Building Complex at Qumran

Building Complex at Qumran

The Site

Virtually all of the Dead Sea Scrolls research points to a connection between the ruins at Qumran and the scrolls found in the caves. This has been established by the correspondence between the dating of the scrolls and the dating of the archaeological remains. For this reason, researchers believe that study of the archaeological site of Qumran is essential, as it adds to their knowledge of the sect.

In 1940 and 1946 archaeologists surveyed Khirbet Qumran; at the time, the prevalent theory was that it constituted a Byzantine or even Arab ruin. Only after the discovery of Cave 1 and its scrolls did archaeologists return to conduct an excavation. The site was excavated between 1951 and 1956 by Roland de Vaux and his team.

Much in the same way that the scrolls were hoarded by a select few, the reports of the excavation were also not properly published. Roland de Vaux’s reports were published only in a preliminary edition, complicating scholars’ research significantly. Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct a chronology of the settlement at Qumran from de Vaux’s notes.

The earliest find at Qumran was a cistern and some walls from the period of the Israelite monarchy (eighth to seventh centuries BCE). The site fell into disuse thereafter and was resettled in the Hellenistic period. In the period known as Ia (generally considered to take place around the time of the Maccabean Revolt in 168–164 BCE or early in the Hasmonean Period), the buildings from the previous settlement were used as a base for the new one. A number of extra rooms were added, as was a water channel.

The period known as Ib, the main occupation at Qumran, began somewhere around the reign of Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE), or possibly earlier, during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104 BCE). The structure which can be seen today at Qumran was constructed during this period. The building consisted of a complex of rooms and courtyards, including storage areas, workshops, the “tower,” a kitchen, and pottery installations. Additionally, there was an installation for the production of date-honey and storage houses for grain. These two discoveries indicate that the community most likely had a developed economy.

The water system at Qumran brought water from Wadi Qumran into the settlement through tunnels. The water flowed throughout the settlement and filled the mikvaot (ritual baths) which had to be filled with natural water. Purification basins filtered out dirt and silt. Cisterns collected winter rains and were large enough to hold rain all through the summer.

The complex water system as well as the large kitchen and dining room indicate that there was a large population at Qumran. However, the number of other rooms at the site is so small that it is unclear where the members of the community all resided. Three theories have been put forward- that the community lived in tents, that they resided in nearby caves, or that they were housed on the second story of the building, which no longer exists. The cave theory is difficult to support, as the caves appear to be too small and dark for habitation. Evidence of occupation in the caves appears to point to their use for hiding out during times of war. The other two theories are both plausible.

The dining hall is a very large room, 72 feet (22 meters) long by 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide. The room was cleaned using water which came through a pipe and flowed down the sloped floor. This was also the cleaning system employed in the Second Temple. Adjoining this room is another room found containing neatly stacked jars, jugs, bowls, and dishes. As many as 708 bowls were discovered neatly arranged in dozens. Both the size of the dining hall and the extensive amount of pottery found demonstrate that a large group of people was fed at the site.

Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Vaute have posited that Qumran was not a sectarian settlement, but rather a large villa inhabited by an aristocratic family. This theory does not explain the large numbers of bowls and dishes. No family—rich as it may be—has need of 708 bowls. The Donceels’ theory is based on the glassware that was found in the ruins and the assumption that Essenes would live in poverty and would therefore not own glassware. However, assuming that the sect can be identified as Essene, there is no evidence to suggest that the Essenes took a vow of poverty. Moreover, even if the sect had lived in poverty, it is possible that an aristocratic family’s villa was turned into a settlement for the sect. This happened at Masada, where Herod’s palace was turned into a refuge for the rebels during the Great Revolt.

Also found at Qumran was a pottery workshop, easily identified by its potter’s wheel and kiln. Since most of the pottery found at the site is of a unique style, it is evident that it was made in this workshop. The pottery helps date the occupation of Period Ib to the end of the Hellenistic period.

Another indicator for dating the occupation at Qumran is in the coins found at the site. These coins indicate that the site was occupied during the Hasmonean period, during the reign of Alexander Janneus. Literary and historical evidence indicate that the site was also occupied earlier, during the time of John Hyrcanus. However, too few Seleucid coins were found to assume that occupation began any earlier.

