Qumran (خربة قمران, חירבת קומראן, Khirbet Qumran) is located on a dry plateau about a mile inland from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in the West Bank, just next to the Israeli kibbutz of Kalia. The site was most likely constructed sometime during or before the reign of John Hyrcanus, 134-104 BC and saw various phases of occupation until, probably after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Titus and his X Fretensis destroyed it. It is best known as the settlement nearest to the hiding place of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of the sheer desert cliffs.
Since the discovery in 1947 of nearly 900 scrolls in various states of completeness, mostly written on parchment, extensive excavations of the settlement have been undertaken. Cisterns, possibly a few Jewish ritual baths, and cemeteries have been found, along with a dining or assembly room and debris from an upper story alleged by some to have been a scriptorium as well as pottery kilns and a tower.
Many scholars believe the location to have been home to a Jewish sect, perhaps the Essenes; others have proposed that it was a villa for a wealthy family, or even that it was a Jewish fort and at times a pottery factory. A large cemetery was discovered to the north of the site. While most of the graves contain the remains of males, some women were also discovered, suggesting to some that the site may not have been home to a celibate sect of Essenes living in the Dead Sea region and described by Pliny. Only a small portion of the graves were excavated, because under Jewish law excavating cemeteries is forbidden. Over a thousand bodies are buried at Qumran cemetery. One theory is that bodies were brought to Qumran because burial was easier there than in rockier surrounding areas.
The scrolls were found in a series of eleven caves just to the west of the settlement. Some scholars have claimed that the caves were the permanent libraries of the sect, due to the presence of the remains of a shelving system. Other scholars believe that some caves also served as domestic shelters for those living in the area. Many of the texts found in the caves appear to represent widely accepted Jewish beliefs and practices, while other texts appear to speak of divergent, unique, or minority interpretations and practices. Some scholars believe that some of these texts describe the beliefs of the inhabitants of Qumran, which, may have been the Essenes, or the asylum for supporters of the traditional priestly family of the Zadokites against the Hasmonean priest/kings. A literary epistle published in the 1990s expresses reasons for creating a community, some of which mirror Sadducean arguments in the Talmud. Most (perhaps all) of the scrolls seem to have been hidden in the caves during the turmoil of the First Jewish Revolt.
The scrolls were found in 11 caves, ranging in distance of 125m (Cave 4) to about 1000m (Cave 1) from the settlement at Qumran, located 1km off the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. None of them were found at the actual settlement. It is generally accepted that a Bedouin goat- or sheep-herder by the name of Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed (nicknamed edh-Dhib, "the wolf") made the first discovery toward the beginning of 1947.
In the most commonly told story the shepherd threw a rock into a cave in an attempt to drive out a missing animal under his care. The shattering sound of pottery drew him into the cave, where he found several ancient jars containing scrolls wrapped in linen. The scrolls were first brought to a Bethlehem antiquities dealer named Ibrahim 'Ijha, who returned them after being warned that they may have been stolen from a synagogue. The scrolls then fell into the hands of Khalil Eskander Shahin, "Kando", a cobbler and antiques dealer. By most accounts the Bedouin removed only three scrolls following their initial find, later revisiting the site to gather more, possibly encouraged by Kando. Alternatively, it is postulated that Kando engaged in his own illegal excavation: Kando himself possessed at least four scrolls.
Arrangements with the Bedouins left the scrolls in the hands of a third party until a sale of them could be negotiated. That third party, George Isha'ya, was a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who soon contacted St. Mark's Monastery in the hope of getting an appraisal of the nature of the texts. News of the find then reached Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, more often referred to as Mar Samuel.
By the end of 1947, Sukenik received word of the scrolls in Mar Samuel's possession and attempted to purchase them. No deal was reached, and instead the scrolls found the attention of Dr. John C. Trever, of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). Dr. Trever compared the script in the scrolls to the Nash Papyrus, the oldest biblical manuscript at the time, finding similarities between the two.
