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What Was Qumran? Not a Country Villa, Jodi Magness, BAR 22:06, Nov-Dec 1996.


Everyone wants to know who lived at Qumran, the settlement adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. And sometimes it seems that everyone has a different opinion. With hopes of helping to solve the riddle, I’d like to address the other side of this question- Who didn’t live there? Our best evidence is the architecture of the place and the finds excavated there.

Roland de Vaux, who excavated the Judean Desert site in the 1950s, concluded that Qumran had been home to an isolated religious community, whom he identified as Essenes.1 However, Belgian archaeologists Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voûte, who were asked to prepare some of the material from de Vaux’s excavation for final publication, have presented an entirely different interpretation of the site. Citing the “unexpected variety and richness of the objects” uncovered by de Vaux, the Donceels contend that the settlement at Qumran functioned as a villa rustica, that is, a Roman-type villa complete with the dwellings, workshops, stables and other buildings associated with a productive rural estate.2 As a villa rustica, Qumran would have provided some wealthy family with a warm refuge from Jerusalem’s bitter winter chill.

Recently, Jean-Baptiste Humbert, the École Biblique archaeologist who has fallen heir to the material from de Vaux’s excavation, has combined both theories, suggesting that the site functioned as a villa rustica during its first occupational phase but that the Essenes later took over Qumran and used it as a religious or cultic center until the Romans destroyed the site in the first century C.E.3
I believe the best way to determine whether Qumran served as a villa rustica is to compare its archaeological remains with those of contemporaneous villas and palatial sites in the area. Even though this experiment indicates that the villa rustica theory must be rejected, readers can at least learn a great deal about ancient palatial residences, a fascinating subject in itself.

We may divide these palaces and villas into three groups- (1) the palace-fortresses of Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.E.), who sometimes built on the palaces of the Hasmonean rulers (141–37 B.C.E.) who preceded him; (2) the private, upper-class urban Jewish mansions of the Herodian period recently excavated in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter; and (3) a real villa rustica, a private rural villa of the Herodian period recently uncovered near Hebron. All three types of palaces and villas share critical features not found at Qumran.

Let us begin with the palatial architecture built by Herod the Great and his Hasmonean predecessors from the mid-second to the late first century B.C.E. To secure the eastern border of his territory, Herod built a line of palace-fortresses at strategic sites—from Alexandrion/Sartaba in the north, overlooking the Jordan Valley, to Masada in the south, overlooking the Dead Sea. In between were Herodium, in the Judean Desert near Bethlehem; Herodian Jericho, known in Arabic as Tulul Abu al-‘Alayiq; Cypros, a fortress overlooking Herod’s palace at Jericho; Doq Dagon, on top of the traditional Mount of Temptation, near Jericho; Hyrcania, southwest of Qumran; and Machairos, in the mountains east of the Dead Sea.

Some of these sites have been more thoroughly excavated than others—especially Herodian Jericho, Herodium and Masada—but significant remains of palatial architecture have been found at all of them.

Beneath King Herod’s fortress-palace at Jericho, archaeologists have uncovered extensive Hasmonean palaces.4 The earlier royal buildings included swimming pools, gardens, an elaborate water supply system, bathhouses and mikva’ot (ritual baths). Remains of frescoes and floor mosaics were found in several parts of the palace complex, including a mosaic in one of the bathhouses.a

Several rooms opened onto the palace’s central courtyards, including a large hall, with rows of columns on three sides, that probably served as a triclinium—a reception or banquet hall. In the so-called twin palaces at Jericho (which excavator Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University believes were built by the Hasmonean queen Alexandra to provide separate but equal residences for her quarreling sons Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II),5 two columns, in a style known as distyle in antis, stood in the opening between the triclinia and the central courtyard.

Netzer has characterized Hasmonean royal architecture as “irrigated royal estates, palaces with multiple swimming-pools, bathing facilities and gardens.”6 Features similar to those of the Hasmonean palaces at Jericho have been found at a Herodian palace at Masada (in the core of the Western Palace and in buildings 11, 12 and 13).7

Herod’s architecture differs from that of the Hasmoneans in its larger, more monumental scale and in the addition of Italic elements to the Hellenistic ones. The typical features of Herod’s palaces—a main wing with a triclinium, a courtyard surrounded by a colonnade, dwelling rooms and a bathhouse—derive from the Roman domus (town house) and villa (country house).8

A palace built by Herod the Great at Jericho included a triclinium nearly 100 feet long and over 60 feet wide that could have accommodated hundreds of guests. The center of the floor was paved with a mosaic carpet surrounded by an opus sectile pavement, in which colored stone tiles are arranged to form elaborate geometric patterns. A broad opening in the south wall of the room looked over the Wadi Qelt, the dry riverbed around which the palace was constructed, to a sunken garden on the opposite bank.9

