The Qumran Cemetery: A Reconsideration, Rachel Hachlili.


Excerpted from The Dead Sea Scrolls Fifty Years After Their Discovery (ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Emanuel Tov and James C. VanderKam), Israel Exploration Society, Jerusalem 2000, p.661-667.

The main cemetery of Qumran, located about 35 m. east of the settlement, contains about 1200 graves arranged in ordered, regular and neat rows, separated by two paths into three plots. There are two secondary cemeteries, one to the north, the other to the south (fig. 1). The tombs are all oriented on an unusual north-south axis.1 Each grave is an individual burial with or without a wooden coffin in a carefully dug rectangular shaft cavity, each marked by a heap of stones (fig. 2).2 The burials lack inscriptions. Twenty-eight graves were excavated in the main cemetery, seven more in the extensions (Tombs 1–8, 11–37). The northern cemetery contains 12 graves, of which two (T. 9, 10) were excavated. The south cemetery contains 30 graves of varying orientations, of which four tombs (T. 1–4) were excavated; a total of 53 tombs were excavated, 41 graves by de Vaux,3 and nine by Steckoll.4

The proximity of the Qumran cemetery to the site, located about 35 m. away, is in accordance with rabbinic law (m. B. Bathra 2.9); the distance of a cemetery from the site required for ritual purity is 50 cubits, which is about 25–30m.5

The tombs and the interred at Qumran are oriented on the same north-south axis.6 The bodies were lying supine, the head turned to the side, hands close to the side or folded on the body (fig. 3), frequently the head is oriented to the south.7 However, orientation of bodies in tombs, loculi and coffins in the cemeteries of Jerusalem and Jericho does not seem to be significant as the bodies were placed in various direction.8

The results of a survey of male and female burials at Qumran are from 43 graves dug by de Vaux.9 Data are available on 26 graves. In tombs nos. 12–37 in the main cemetery, tombs nos. 9–10 in the north cemetery, and tombs nos. 1–4 in the south cemetery, were discovered 30 males, seven females, and four children. Two males were interred in each of tombs 16 and 24. In the excavation conducted by Steckoll,10 in nine tombs were found 11 skeletons- six males, four females and 1–2 children. Altogether 36 males, 11 females, and 5 children were identified at the Qumran cemetery.

The age of most males found in the main cemetery is 30–40 years; the exceptions- one is 16 (T.15), two 22-23 (T.28, Q.G.5), and two are 50 (T. 23, 25) years old. Two males are aged 65 years (Q.G.9).

Five females (all buried in the extensions of the main cemetery and in the south cemetery) are about 30 years old (T. 32–35; T. 1, in the south cemetery). Five children are 6–10 years old (T. 36; T. 2–4 in the south cemetery).

It should be noted that although only a small number of tombs were excavated, a large number of men were found in the main cemetery while a small number of women and children were found only in the extensions and secondary cemeteries. On the basis of this evidence scholars argue that this supports the celibate character of the Qumran community.11

The finds in the tombs are extremely poor-12 in tomb 4 a store jar was found and in tomb 26, a Herodian lamp, both with burials of men aged thirty to forty. In tomb 32 (in the south exten-sion) beads, earring and a bronze ring were found with a thirty year old woman. Two earrings were discovered in tomb 33 (in the south extension) with a thirty year old woman. In tomb 1 (in the south cemetery) thirty beads, earrings, and a bronze ring were found with a thirty year old woman. In contemporary Jewish tombs, grave goods associated with the dead are few and contain personal possessions and objects of daily life, usually found with women and children.13

The pottery of the Qumran site, according to Magness, is different from the pottery of other Judean sites of that period.14 The Qumran types are limited and plain, while imported and fine ware is rare. The Qumran repertoire seems to indicate that the inhabitants preferred to create their own wares, suggesting a deliberate policy of isolation.

Several remnants of wooden coffins were discovered in the Qumran cemetery (in tombs 17, 19, 32, 33, with male and female skeletons.15 They are similar to the coffins customarily used for primary burial at Jericho,16 and ‘En Gedi.17 There is no proof for the assumption by some scholars that the coffins were used for moving the dead from other secondary burial areas,18 these persons being relatives of the Qumran inhabitants who had died elsewhere and were brought to be buried in Qumran. It should be noted that Jews began to practice the custom of reinternment in the Land of Israel not until the third century CE.19

Qumran is proved to be a Jewish settlement by the Hebrew inscriptions found on an ostraca and jars at Qumran. The names יוחנן, Yohanan (on a store jar from period Ib) and Josephus in Greek were found;20 A similar name יהוחנן, Yehohanan, was inscribed on the shoulder of a storage jar found in tomb 18 at ‘En el-Ghuweir.21 These inscriptions and names are similar to the many ostraca and jar inscriptions at Masada.22

The Qumran cemetery date is contemporary with the site dating. It was used during periods Ib and II, from the second half of the second century BCE until 68 CE (with a gap of about 30 years when the settlement was abandoned).