Dr. Trever, a keen amateur photographer, met with Mar Samuel on February 21, 1948, when he photographed the scrolls. The quality of his photographs often exceeded that of the scrolls themselves over the years, as the texts quickly eroded once removed from their linen wraps.
In March of that year, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War prompted the removal of the scrolls from the country for safekeeping. The scrolls were removed to Beirut.
In early September 1948, Mar Samuel brought Professor Ovid R. Sellers, the new Director of ASOR, some additional scroll fragments that he had acquired. By the end of 1948, nearly two years after the discovery of the scrolls, scholars had yet to locate the cave where the fragments had been found. With the unrest in the country, no large scale search could be undertaken. Sellers attempted to get the Syrians to help locate the cave, but they demanded more money than Sellers could offer. Cave 1 was finally discovered on January 28, 1949 by a United Nations observer.
After some time, the Dead Sea Scrolls went up for sale in a June 1, 1954 advertisement in the Wall Street Journal.
On July 1, after some delicate negotiations, the scrolls, accompanied by the Metropolitan and two others, came to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Purchased for 250,000 US dollars. Only some of which Mar Samuel actually got, due to a mix up in paperwork, The US government received most of the money due to taxes.
In their book Archaeology of the Hidden Qumran, The New Paradigm (Helsinki, 2002) Minna Lonnqvist and Kenneth Lonnqvist brought a modern approach to the Qumran studies based on contextual archaeology with its spatial studies and interpretation of symbolic language of the archaeological data, arguing that the Dead Sea Scrolls had been driven out from their archaeological context by the text scholars who had only focused their studies on the scrolls. Ever since the publication of the book contextualism has been part of the Qumran studies. The Lonnqvists, who had carried out a survey in situ at Qumran, studied unpublished archaeological finds and read scrolls, argued that the scrolls and the settlement are associated to an Essene-type of group which, however, finds the closest parallels in the contemporary Jewish Therapeutic group known to have lived in Egypt.
David A. Fiensy, cites A. Dupont-Somer, N. Avigad and E. L. Sukenik, F. M. Cross, D. Flusser, H. Stegemann, G. Vermes, J. Fitzmeyer, J.C VaderKam, Erdmans, F. G. Martinez, J. H. Charlesworth, and C. M. Murphy for the view that the Qumran sectarians were Essenes, on the other hand Norman Golb for "the view that the scrolls represent Judaism in general and not a sect", and Schiffman for the view that the scrolls were written by Sadducees.
De Vaux’s hypothesis went virtually unchallenged for decades until archaeologists and other scholars began to question de Vaux’s conclusions and reinterpret the archaeological remains. Those who challenged de Vaux’s findings took issue with the practice of using the Dead Sea Scrolls to interpret the archaeological remains at Qumran. They argued that these remains should be interpreted independently, without any influence from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Various reinterpretations have led to various conclusions about the site. These include:
The team of Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute focused their research on the wealth of small finds from Qumran, including, but not limited to, glassware, metal wares, and coins. Contrary to the belief that the inhabitants of the site were poor monastics, Donceel and Donceel-Voute suggested that the residents were actually wealthy traders, with connections to the upper class and wealthy in nearby Jerusalem. They ultimately suggested that Qumran was a villa rustica, or wealthy manor house, that may have been a winter or year-round second home to some wealthy family from Jerusalem.