On the lower terrace of Herod’s Northern Palace at Masada, excavator Yigael Yadin found a rectangular triclinium with walls decorated with frescoes designed to imitate colored stone panels.10 Porticoes (colonnades) surrounded the hall on all sides, not just three. The columns’ stone drums were covered with stucco molded to look like fluted marble columns. The columns were crowned with carved stone Corinthian capitals, which were originally covered with stucco and gilded. Where two rows of columns met, the corner column consisted of two abutting columns forming a heart shape. Similar heart-shaped columns were common in monumental columnar architecture of this and later periods.

The bathhouses in Herod’s palaces usually had the standard Roman components- a dressing room (apodyterium), a cold-water plunge bath (frigidarium), a warm room (tepidarium) and a steam room (caldarium). Most of the steam rooms were heated by a Roman-style hypocaust system, in which hot air from a furnace outside the room circulated through pipes beneath a raised floor and within the walls. Steam was created by throwing water from tubs or containers onto the walls and floors. Bathhouses like this have been found at Herodian Jericho, Herodium and Masada.

Herod decorated the interiors of his palaces in the latest Roman fashion—with frescoes, mosaics and opus sectile pavements. Molded stucco was used to create paneling on walls, to create flutes on column drums and to imitate other architectural elements, such as dentils (tooth-shaped motifs) and egg-and-dart decorations (moldings with alternating ovoids and arrows). Geometric and floral designs were predominant in the frescoes and mosaics. Herod’s palaces often had Roman-style arches, vaults and domes, but they were constructed out of stone rather than out of concrete.
The extended palace complexes included entertainment facilities, such as large pools for swimming and boating, elaborate landscaped gardens, and water channels and installations. A huge pool nearly 10 feet deep and over 200 feet long was uncovered at Herod’s palace at Herodium.b A circular pavilion—a kind of island, perhaps used for picnics—stood in the center of the pool. A large artificial garden with porticoes surrounded the pool.11

At Jericho, Herod combined two large Hasmonean swimming pools into one. A colonnade along the front of the palace’s north wing, on the edge of the riverbed, visually connected the complex with the sunken garden across Wadi Qelt.12

These palaces were constructed by titular heads of state. To find private, upper-class mansions, we turn to excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, although these are urban, not rural, in character.c The excavator, the late Nahman Avigad, described them as follows-
Construction in the Upper City was dense, with the houses built quite close together; but the individual dwelling units were extensive, and inner courtyards lent them the character of luxury villas. These homes were richly ornamented with frescoes, stucco work, and mosaic floors, and were equipped with complex bathing facilities, as well as containing the luxury goods and artistic objects which signify a high standard of living. This, then, was an upper class quarter, where the noble families of Jerusalem lived, with the High Priest at their head. Here they built their homes in accordance with the dominant fashion of the Hellenistic-Roman period.13

Avigad excavated a group of six houses built close together on the slopes of a hill facing the Temple Mount. In most, only the basement stories of the houses were preserved, containing bathing and storage facilities. The bathing facilities included both baths and mikva’ot, ritual purification baths. At least two of the houses whose plan can be drawn had a central courtyard encircled by rooms. One mansion, dubbed the “House of Columns,” had a peristyle courtyard (a courtyard surrounded by a colonnade) with heart-shaped columns at the corners. The interior decoration resembled that in Herod’s palaces—molded stucco panels, molded stucco eggs-and-darts and dentils, columns with stucco flutes, opus sectile pavements, frescoes, and colorful mosaic floors with geometric and floral designs. The triclinia and courtyards of the other mansions, however, appear to have lacked the colonnades of the royal palaces. Nor were the baths heated with the Roman-style hypocaust systems found in the Herodian palaces.

But if the settlement at Qumran was a villa rustica, the urban Jewish Quarter mansions probably do not provide the best comparison. Let us turn instead to a true villa rustica, a Roman-style country estate about 10 miles west of Hebron, excavated in 1969 by Emmanuel Damati.14 Damati called the site Hilkiah’s palace because an inscribed plaque found in the excavation bore that name.

