stores in L.130, in a basin filled with ash, and in the floors of L.130, 131, and 132 attests to their repeated use in this particular area of the residence. The remains of a Passover meal can be seen, the burial of the jars thus taking on a sacred character.

The presence of Passover festivities at Qumran can be attributed to pious Jews of the region taking care to celebrate the holiday in the Holy Land. Qumran is located on the shore closest to Jerusalem and would thus have been the most convenient place for such celebrations. This practice could have begun when the ruin was abandoned, before Qumran’s second occupation. The custom would have become a pilgrimage, welcomed by the permanent occupants of the site, the Essenes. There have been objections that the majority of the bones found were sheep and that they were mixed with bovine bones. But the custom of roasting and the requirement to have lamb was not uniformly practiced: Deuteronomy 16:1–8 stipulates that for the feast meat of large or small livestock should be only “cooked.” The northern enclosure was the principal site of the sacred evening meal.

Adjoining L.130, the northern enclosure (L.135) does not appear to be either a sheep pen or a kitchen garden. The low wall lining it is meant to delineate the space. The south wall of L.135 is not parallel to the north wall; this is not an error on the part of the masons but a correction toward the desired direction. The median axis of the enclosure is oriented to Jerusalem and should have been a pilgrims’ prayer area. The enclosure was later built, indicating a progressive decline of religious practices at Qumran from the beginning of the first century C.E.

De Vaux incorrectly interpreted two rooms as community refectories. They are outfitted with “pillars” that have absolutely no architectural function. They did not support the roof, as the size to cover was the same as elsewhere at the site. There was no floor above for them to support. Their position as props in each room is irrational. The pillars should rather be seen as part of an installation, with no known parallel, perhaps a system of cubic display shelves. The pile of 1,000 vases stacked in the corner of L.89 can provide clues to their meaning. In ancient Judaism, offering the first fruits as part of the Pentecostal feast is an annual observance. The dishes are small and would hardly function for meals. The bowls and saucers served to offer the first fruits and grains and the first wool, while the goblets offered the liquids. They were arranged on display tables. The devices are identical in the two rooms, where the displays are run across the room from the entrance, and the background in both cases is reserved by a barrier. Room L.77 is oriented toward the rising sun, and L.86 faces south. It must be remembered that the Essenes adopted the solar calendar, and a solar calendar was recovered in the ruin (L.44). When L.86 fell out of use, it was sealed and the dishes abandoned as in a favissa (storage for sacred objects no longer in use). Here again is evidence that the religious customs were interrupted.

The long walls at Ain Ghuweir, near the south of Qumran, and at Ez-Zara are also constructions that lack a convincing explanation. At Ain Ghuweir a low wall, 1,968.5 ft (600 m), separates the village from the sea. At Ez-Zara a wall of 1.2 miles (2 km) also encircles it against the shore. Between Qumran and Ain Feshkha, a long wall of 1.6 miles (2.5 km), parallel to the sea, links the foot of the terrace of Qumran to the pavilion at Ain Feshkha and surrounds the oasis. The eastern “long wall” of the terrace reconnects the settlement with the oasis. These long walls, a little higher than 3.3 ft (1 m), are not defensive and provide no privacy for the gardens. They are likely the limits of a fictive city, an eruv, with virtual ramparts, within which free movement was permitted on the Sabbath. In case the cisterns of Qumran were empty, the spring of Ain Feshkha was still accessible and would have provided the required ritual bath.

Qumran Resituated in Its Historic and Geographic Context.

Qumran is often still considered a priori as a desert retreat cut off from the world in the way of the Byzantine monasteries of the Judea desert. Nevertheless, the site is the first in the link between Hasmonean and Herodian Jericho and a stop on the ancient route linking the fortress of Machaerus to Hyrcania and then farther to Jerusalem. Ez-Zara/Callirhoë at the foot of Machaerus possessed Herodian levels like Qumran, and the two sites were linked. The headlands falling into the sea make travel by land difficult. In addition, navigation on the Dead Sea was developed in antiquity to join the populated areas. Remains of boats with their equipment have been found outside of low water, and the port of Callirhoë sustained royal architecture.

Qumran was not at the end of the world but was a place of passage, little frequented but well laid out, then a place of pilgrimage and a holy place because of its proximity to Jerusalem for a sect that separated from the Temple and its hierarchy. It is postulated that Essenism underwent an internal evolution and that Qumran, in observing its successive restorations, shows the relevant traces. The cessation of religious practices, the rarity of the buried bone deposits, the disuse of the northern enclosure, L.86 walled off with its dishes, and the sundial abandoned in a nook are all indications. A complete reexamination of the site is desirable and would provide more evidence. The final phase that preceded 68 C.E. would have seen the development of craft industry. The pavilion of Ain Feshkha with its springs would have been converted into an indigo factory as the vegetable dye was demanded by the rules of purity.

Finally, the presence of the Roman army is confirmed during period III, which followed the destruction of 68 C.E. Weapons made in Italy and a Roman surgical implement were discerned among the metal materials.


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Jean-Baptiste Humbert