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The Qumran Settlement—Monastery, Villa or Fortress? Hershel Shanks, BAR 19:03, May-Jun 1993.

qumran-cavesNot long after archaeologists confirmed the location of the cave where Bedouin shepherds had found the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an archaeological expedition was organized to excavate the nearby site known as Khirbet Qumran, the ruins of Qumran.

Directed by a Dominican father, Roland de Vaux, the excavation and survey was sponsored by the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jerusalem (de Vaux’s institution), the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and the Palestine Archaeological Museum. Five seasons of excavation were conducted between 1953 and 1956.

De Vaux never used the word “monastery” with regard to the Qumran settlement, so far as I have been able to find. Yet he used words that led some scholars to ascribe this conclusion to him. Thus, he described the room where he thought scrolls were written (inkwells were found there) as “a scriptorium in the sense in which this term later came to be applied to similar rooms in monasteries of the Middle Ages.”1 He referred to the dining room of the settlement as “the refectory.”

In a 1988 article, Professor Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield in England accused de Vaux of biased interpretations stemming from de Vaux’s own peculiar purview as a “monk,” as Davies called him- “The excavators were Christians,” said Davies, “led by a Dominican monk. Both de Vaux and [Josef] Milik, as well as many other early commentators on Qumran, were Catholic priests. Otherwise, how could the site be described as a monastery? For so it was [described].”2

De Vaux died in 1971 without completing his final report on the excavations at Qumran. In 1988, two Belgian scholars, Robert Donceel and his wife Pauline Donceel-Voûte were engaged by the École Biblique to write the final report of the excavation based on the materials that de Vaux had left. It will apparently be years before they complete their work. However, they gave an interview to the public television program Nova in which they characterized the settlement as a winter villa rather than a monastery-

“We find very different things [from de Vaux] … It was a quite luxurious dwelling. There is everything to go with a winter villa as they still have them today for residents of Jerusalem coming down to Jericho, along the Dead Sea and the Jordan in the cold winter months.”

In 1992, Dr. Donceel-Voûte gave a talk in New York in which she expanded on this theme and showed slides of some of the artifacts that supported the Donceel interpretation. These included delicate glass unguentaria that may once have contained perfumes, elegant stone urns with fluted bodies, impressive column bases and sherds of fine, thin, painted pottery, all of which seemed to her inconsistent with “monastic simplicity.”

A third interpretation of the site has been put forward in recent years by Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. According to him, the site was a military fortress. Golb points to the fortified tower at the site and to the fact that the site was apparently destroyed by the Romans in a battle in 68 A.D.; Roman iron arrowheads were found in the course of the excavations.3

Golb’s contention is easily disposed of on archaeological, geographical and historical grounds.

Archaeologically speaking, the site is not built like a fortress. True, it apparently had a tower, but a tower does not automatically mean a military fortress. Even farmhouses sometimes had towers in ancient times.4 Isolated monasteries were often built like fortresses to protect against desert marauders; towers to forewarn of approaching danger were common. (It is not even certain that it had a tower. The “tower” may have been simply a two-story structure; the stone glacis was built against the base only after the structure was destabilized by an earthquake in 31 B.C.)

More important, the Qumran settlement was not surrounded by a fortress-like wall. The outer walls of the settlement are no thicker or stronger than the interior walls. There is no single fortified gate area; on the contrary, there appear to be easily entered doorways in almost every direction.

As for the Roman arrowheads, this is simply evidence of an attack, not that the settlers were a military contingent prepared to defend themselves.

The argument from geography is even stronger. Military outposts are located at strategically important sites, usually at the confluence of important transportation routes that the military post can effectively control and protect. Qumran, however, is isolated. To the south it was a dead end—which would make it militarily valueless. Less than a mile south of Qumran is a promontory known as Ras Feshka, which, as de Vaux notes in his description of the area, “falls abruptly into the sea” and “constitutes a natural barrier.” Ras Feshka therefore “marked the southernmost boundary of the area occupied by the [Qumran] community.” Instead of being on a main route, this settlement was at a dead end. Passage from here south was extremely difficult, if not impossible. You either had to climb the cliffs or take a boat around Ras Feshka. As de Vaux observed, “Certainly in order to reach Masada [where Jewish rebels held out for three years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.] there are easier routes than that which leads by way of Khirbet Qumran.”5

Finally, history too rejects the notion that this site was a military fortress. It was occupied from about 150 B.C. to 31 B.C., when an earthquake struck. It was reoccupied from about the turn of the era until it was destroyed in 68 A.D. by the Roman armies suppressing the Jewish revolt. In 70 A.D. they besieged Jerusalem, eventually destroying it and burning the Temple. In 73/74 A.D. the Romans defeated the last Jewish holdout on the mountain fortress of Masada. For about 125 years—from 63 B.C., when Pompey conquered the country—Judea had been under Roman rule. It is unthinkable that the Romans would have allowed the Jews to maintain a military fortress at Qumran during this period.

There are other strong arguments why this cannot be a military fortress, but we will discuss these later since they apply as well to the hypothesis that this is a personal estate, a winter villa.

Whether the Donceels will continue to maintain that the site is a villa when they come to write their final report is questionable. We know Hasmonean and Herodian winter palaces in this area, at Jericho and at Masada. They are replete with handsome frescoes and mosaics, none of which were found at Qumran.

