Thursday, March 24, 2005

Summary of Seminar on Qumran Archaeology

The archaeology session in my Qumran course is a special challenge and I wrestle with where to put it. There is an argument for placing it near the end of the course, on the theory that most of the literature deals with the archaeology in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls and also the Essenes, so the archaeological data could be put in a better context after the Essene theory had been covered. I have not done so thus far because I think it is worthwhile to try to consider the archaeological evidence strictly on its own terms in the first instance. In practice it is difficult to pull this off, but we do our best.

The "scriptorium" (Locus 30) was an early topic of discussion. There still does not seem to be any widespread agreement among archaeologists about this room. Donceel-Voƻte argued that it was a dining room and the tables were reclining couches, but this has not been widely accepted. Other archaeologists (Broshi, Magness) accept that the room was a scriptorium but are not sure how it was actually used as such. The main piece of evidence for this interpretation seems to be the three inkwells, but it is difficult to be sure how exactly to interpret them. This one room does not seem to suffice to explain the production of the Qumran library. The number of scribal hands seems to be very high -- very few scribes seem to be responsible for as many as even two or three Qumran manuscripts. This points in the direction of the scrolls being brought to Qumran (whether to the inhabited buildings or straight to the caves) from outside rather than being produced on-site. This is one reason for thinking that sectarians from around Judea consolidated their libraries in hiding during the war.

We talked briefly about Pliny's reference to the Essenes on the western shore of the Dead Sea. This is a key -- perhaps the key piece of evidence for regarding Qumran as a site where a community of celibate Essenes lived. Nevertheless, there has some debate about whether the term infra in reference to Ein Gedi makes sense in connection with Qumran. Also, Pliny says that the Essenes were still living at Qumran after the war, when Ein Gedi had already been destroyed. The buildings at Qumran seem to have been destroyed by the Romans during the war, c. 68 CE, so it has been argued that Pliny must mean another site. But both these points are disputed and it is widely accepted that Qumran is the site of Pliny's Essenes.

The question was raised whether the ambiguous evidence of the cemetery (in which at least one of the excavated ancient skeletons was female, and perhaps a couple more) could be explained by positing that the community started out allowing its members to marry but then took a stricter stance and banned women entirely. This is an intriguing notion: Josephus does have marrying Essenes and the Damascus Document has marrying sectarians. (And, incidentally, contrary to popular understanding, the Community Rule does not explicitly describe an all-male community.) Pliny is quite firm that his Essene community was always celibate, but then he also says they had been there for countless ages, so his sources were not perfect. Nevertheless, apart from that one certainly female skeleton, we have no positive evidence that the people who lived there started out as a marrying Essene/sectarian group that initially left male and female burials and only became strictly male and celibate later on, so the idea doesn't seem to have much traction.

An interesting question to which I haven't yet been able to find an answer: how do the Donceels fit the Qumran cemetery into their theory that the ruins were of a vacation villa?

Regular readers of my other blog will be aware that I am fond of counterfactual history. The discussion suggested a counterfactual scenario to me that seems like a useful thought experiment. Suppose that the Dead Sea Scrolls had never been discovered in those caves. (Make up whatever reason you like: maybe they were discovered in the Middle Ages and the caves were completely cleaned out.) What would archaeologists make of the site? They would presumably decide that it had been inhabited by Jews some generations on either side of the turn of the era, based on the dating of the ceramics and the Hebrew ostraca, etc. on the site. They would also have deduced that the occupation was brought to an end by violent outside attack, probably by the Romans. They would find some ritual baths (how many exactly is debated). According to Magness, the pottery was produced locally and was unusually plain. There would be the strange cemetery with individual (as opposed to family) graves with an unusual north to south orientation and with a very high ratio of men to women and apparently no children (assuming Zias is right that most of the graves of adult females and all the graves of children are Bedouin). Would these factors be enough to draw attention to Pliny's account of the Essenes and lead archaeologists to propose that Qumran was his Essene settlement even without the evidence of the scrolls? I don't know. What do you think?

Finally, it is interesting to note that some of the archaeologists involved in the more recent excavations do not hold to the theory of Essene occupation of Qumran. Yuval Peleg and Itzhaq Magen think that period 1a was a Hasmonean military fortress and in period 1b and following Qumran was a pottery and honey production factory. See especially this long Jerusalem Post article.

There was more in the seminar, but for the sake of time I think I'm going to leave it there.