The community at Qumran possibly consisted of about 150–200,23 or 50–70 inhabitants.24 The cemetery of Qumran contains 1100–1200 graves, and was probably used for about 190 years, the life period of the site. Nevertheless, it is also possible that the cemeteries of Qumran served as a central burial place for other similar sites in the area, as believed by some scholars.25

The Qumran cemetery was a central burial place for the community. The form of the burials is clearly not family tombs. The graves in these cemeteries are very well organized, carefully dug and thoughtfully arranged. The well organized cemetery seems to rule out the argument by some scholars such as Golb that the Qumran cemetery was dug at one single time on ac-count of the somewhat uniform nature of this type of graves, their layout and orientation.26 But these factors do not necessarily point to a cemetery hastily dug all at once. The character of this type of grave could just as well be due to the laws of the community and its religious beliefs, which were clearly different from the burial customs of the main Judaism of the period, which consisted of rock-hewn loculi tombs and burial in wooden coffins and ossuaries.27 Golb maintains that the graves were of the warriors of the fortress who fought at Qumran, as were the tombs of the same type elsewhere in the Judean Desert. He further contends that as some of the skeletal remains evince massacre and bones were broken and burnt, the tombs were dug in haste for a large group of people killed in connection with the first Jewish Revolt against the Romans (ca. 68 CE). However, some skeletons interred at Jericho display the same sort of wounds, and are buried in a family loculi tomb, which thus does not necessarily indicate a hurried burial of warriors.28 Moreover, people who might have died during the revolt must have been buried in some kind of mass community grave, similar to the special chamber of the Goliath tomb at Jericho.29 Comparable shaft or dug-out tombs similar to the Qumran graves were discovered in various sites in the Judean Desert and in Jerusalem.30

In the Judean Desert, the cemetery of ‘En el-Ghuweir was discovered 800m. north of the building, 15 km. south of Qumran;31 17 tombs were excavated, orientated north-south. The graves are covered by a heap of stones (fig. 4). Remains of 13 men aged between 18 and 60–70, seven women aged between 18 and 34 and a child 7 years old were found. Some broken ves-sels and potsherds (a bowl and three store jars) were found placed on the tombs. On the shoulder of a storage jar from tomb 18 was inscribed- יהוחנן, Yehohanan.32 The dating of the cemetery is 1st century BCE–1st century CE, i.e., contemporary with the Qumran cemeteries date. The tombs’ form is similar to the Qumran tombs, Bar-Adon maintains that the cemetery of ‘En el-Ghuweir was in use by the settlement’s occupants and furthermore asserts that the inhabitants of Qumran and ‘En el-Ghuweir belonged to the same sect. Bar-Adon also believes that the large building at ‘En el-Ghuweir served for ceremonial and gathering purposes much the same as the public center at Qumran. Some scholars had reservations about the relation-ship between Qumran and ‘En el-Ghuweir.33

The cemetery of Hiam el-Sagha,34 located south of ‘En el-Ghuweir, contains twenty shaft graves of which two were examined. Most of the tombs are oriented north-south; all are cov-ered by stones. In one grave a 3–4-year-old child with a necklace of 34 glass beads was found; the second had a 25-year-old man interred.35

Shaft tombs are quite rare in Jerusalem. Some are found as a single tomb among the common loculi tombs. Two graves were discovered- at Talpiot, one tomb oriented east-west;36 and at Mamila, tomb no.1.37

Beth Zafafa is a cemetery containing some 50 graves, of which 42 were excavated (fig.5).38 The tombs date from the end of the Second Temple period to the Bar Kochba period (possibly some of the tombs were also in use during the Roman and Byzantine periods).

The graves are hewn shaft tombs, half of them oriented north-south, the other half east-west marked by stone tablets (fig. 6). In most tombs only one body was interred. 47 interred persons were examined- 15 men, 10 women, 5 children. Among the finds are about 30 iron nails; two glass bottles (one 2–3 cent., the other 4–5 cent.), a glass bracelet (3–4 cent.). The form of the tombs, their size as well as the custom of individual burial are similar to the Qumran graves.