Hilkiah’s palace sat within a fortified enclosure with a square tower on its western side. Constructed of large stones, the tower walls sloped out towards the base. The rooms, which ran along the inside of the enclosure wall, surrounded a large peristyle courtyard. A Roman-style barrel-vaulted roof covered the storage rooms along the southern side of the enclosure. The walls of the palace entrance were covered with stucco molded in geometric patterns. On the eastern side of the peristyle courtyard was a long, spacious hall identified as a triclinium. Elaborately molded stucco covered the walls here too. The bathhouse had a barrel-vaulted caldarium heated by a hypocaust system. Remains of a mosaic floor were discovered beside the threshold leading from the caldarium to the tepidarium. Once again, the decorative elements included molded stucco paneling, molded stucco eggs-and-darts and cornices, and mosaic floors.

How does the settlement at Qumran compare with the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces we have looked at, the mansions in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter and the villa rustica west of Hebron? Not well. The layout of the Qumran settlement has none of the most striking features of Hasmonean and Herodian palaces- The hall with two columns in antis, the colonnaded triclinium, the bathhouses, the large swimming pools and the landscaped gardens are all absent from Qumran.15 True, the rooms at Qumran are grouped around courtyards, but these have no peristyles (although column drums re-used in the latest phases of Qumran’s occupation may have originally been part of a peristyle). Qumran also has a large room that de Vaux identified as a dining room; this dining room is similar to triclinia found elsewhere, but, significantly, it lacks any interior decoration.16 The square towers at Qumran and Hilkiah’s palace are also similar, but that is all.

One prominent distinction between Qumran and the other sites we have been considering is that Qumran has no bathhouse or even built-up bathtub. Qumran does have an elaborate water system—but it consists only of cisterns and pools, some of which may have been used for bathing.17 The elaborate water system at Qumran indicates that the inhabitants possessed the technology to construct swimming pools and elaborate baths but chose not to.

The placement of workshops at these various sites reveals another difference. Although Donceel-Voûte has suggested that the northeastern corner of Qumran served as a residential wing (pars urbana), while the workshops and industrial areas lay to the west and south, the workshops in fact surrounded Donceel-Voûte’s supposed residential wing.18 By contrast, the service rooms or workshops at the other sites were clearly segregated from the rest of the palace or villa. At Masada, for example, at least some of the service rooms in the Western Palace were clustered in separate wings, designated by the excavator the Eastern Service Wing and Western Service Wing.19

Finally, the presence of a cemetery next to the settlement at Qumran is unparalleled at the other palace and villa sites examined here.20

The most compelling argument against the identification of Qumran as a villa, however, lies in the almost complete absence of interior decoration. Humbert describes the exceptions- “Some pieces of an arch, of stones decorated in relief, [and] of column drums with some capitals.” The jambs of two doors, he notes, have marginal drafting. And “geometric elements of hardstone in different colors, coming from an opus sectile pavement of the highest quality” were found at Ein Feshkha, a settlement often associated with Qumran, located about 20 miles south on the Dead Sea shore.21 Donceel-Voûte has referred to some column drums and bases that may originally have been stuccoed.22 Still, these are the exceptions that prove the rule- Qumran displayed virtually none of the lavish ornamentation associated with wealthy estates.

Qumran does share some features of plan and decoration with contemporaneous palaces and villas merely because the inhabitants expressed themselves in the architectural vocabulary of their environment. However, these shared features—the extensive water system, the courtyards and the large dining room—are too utilitarian to support the identification of Qumran as a villa.

The character of the pottery from Qumran also argues strongly against its identification as a villa.23 As de Vaux suspected, the character of the clay suggests that the majority of the vessels were manufactured at or near Qumran, perhaps in one of the pottery workshops found at the site.24 Most of these vessels are made of a smooth, hard-fired, pink, red or gray earthenware, often covered with a whitish slip. The limited repertoire of vessels reflects the pedestrian activities carried out there. The inhabitants drank out of the cups and ate from the plates and bowls. They mixed wine or other liquids in the kraters and prepared food in the cooking pots. Jugs, juglets and flasks held their water, oil and other liquids, while large jars stored grain and oil. Oil lamps illuminated the interiors of their rooms and caves.

How does this body of pottery compare with contemporaneous assemblages from other sites? First, a number of types are either unique to Qumran or at least rare at other sites. Prominent among these are the “scroll jars,” so called because some of the scrolls found in the caves were reportedly stored in them. This type of jar had an elongated, cylindrical body, a carinated (angled) shoulder, and a short, vertical neck with a plain rim; it was often covered with a bowl-shaped lid. (In contrast, the typical Judean storage jars of this period, also found at Qumran, have a sacklike body, a rounded base, a constricted neck and ring handles on the shoulders.) The “scroll jars” probably also served as containers for materials other than scrolls. However, their form suggests to me that they were originally designed to hold scrolls. The short, wide neck would have made it possible to deposit and remove scrolls from the jars easily. Although scroll jars have been found at other sites, they are by far most common at Qumran.25