According to de Vaux’s team, occupation of the site ended in 31 BCE as a result of a fire and an earthquake. Evidence of the earthquake is found in the broken steps of the cistern and in other ruins. Evidence of the fire is found in ashes which covered the building when it was discovered.

Inhabitants returned to Qumran shortly after the fire and earthquake, in Period II. Numismatic evidence places this occupation at the time of Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great (4 BCE to 6 CE). The buildings were renovated, more rooms were added, most of the water system was repaired, and a mill for grinding grain was constructed.

A large room, called the “scriptorium” by the excavators, also dates from this period. A scriptorium is a room in which manuscripts are copied. The room found contains inkwells and some items of furniture which appear to be short tables—leading the archaeologists to conclude that this was a scriptorium. However, it is unclear whether scribes at this time would have used tables, and, if they had, why they would have been low. Regardless of whether the tables were used by scribes, scrolls must have been copied at Qumran, as can be demonstrated by the unique ideas and spellings in the sectarian scrolls.

Period II ended when the Romans destroyed Qumran during the Great Revolt. Thick debris from the upper floor was found filling the lower floor and a layer of carbon indicates that there was a fire. The last coins from Period II date from the Great Revolt. Vespasian occupied Jericho in 68 CE and it is likely that he attacked Qumran at the time.

Initially, it was believed that the fragmentary condition of the scrolls found in Caves 4 and 5 could be attributed to destruction by the Romans. However, recent studies have shown that this was a result of natural deterioration.

Some scholars claim that the occupants of Qumran fled to Masada during the revolt. They point to the discovery of a manuscript of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice at Masada as well as at Qumran. However, this only proves that this text was part of the general Second Temple literature, and was not exclusive to the Qumran sect.

The Roman garrisons which besieged Masada beginning in the year 70 CE used Qumran as an outpost. They left most of the site in ruins but renovated the tower for observation. This period, called Period III, ended in approximately 73 CE, with the fall of Masada. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the site was used briefly as a refuge, as indicated by coins found on the surface.

The history of the sect can be reconstructed from the evidence gathered at Qumran. The sect was established sometime after 152 BCE. The sectarians came to Qumran and adapted the existing structure for their own use. They had communal meals in a large dining hall, practiced ritual purity, made pottery, and copied manuscripts. The sect was dismantled during the Great Revolt, after the destruction of Qumran in 68 CE.

The Cemeteries

Adjacent to the site of Qumran is a cemetery located 55 yards (50 meters) to the east of the building complex and extending down toward the Dead Sea. It contains 1,100 graves. Each grave is marked by a pile of stones; all are oriented north/south.

Archaeologists have excavated twenty-six of the graves, all of which were male graves. Outside the main cemetery, graves of women and children were found. Shards found in the area of the graves show that the cemetery was in use during the sectarian occupation of Qumran.

The presence of graves of females and children counters the claim made by many scholars that the sectarians were celibate. However, the overwhelming number of male graves must be explained. The most probable explanation is that Qumran was a study center where men came to study for a limited amount of time. The smaller, permanent community of Qumran consisted of families.

The Caves

Eleven caves were excavated between the years 1947 and 1952, providing researchers with scrolls which proved invaluable for the understanding of life at Qumran and Judean society at the time.

Cave 1, the first cave with scrolls to be discovered, is an almost invisible natural cave. It is 26.6 feet (8 meters) long, 13.3 feet (4 meters) high, and from 2.5 to 6.5 feet (.75 to 2 meters) wide. It is located about half a mile (1 kilometer) from Khirbet Qumran. Seven near-complete scrolls were discovered in the cave initially, and, later, fragments of an additional sixty-five scrolls were uncovered as well. The seven scrolls were found wrapped in cloth and placed in pottery jars—ostensibly for safekeeping—shortly before the Roman destruction of 68 CE.

Apart from scrolls, the cave contained scraps of cloth, pieces of wood, olive and date stones, phylactery cases, and shards. The pottery found matched the style of pottery found at the site of Qumran, suggesting that the inhabitants of Qumran were the same as those who used the cave.