The tombs at Jerusalem (and at Hiam el-Sagha) show no real proof that they are Jewish graves, except for their considerable similarity in form to the Qumran burials. However, this similarity indicates a group with common burial customs. The site of Khirbet Qumran was abandoned after a 31 BCE earthquake,39 and was eventually reoccupied (Period II), with re-pairs and rebuilding of the site around the time of the rule of Herod Archelaeus (4 BCE–6 CE). Thus, it is possible that during this period under the rule of king Herod the inhabitants who left Qumran settled in Jerusalem, possibly in the areas in which these tombs were discovered.

The Qumran site interpreted by Golb as a fortress raises another question- Are the unusual individual interments a burial custom at Jewish fortresses? Not unless it can be proved that burial at fortresses was individual in shaft tombs (but then it will be difficult to explain the cemetery at Beth Zafafa); up to now, no cemetery has been found at any of the Judean Desert fortresses.40

If the identification of the Qumran community with the Essenes is accepted, the graves found in Jerusalem could then belong to the Qumran inhabitants who moved to Jerusalem.41 The Essenes lived in communities in cities and villages in Judea (Jos. War 2,124; CD 12-10,22) and possibly still retained their habits of life as a settled group, and their burial customs as in-dicated by the graves found at Beth Zafafa.

The identification of Qumran with the Essenes is in dispute. A detailed and thorough discussion of the Essene hypothesis was undertaken lately by Stegemann who maintains that it is based on two main interpretations-42 (1) Khirbet Qumran was an Essene settlement founded towards the end of the second century BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE. (2) The Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves 1–11 belonged to the Essenes settlement at Qumran, which was a study center where members could come to meditate, train, and study for a specific pe-riod of time or for the rest of their lives.43 It should be noted that the sect literature has little to say about burial customs, except for some sections in the Temple Scroll.44

The proximity of the cemeteries to the site at Qumran proves that they are associated. The burial customs and grave forms at Qumran are fundamentally different from those practiced by normative Judaism in Jerusalem, Jericho and ‘En Gedi.45

The Qumran cemetery with its differences in grave form and burial customs reflects an out- of-the-ordinary distinctive community that no doubt purposely used different customs.

Although most scholars observe that Qumran is a desert site suitable for people seeking isolation, several have interpreted the Qumran site as a Jewish military fort or a villa of wealthy Jerusalemites who lived there during the winter.46 However, a Jewish fortress would not have been permitted by the Romans.47 The identification of Qumran as a villa would be very difficult to accept, as it differs from other palaces and villas discovered in Jericho, Herodion, Jerusalem and various sites in Judaea.48 If Qumran had been a Jewish fortress or villa, the burial customs would have followed the Jerusalem-Jericho form of loculi-family tombs and their burial customs.

The finds at the cemetery reinforce the thesis that the Qumran community was a specific religious group, a separate Jewish sect, which fashioned its own divergent practices as well as adhering to some typical Jewish customs. The separate and isolated cemetery and the burial practices that deviate from the regular Jewish tradition show a distinctive attitude towards death and burial customs. The old Jewish tradition of burying the dead with their ancestors was not followed by the Qumran community, where the individual burial was stressed. The importance of the individual rather than the family is indicated by the burial customs at Qumran, which seem to testify that the residents of Qumran were not families.

The Qumran cemetery and the graves at other sites such as ‘En el-Ghuweir and Beth Zafafa indicate that also the inhabitants there separated themselves from mainstream Judaism and might add proof to the identification of Qumran with one of the Jewish sects of the Second Temple Period. The form of the graves and the burial customs should be considered as an important factor concerning the identification of the Qumran community.

1. It should be noted that the graves’ orientation is less consistent in the eastern extensions of the cemetery and in the secondary north and south cemeteries.

2. R. de Vaux, “Fouilles de Khirbet Qumran,” RB 60 (1955) 95–105; 61 (1954) 206–207; 63 (1956) 569–572; idem. Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Schweich Lectures; London- Oxford Univ. Press, 1973) 45–48; 57–58; J.-.B Humbert, and A. Chambon, 1994. Fouilles de Khirbet Qumrân et de Aïn Feshkha I (Göttingen- Fribourg- Éditions Universitaires, 1994) 346–352.

3. de Vaux, RB 60 (1956) 569–575; idem. Archaeology, 48–58.

