I an article titled Archaeologists Challenge Link Between Dead Sea Scrolls and Ancient Sect, written by John Noble Wilford and published August 15, 2006 in The New York Times, archaeologists are questioning again the relationship between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the people who lived and worked at Qumran.
The following is an excerpt from Wilford’s article:
New archaeological evidence is raising more questions about the conventional interpretation linking the desolate ruins of an ancient settlement known as Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in nearby caves in one of the sensational discoveries of the last century.
After early excavations at the site, on a promontory above the western shore of the Dead Sea, scholars concluded that members of a strict Jewish sect, the Essenes, had lived there in a monastery and presumably wrote the scrolls in the first centuries B.C. and A.D.
Many of the texts describe religious practices and doctrine in ancient Israel.
But two Israeli archaeologists who have excavated the site on and off for more than 10 years now assert that Qumran had nothing to do with the Essenes or a monastery or the scrolls. It had been a pottery factory.
The archaeologists, Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority, reported in a book and a related magazine article that their extensive excavations turned up pottery kilns, whole vessels, production rejects and thousands of clay fragments. Derelict water reservoirs held thick deposits of fine potters’ clay.
Dr. Magen and Dr. Peleg said that, indeed, the elaborate water system at Qumran appeared to be designed to bring the clay-laced water into the site for the purposes of the pottery industry. No other site in the region has been found to have such a water system.
By the time the Romans destroyed Qumran in A.D. 68 in the Jewish revolt, the archaeologists concluded, the settlement had been a center of the pottery industry for at least a century. Before that, the site apparently was an outpost in a chain of fortresses along the Israelites’ eastern frontier.
“The association between Qumran, the caves and the scrolls is, thus, a hypothesis lacking any factual archaeological basis,” Dr. Magen said in an article in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
He and Dr. Peleg wrote a more detailed report of their research in “The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates,” published this year. The book was edited by Katharina Galor of Brown, Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, and Jürgen Zangenberg of the University of Wuppertal in Germany.
This is by no means the first challenge to the Essene hypothesis originally advanced by Roland de Vaux, a French priest and archaeologist who was an early interpreter of the scrolls after their discovery almost 60 years ago. Other scholars have suggested that Qumran was a fortified manor house or a villa, possibly an agricultural community or a commercial entrepôt.
Norman Golb, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago who is a longtime critic of the Essene link, said he was impressed by the new findings and the pottery-factory interpretation.
“Magen’s a very seasoned archaeologist and scholar, and many of his views are cogent,” Dr. Golb said in a telephone interview. “A pottery factory? That could well be the case.”
Dr. Golb said that, of course, Qumran could have been both a monastery and a pottery factory. Yet, he added: “There is not an iota of evidence that it was a monastery. We have come to see it as a secular site, not one of pronounced religious orientation
For years archaeologists have debated whether the ancient texts found in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea were part of the Essene community. There are several reasons for questioning the link between the scrolls and the Essenes.
One reason is that the written texts are much older than the community itself. Another reason is that among the texts found in the caves, there are no original documents that reveal particular aspects of communal life at Qumran.
The view that the texts found at Qumran belonged to the temple in Jerusalem and that they were hidden in the caves prior to the Roman destruction of the temple has been proposed, but many scholars continue to associate the texts with a religious community at Qumran, whether they were the Essenes or not.
It is clear that this debate will continue.
To read Wilford’s article in its entirety, click here.
For a video on the Dead Sea Scrolls, click here.
For an overview of the article published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, click here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tags: Archaeology, Qumran, Essenes, Dead Sea Scrolls