The rarity of pottery types found at contemporaneous Judean sites also distinguishes the Qumran assemblage. For example, no imported wares—such as western terra sigillata (a fine, red-slipped ware from the western Mediterranean) or Roman mold-made lamps or amphorae—from Qumran have been published. In contrast, excavations of Herod’s palaces at Masada, Jericho and Herodium, and at Qasr el-Yahud (Khirbet Mazin) near Qumran, have uncovered imported amorphae, with stamps on the handles or inscriptions on the bodies that identify the contents as fine wine, fish sauce (garum) or other specialties from around the Mediterranean.26 Stamped Rhodian jars of the Hellenistic period and Roman amphorae inscribed in Latin have been found in the Jewish Quarter excavations in Jerusalem. (The wine these amphorae held would not have been kosher, prompting Avigad’s explanation that “there have always been more and less observant Jews.”)27 But not a single imported amphora from the excavations at Qumran has been published.

Even more suggestive than the lack of imports is the rarity of eastern terra sigillata A ware at Qumran. Produced in the eastern Mediterranean during the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E., this fine, red-slipped ware is very common at Herodian sites in Palestine. While complete sets of eastern terra sigillata A dishes were discovered in the Herodian houses in Jerusalem, only a few fragments of this ware (unpublished) were recovered in the excavations at Qumran.28 Other kinds of local fine wares, including painted Jerusalem bowls, are also rare or unattested at Qumran. The absence or rarity of fine imported and local ware at Qumran suggests a deliberate and selective policy of isolation- The inhabitants apparently preferred to manufacture and use their own ceramic products, many of which are similar in form to types found elsewhere in Judea but lacking decoration. It seems that the inhabitants of Qumran deliberately refrained from obtaining any kind of fine ware, sometimes substituting their own undecorated imitations.

The plainness of the pottery and the absence of fine wares lends an air of austerity to the corpus, which contrasts sharply with contemporary assemblages from Jericho, Jerusalem and Herodium.
That the types found in the caves (including the “scroll jars”) are identical in form, fabric and date with those from the settlement attests to the connection between the scrolls and the settlement. The villa rustica theory, by contrast, presupposes no connection between the site and the scrolls.
From the simplest clay bowl to the overall layout of the buildings, the Qumran remains consistently testify to the utilitarian nature of the settlement. Granted, Qumran, with its elaborate water system and courtyards, does display some elements of Herodian period architecture- The residents were not completely isolated from their environment. But the overwhelming differences between the Judean Desert settlement and contemporaneous villas and palaces demonstrate that Qumran was not a villa rustica. Roland de Vaux’s interpretation of the site as a sectarian settlement still makes the most sense.

a. See Suzanne Singer, “The Winter Palaces of Jericho,” BAR 03-02.

1. Unfortunately, de Vaux (who worked on behalf of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jérusalem) died in 1971 without producing a final excavation report, although he did publish preliminary reports and an overall study of the archaeology of the site. See Roland de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (London- Oxford University Press, 1973). A summary of his field notes has just appeared in print; see Jean-Baptiste Humbert and Alain Chambon, Fouilles de Khirbet Qumran et de Aïn Feshkha, vol. 1 (Göttingen/Fribourg- Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994). For a fuller description of this volume, see Hershel Shanks’s review in Books in Brief, BAR 21-01.

2. See Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voûte, “The Archaeology of Khirbet Qumran,” in Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran Site, eds. Michael O. Wise et al., in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 722 (New York- New York Academy of Sciences, 1994), pp. 1–38; and Donceel-Voûte, “Les ruines de Qumran reinterprétées,” Archeologia 298 (1994), pp. 24–35.

3. Humbert, “L’éspace sacré à Qumran,” Revue Biblique 101–2 (1994), pp. 161–214. According to Humbert, the first phase lasted from the second half of the second century B.C.E. to 57 or 31 B.C.E.

4. See Ehud Netzer, “The Hasmonean Palaces in Eretz-Israel,” in Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990- Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1993), pp. 126–136; Ephraim Stern, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (NEAEHL), 4 vols. (New York- Simon and Schuster, 1993), vol. 2, pp. 682–691; Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of Israel (Leiden- Brill, 1988), p. 10.

5. Netzer, “The Hasmonean Palaces,” p. 131.

6. Netzer, “The Hasmonean Palaces,” p. 135.

7. See Netzer, “The Hasmonean Palaces,” pp. 133–134; and Masada III- The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965, Final Reports. The Buildings, Stratigraphy and Architecture (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1991), pp. 646–647.

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