The Bedouin discovered Cave 2, a small natural cave with two levels, which contained thirty-three manuscripts. Six jars, one lid, and three bowls were also found in the cave. The pottery in this cave also matched that of the Qumran site.

The Copper Scroll—actually written on a rolled up sheet of copper—was found in Cave 3. It lists buried treasures and their hiding places. Its dialect is closer to Mishnaic Hebrew although it contains many elements of Qumran Hebrew. Also discovered in the cave were fragments of hide and papyrus, as well as pottery.

Cave 5 contained manuscripts but no pottery. In Cave 6, 31 manuscripts were found along with a jar and a bowl. Caves 7, 8, and 9 contained manuscript fragments, parts of a tefillin (phylactery) case, date stones, ropes, a bit of leather, and a few pieces of pottery. All of the scrolls found in Cave 7 were written in Greek. Cave 10 contained some artifacts but no scrolls. Cave 11 revealed important and well-preserved texts, such as the Psalms Scroll and the Temple Scroll.

The most important cave for researchers is Cave 4, discovered by the Bedouin, which held the largest number of scrolls. This cave is artificial, carved out of the limestone. It is an oval chamber with two smaller chambers attached. It is located immediately opposite the Qumran settlement and is the easiest cave to reach. It was apparently used to store scrolls which were in constant use. The scrolls were placed on wooden shelves; the holes where those shelves were attached to the walls are still visible. Five hundred and fifty fragments of manuscripts were found in the cave; many of these are extremely important documents, but they are also the most difficult to decipher due to their fragmentary state.

Some scholars have asserted that Cave 4 was used to store the Temple library during the Great Revolt, in order to save it from destruction by the Romans. However, the cave’s construction would have taken a long time, and could not have been completed quickly during wartime. Additionally, it would be curious indeed if the Temple library contained texts which opposed contemporary Temple practice.

Archaeologists have investigated the entire area around Qumran thoroughly. Although it is possible that additional discoveries will be made, it is likely that all of the important manuscripts and artifacts have already been found.

Ein Feshka and Ein el-Gwheir

Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls mention other sectarian communities. Two sites which may have been satellite communities are Ein Feshka and Ein el-Gwheir.

Ein Feshka is located 2 miles (3 kilometers) south of Qumran. Its main building is a rectangle of 79 by 59 feet (24 by 18 meters). At the site there is also a courtyard containing smaller buildings—a storeroom and a building with waterworks for washing the courtyard. There are stairs leading to a second floor, which archaeological evidence shows existed at the time. The building was built on a previous building which had been abandoned. The rebuilt structure (Period II) coincides with Period II of Qumran. This has been ascertained by numismatics and pottery. The dating of Period I at Ein Feshka is less certain because of the small amount of pottery and coins discovered, but probably coincides with Period Ib of Qumran. Interestingly, Ein Feshka does not seem to have suffered the same earthquake which destroyed Qumran. The site was resettled during the period between the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

The site of Ein Feshka may have served as an “industrial zone” for the inhabitants of Qumran. Preparation of hides for scrolls is the most likely industry for the site, although other possibilities have been suggested, such as date culture or fish farming.

Ein el-Gwheir is located 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Qumran. There archaeologists uncovered a rectangular building measuring 64 by 141 feet (19.5 by 43 meters). Numismatic evidence shows that the site was occupied during Period II of Qumran and Ein Feshka. A nearby cemetery contains graves with the same characteristics as those found at Qumran. It is probable that settlement at Ein el-Gwheir began later and ended earlier than the settlement at Qumran. Due to its distance from Qumran, it is less probable that the site was connected to the sect.

Excavations in the area of Qumran have also aided scholars’ understanding of life in the desert climate during Second Temple times. The area seems hostile to human habitation, but the inhabitants were industrious. They created advanced irrigation systems which provided water year-round. The area supported goat and sheep herding, palm trees, and barley. The reeds which grow naturally in the area were used for baskets, mats, and thatched roofs. Salt and bitumen were mined from the Dead Sea. Pottery was created at the location. Fuel came from brushwood in the area.

The Qumran sectarians developed a sophisticated economy which allowed them to live in the Judean desert and collect their manuscripts. Having a better idea of how members of the sect lived, we may now turn to the question- How did this sect come to be formed?

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