Norman Golb weighed into the debate with his book, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?. The first chapter of the book develops the theory that the Qumran settlement was not established as a sectarian residence, but was actually a Hasmonean fortress. In addition, his work with the Dead Sea Scrolls led him to conclude that there were no sectarians at the site at all, and that the Scrolls had been produced, at least for the most part, in Jerusalem, and that this diverse library was hidden in the caves by Jews fleeing the Romans during a political uprising. Golb continues to be a leading critic of what he believes is the failure by adherents of the traditional Qumran-Essene hypothesis to adequately defend their position in the light of new theories. According to an article published in the Chicago Jewish News, Golb has been a controversial figure in the world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship since 1995, when this book was published, as his theory that the scrolls originate from Jerusalem, goes against the scholarly consensus that the scrolls were written by the Essenes. A New York Times article describes a "tide of revisionist thinking" on whether or not the scrolls were written by Essenes. Other scholars, such as Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, directors of the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeological team specialized on Khirbet Qumran, reject the Essene theory and endorse the Jerusalem theory. An article by Golb, published in the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute website argues that the archaeology of Khirbet Qumran and the site's connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls as presented in the script Ancient Qumran: A Virtual Reality Tour film, contradicts current research, and calls the exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum "a blatantly misleading" presentation. Other sources describe Golb's theories as going against scholarly consensus,, as being the subject of a "lively debate" in Qumran studies," or as giving rise to a "tide of revisionist thinking."
Yizhar Hirschfeld published a book entitled, Qumran in Context, in which he accepts the notion that the site was originally a Hasmonean fortress. Citing his work at ‘Ein Feshka as a comparison, he suggests that the site at Qumran ultimately became an agriculturally-based, fortified trading station during the Herodian era. Hirschfeld’s book offers a detailed examination of the archaeology of Qumran.
Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg have focused their 10-year excavations at Qumran upon the vast water system at Qumran. They too accept that the site was originally a fortress, but they argue that the site was repurposed as a pottery production plant, and that the water system was actually used to bring the clay-laced water into the site for the purpose of pottery production.
Golb, Hirschfeld, Magen and Peleg have all concluded that Qumran was never inhabited by any sect and that the Dead Sea Scrolls have no organic connection with the site, but were brought down to the region from the Jerusalem area for hiding during the First Revolt.
Lena Cansdale, along with Alan Crown, argued that the settlement was a fortified road station and a port town on the shores of the Dead Sea, meaning that the site was actually a prominent commercial site on a major north-south trade route.
Jodi Magness defends the traditional Qumran-Essene hypothesis in her book, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002). While proposing some modification to de Vaux’s dating of the various periods of the site, Magness rejects the idea that the site was originally a fortress that was subsequently reoccupied, stating, “Could Qumran originally have been an agricultural settlement (or a fortress or other kind of nonsectarian settlement) that was later occupied by sectarians? I do not believe that the archaeological evidence supports such a possibility. This is because the presence of miqva’ot (ritual baths), the pantry containing more than 1000 dishes (L86), and possible evidence for animal bone deposits, outside the buildings in pre-31 B.C.E. contexts, indicate that the settlement was sectarian from the beginning”.
Israeli archaeologist and pottery specialist Rachel Bar-Nathan, in her article "Qumran and the Hasmonaean and Herodian Winter Palaces of Jericho," in The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates (ed. Galor et al., Brill 2006), rejects Magness' claim that dishware found at Qumran shows any sectarian characteristic, explaining that such pottery has also been found in varying quantities at Masada, Jericho and other sites in the region. She states that "the material culture of Qumran cannot be considered a criterion for social or sectarian isolation. There is a striking similarity, in all aspects, between the pottery of Hasmonaean Jericho and of Qumran... probably due to the increased economic interests of the Hasmonaeans in this region." (277) Israeli archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld, in his book Qumran in Context (Hendrickson, 2004) explained that "the dining room at Qumran probably served the laborers and slaves who lived and worked at the site. The food could have been carried from the kitchen in the main building. Similar halls have been uncovered at several late Hellenistic and early Roman sites in Judaea, including, among others, Beth Zur, Khirbet el-Muraq, Horvat Salit, Kalandiya, and Mount Gerizim..." (p. 104). In their published reports on ten years of excavations at the site, archaeologists Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, directors of the Israel Antiquity Authority team specialized in Qumran, have also explicitly rejected the notion that animal bones or ritual baths discovered at Qumran show any sectarian usage of the site.