4. S. H. Steckoll, “Preliminary Excavation Report in the Qumran cemetery,” RevQ 23 (1968) 323–336.

5. Also R. Hachlili and A. Killebrew, “Jewish Funerary Customs During the Second Temple Period. In the Light of the Excavations at the Jericho Necropolis,” PEQ 115 (1983) 110 and 130, n. 3. But cf. N. Golb, “Khirbet Qumran and the Manuscript Finds of the Judean Wilderness,” Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site (ed. M. O. Wise; New York- Academy of Sciences, 1994) 34–35, who maintains that the cemetery is too close to the site and contends that “it is impossible to believe that the purity-obsessed Essenes would build a cemetery so close to their settlement.”

6. The explanation suggested is that Paradise is located in the far north, and the dead will arise with their faces toward the north walking on to the Heavenly Jerusalem (Z. J. Kapera, “Some Remarks on the Qumran Cemetery,” Methods of Investigation (above, n. 2), 107 and n. 47; E. Puech, “The Necropolises of Khirbet Qumrân and Ain el-Ghuweir and the Essene Belief in Afterlife,” BASOR 312 (1998) 29–30.

7. See tombs 3, 7, 9–13, 15, 18, 20–23, 28, 29; Humbert and Chambon, Fouilles, 346–350, figs. 458, 466, pls. xxxv, xxxviii.

8. Hachlili and Killebrew, “Jewish Funerary Customs,” 116.

9. de Vaux, RB 60 (1956) 570; idem. Archaeology, 37, 45, 69, 81, 96; Humbert and Chambon, Fouilles, 350.

10. Steckoll, “Preliminary Excavation Report,” 335.

11. de Vaux, Archaeology, 45–47; R. Hachlili, “Burial Practices at Qumran,” RevQ 62 (1993) 251, and bibliography in note 9; Golb, “Khirbet Qumran (1994),” 58. The skeletons of women and children found at the cemetery are problematic and difficult to explain either for a Jewish garrison or a celibate community. Were the women also victims of the war?

12. de Vaux, RB 60 (1956) 570–572; Humbert and Chambon, Fouilles, 346, 350–352.

13. Hachlili and Killebrew, “Jewish Funerary Customs,” 116,121,128.

14. J. Magness, “The Community at Qumran in Light of Its Pottery,” Methods of Investigation (above, n. 5) 39–50; idem, J. Magness, “A Villa at Khirbet Qumran,” RevQ 16 (1994) 413–414.

15. de Vaux, RB 60 (1956) 572, idem. Archaeology, 58.

16. R. Hachlili and A. Killebrew, Jericho- The Jewish Cemetery of the Second Temple Period (Israel Antiquity Authority Reports 5; Jerusalem- Israel Antiquities Authority, 1999).

17. G. Hadas, Nine Tombs of the Second Temple Period at En Gedi, Atiqot 24 (1994) 45–50 (Hebrew).

18. M. Broshi, “The Archaeology of Qumran- A reconsideration,” The Dead Sea Scrolls- Forty Years of Research, 112; Kapera, “Some Remarks,” 108.

19. Y. Gafni, “Reinternment in the Land of Israel- Notes on the Origin and Development of the Custom,” Cathedra 1 (1981) 96–104.

20. de Vaux, RB 61 (1954) 229, pl. XIIa.

21. P. Bar-Adon, “Another Settlement of the Judean Desert Sect at ‘En el-Ghuweir on the Shores of the Dead Sea,” BASOR 225 (1977) 2–25.

22. Y. Yadin and J. Naveh, The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions. Masada II, The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965- Final Reports (Jerusalem- IES, 1989) 1–68; Bar-Adon, “Another Settlement,” 17, fig. 21-3, 23; Golb, “Khirbet Qumran (1994),” 65, n. 44, acknowledges that the site is Jewish, and states “The ostraca of Khirbet Qumran dearly prove nothing except that those inhabiting it when they were written ca. 50 BC–70 CE were Jews rather than Romans.” He argues that the site was a fortress of a Jewish garrison (ibid., 55, 66, 68) and interprets the cemetery as graves dug for the Jewish warriors who fought at Qumran (ibid., 70).

23. Broshi, “The Archaeology of Qumran,” 113–4.

24. J. Patrich, “Khirbet Qumran in Light of New Archaeological Explorations in the Qumran Caves,” Wise, M. O. et al (eds.) Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site (ed. M. O. Wise, et al; New York- Academy of Sciences, 1994) 73–83.

25. Y. Yadin, The Temple Scroll (3 vols; Jerusalem- IES, 1983) 1.324; P. Bar-Adon, “The Hasmonean Fortresses and the Status of Khirbet Qumran,” ErIsr 15 (1981) 351 (Hebrew), suggested that the Qumran cemetery also served sites such as Khirbet el-Yahud and Rujm el-Bahr; but see M. Broshi, “The Archaeology of Qumran,” 113.