That there were luxury goods at Qumran—unguentaria for perfumes, fluted urns, etc.—does not contradict the interpretation of the site as a religious community. The elegant artifacts, the gold and silver, that we find in monasteries and religious establishments today attest that religiosity and luxury goods are not incompatible. Indeed, hundreds of coins were found at Qumran. As de Vaux noted, “Passages [in the scrolls] show that individual poverty was obligatory upon the members, but do not exclude the possibility that the community may have possessed goods. On the contrary they presuppose it.”

The pottery at the site also contradicts the interpretation that Qumran was a wealthy villa- Almost all the abundant pottery found at-the site is poor, cheap, common ware. Especially in the pantry of the room designated the dining hall, de Vaux found thousands of rough bowls like porridge bowls—hardly suitable for villa guests seeking respite from the cold, rainy Jerusalem winter.

Two additional factors virtually exclude the possibility that Qumran was either a military fortress or a winter villa.

The first is the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, found in ten caves (an eleventh had only an ostracon) of which Qumran was virtually the center. In all, over 800 scrolls were recovered from these caves. Over 98 percent of them were religious documents. Put quite simply, what would a military fortress or a personal villa be doing with an enormous religious library like this, especially containing numerous copies of the same religious document?a

The only way that the military fortress or the personal villa hypotheses can be maintained is to disassociate the Qumran library from the Qumran settlement. And this is very difficult to do. Cave 4, the mother lode containing over 500 scrolls, is literally a stone’s throw from the settlement. The most convenient entrance to this cave was (via a rope ladder) from the settlement. Moreover, the pottery in the caves matches the pottery in the settlement. And, although no scrolls were found in the settlement, several inkwells were found there.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the scrolls and the settlement were intimately connected.

The Donceels dissociate the scrolls from the settlement a priori- “We’re trying not to think about the scrolls, to forget about what were found in the caves nearby and just look at the settlement.”

This may be interesting as an intellectual exercise, but ignoring the evidence of the scrolls can be devastating to your conclusion. You may not like the scrolls, but you must nevertheless consider whether they can help you interpret ambiguous evidence from the settlement.

The second factor that excludes both the military fortress and the personal villa hypotheses is the vast cemetery immediately adjacent to the settlement. This cemetery contains over 1,000 graves. Arranged in regular, closely ordered rows, the graves are each marked by an oval-shaped heap of stones on the surface. De Vaux excavated 26 graves from this main cemetery (additional graves are located in supplemental cemeteries). Each body lay on its back, head to the south (with one exception), with hands folded on the pelvis or stretched alongside the body. As de Vaux observed, no personal estate of a few square kilometers would have a cemetery of over 1,000 graves. This is highly unlikely even for a military fortress manned by young men, who customarily retire elsewhere before dying, unless they are killed in battle. The number of graves attached to the settlement is too large even for a single battle; the best estimate is that at most 200 people lived in the settlement at any one time. The graves in the cemetery must have accumulated over the life of the settlement—approximately 200 years.

De Vaux was nothing if not a careful scholar. He did not jump to conclusions, and he frequently changed his mind when the evidence seemed to require it. He was always willing to consider opposing arguments, and he recognized that it was often impossible to arrive at conclusive positions.

De Vaux rejected the contention that the texts were improperly used to interpret the settlement and then the settlement was used to interpret the texts. “This is no vicious circle,” he said, “but rather an argument by convergence, culminating in that kind of certitude with which the historian of ancient times often has to content himself.”

De Vaux never used the word monastery with respect to the Qumran settlement, although he sometimes used the analogy to illuminate certain aspects of life there. Monasteries as such appeared several hundred years after the Qumran settlement. What he described was an isolated religious community. And in this he was almost certainly correct. That is what the settlement at Qumran was.

a. The Biblical manuscripts include 34 copies of the Book of Psalms, 27 copies of Deuteronomy, between 20 and 24 copies of Isaiah and About 20 copies of Genesis. The sectarian manuscripts include 12 copies of the Manual of Discipline, six copies of MMT, and nine copies of the Damascus Document.

1. All quotes from de Vaux in this article are from his Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, rev. ed. (London- Oxford Univ. Press, 1973).

2. Philip R. Davies, “How Not to Do Archaeology- The Story of Qumran,” Biblical Archaeologist (BA) 51 (1988), p. 203.

3. Norman Golb, “The Problem of the Origin and Identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124 (1980), pp. 1–24; and Golb, “Who Hid the Scrolls?” BA 48 (1985), pp. 68–82.

4. Amihai Mazar, “On the Discoveries at Giloh,” Israel Exploration Journal 40 (1990), pp. 77–101.

5. Golb seems unaware of the fact that Qumran is located at a dead end. He nowhere mentions Ras Feshka. Because there was access to Jerusalem from Qumran, Golb concludes that “the site was thus not an isolated locale of desert monks. On the contrary, it emerges as a fortress of strategic importance in the Judean wilderness” (Golb, “Who Hid the Scrolls?” p. 68).

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1 Comment on "The Qumran Settlement—Monastery, Villa or Fortress? Hershel Shanks, BAR 19:03, May-Jun 1993."

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  1. Lettie says:

    Unlpeaalrled accuracy, unequivocal clarity, and undeniable importance!

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