Jean-Baptiste Humbert published de Vaux's field notes Humbert proposed a hybrid solution to the debate surrounding Qumran. Humbert accepted that the site might have been originally established as a villa rustica, but that the site was abandoned, and was reoccupied by Essenes in the late first century BC. Humbert argues that the site may have also been used a place where pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem may have stopped to prepare. Humbert’s theory argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls should be considered as a product of the Qumran community, while acknowledging that the Essenes did not build the site.
More recently the theory of Qumran being a religious settlement has garnered critique by some archaeologists who consider the notion very unlikely. In the late 1980s Robert Donceel, while working on the materials left by the original excavator of Qumran, Roland de Vaux, found artifacts which did not fit the religious settlement model, including glassware and stoneware. In 1992 Pauline Donceel-Voute (Wise 1994) put forward the Roman villa model in an attempt to explain these artifacts. Donceel-Voute's interpretation has been shown wanting because of the lack of other artifacts expected if Qumran were a villa (e.g. Magness 2002). A recent final publication of the French excavations (ed. Humbert and Gunneweg 2003) with the evidence of a decorated frieze, opus sectile, fine columns etc., indicates after all that there existed a phase of a wealthier occupation "une grande maison" at Qumran. According to Jean-Baptiste Humbert (ibid.), the style of the columns find a parallel at the Tomb of Jason in Jerusalem. While the villa model now seems dubious to some, the evidence that it tried to explain has led to further attempts at explanation. Some analysts have suggested that Qumran was a commercial trading center ("entrepot"). For others it was a pottery production center.
A survey and spatial studies carried out by Finnish and British archaeologists in the area of Qumran in the 1990s supports the theory (see Lonnqvist and Lonnqvist 2002 and scientific peer-reviewed isprs organisation article 2004 on the website link below) that the orientations of the settlement and the graves, show that both the settlement and the graves belonged to an intentional planning scheme following the practice of the societies adhering a solar calendar. This scheme indicates that the settlement and its cemetery are connected to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes. It should be noted that the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the caves nearby the settlement comprise texts which promote a solar calendar instead of a lunar calendar(the Jewish religion follows a lunar calendar established in the rules of the Torah, i.e., the Five Books of Moses).
Pottery, glass and coins found at Qumran and along the shore are existing proof of flourishing trade connections in the area, and provide evidence that Qumran did not live in a vacuum in the Graeco-Roman period. Rachel Bar-Nathan (ed. Galor et al. 2006) has shown from similarities between pottery finds at Qumran and at the Herodian winter palaces of Jericho that Qumran should be seen as part of the Jordan valley context rather than as an isolated site. The famous cylindrical "scroll jars" from Qumran, once thought to be unique, she shows to have existed at Masada as well.
The several large stepped cisterns which are a feature of Qumran have been viewed as ritual baths by many traditional Qumranologists. This accords with the religious settlement model, although ritual baths have also been found in Jerusalem. There are logistical problems in understanding all these cisterns as baths, however. Qumran's water arrived perhaps twice a year from run off of water brought down by rain. Water was one of Qumran's most valued commodities and water management is an integral part of the site, as seen with the numerous cisterns and channels. If the large cisterns were ritual baths the water would sit getting dirtier through ritual bathing throughout the year and was extremely infrequently replenished by the run off. The current state of analysis of the cisterns is still unresolved, but Katharina Galor (ed. Humbert and Gunneweg 2003 ) suggests a mixed usage of the stepped cisterns as both ritual baths and water storage. According to the Israeli archaeologists Magen and Peleg (ed. Galor et al. 2006), the clay found in the cisterns was used for pottery factory facilities. However, some natural scientists, such as an Israeli scholar C. Klein, have put forward evidence which suggests that Qumran was occasionally flooded over the centuries, which could be responsible for aragonite crusting on the walls of the buildings as well as layers of clay accumulation in the structures.