26. 1994-70; 1995- 34.

27. Hachlili, “Burial Practices,” 257–261.

28. Hachlili and Killebrew, Jericho, fig. II, 29.

29. R. Hachlili, “The Goliath Family in Jericho- Funerary Inscriptions from a first Century AD Jewish Monumen-tal Tomb,” BASOR 235 (1979) 31.

30. Patrich, “Khirbet Qumran,” no. 10; B. Zisso, “’Qumran Type’ Graves in Jerusalem- Archaeological Evidence of an Essene Community?” DSS 5 (1998) 158–171. The Jericho shaft tombs are reused MB tombs (C. M. Ben-net, “Tombs of the Roman Period,” Excavations at Jericho (ed. K. M. Kenyon; London- British School of Ar-chaeology in Jerusalem, 1965) 2.532–537.

31. Bar-Adon, “Another Settlement,” 12–17.

32. Ibid., 17, fig. 21-3, 23.

33. R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Schweich Lectures; London- Oxford Univ. Press, 1973) 89; Broshi, “Archaeology,” 114–115, tested its pottery by neutron activation with the results that there is no common source for the pottery discovered at the two sites. N. Golb, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York- Scribners, 1995) 33–34, argues that the graves at ‘En el-Ghuweir, like those at Qumran, are of the warriors who fought against the Roman army.

34. H. Eshel and Z. Greenhut, “Hiam El-Sagha, A Cemetery of the Qumran Type, Judean Desert,” RB 100–102 (1992) 252–259.

35. D. Reshef and P. Smith, “Two Skeletal Remains from Hiam El-Sagha,” RB 100–102 (1993) 262–263.

36. A. Kloner and J. Gat, “Burial Caves in East Talpiot,” Atiqot 8 (1982) 171–172 (Hebrew).

37. R. Reich, “The Cemetery in the Mamila area in Jerusalem,” Qadmoniot 103–104 (1994) 106–107 (Hebrew); R. Reich and E. Shukron, “Jerusalem Mamila 1992–1993,” Hadashot Archaeologiot 101–102 (1994) 80–81 (Hebrew).

38. Zissu, “Qumran Type Graves,” 158–165.

39. de Vaux, RB 60 (1953) 569. But see Golb’s suggestion (Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, 10) that the destruction could have been caused by a military attack during the Parthian invasion in 40 BCE.

40. In the Cave of the Skeletons at Masada, a great heap of about twenty-five skeletons and bones (including women and children) was found, underneath it objects such as pottery, fragments of mats and remnants of food. They seem to have been tossed down haphazardly, probably at the end of the Masada siege in 73 CE.

41. On the Essene community that lived in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period cf. the mention of the Essenes Gate and the relation between Herod and Menahem the Essene (Josephus, War 5-144; Ant. 15-368–378; Y. Yadin, “The Essenes Gate in Jerusalem and the Temple Scroll,” Jerusalem Revealed- Archaeology in the Holy City 1968–1974 (ed. Y. Yadin; Jerusalem- IES, 1975) 90–99; Zissu, “Qumran Type Graves,” 170–171.

42. H. Stegemann, “The Qumran Essenes- Local Members of the Main Jewish Union in Late Second Temple Times,” The Madrid Qumran Congress, 83–166.

43. Ibid., 161–162; Puech, “The Necropolises,” 30. But see Golb, “Khirbet Qumran (1994),” 58–61; see also the arguments of J.-B. Humbert, “L’espace sacré a Qumrân,” RB 101–2 (1994) 160–211 on the early history of Qum-ran, refuted by J. Magness, “A Villa at Khirbet Qumran,” RevQ 16 (1994) 414–416.

44. Hachlili, “Burial Practices,” 255–257.

45. Ibid., 257–261.

46. For the fortress view cf. Golb, “Khirbet Qumran and the Manuscripts of the Judaean Wilderness- Observation on the Logic of their Investigation,” JNES 49 (1990) 68; “Khirbet Qumran (1994),” 69; for the villa view cf. P. Donceel-Voûte, “Les ruins de Qumrân réinterprètées,” Archeologia 298 (1994) 24–35; R. Donceel and P. Don-ceel-Voûte, “The Archaeology of Khirbet Qumran,” Methods of Investigation, 1–38.

47. See the discussion of Golb, “Khirbet Qumran,” 71–72.

48. Magness, “A Villa at Qumran,” 416–419.

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