New Study Solves the Mystery of Dead Sea Scrolls Site

Scholars have struggled how to explain the lack of more permanent residences at Qumran, but a new theory suggests that the grounds served as a religious competitor to Jerusalem

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Dr. Daniel Vainstub in Qumran.
Dr. Daniel Vainstub in Qumran.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Among the tens of thousands of documents that were found in the 19th century in the Cairo Geniza, a collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts, the largest and most important of their kind were two copies of a puzzling, handwritten manuscript that was labeled the Damascus Document.

This manuscript was believed to have been written in the 10th century C.E. and includes divine warnings, apocalyptic descriptions and religious rites. Some of the fog around this manuscript was dispersed 70 years later with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the scrolls that was found in the Qumran caves was the Damascus Document. In other words, this text originated with the sect that lived beside the Dead Sea.

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After the conquest and destruction of Qumran by the Romans, a copy of the manuscript found its way to Cairo and there, apparently, it was repeatedly copied for 900 years. This document now serves as a possible solution to another mystery – the true nature of the Qumran site.

The site of Qumran at the northern end of the Dead Sea has been firing the imagination of researchers and archaeology buffs for 70 years. Cave No. 4, located in a cliff inside the national park, is a world-scale archaeological treasure. Most of the hidden scrolls were found there. Across the cliff is the site itself, consisting of the remains of large and impressive buildings that include a large pantry, two gigantic ritual pools (mikvehs), warehouses, and agricultural installations.

The location and scrolls are at the heart of a prolonged scientific argument relating to the connection of the site to the scrolls and the identity of the site’s occupants. Most researchers identify the residents of Qumran, who lived there between the first century B.C. and the first century C.E. with the Essene sect, described by historian Josephus Flavius (Yosef Ben Matityahu).

In this argument, an important question that occurs to every visitor to the site seems to have been forgotten: Where are the living quarters? If this was a permanent Essene settlement, how could they have a central pantry, large ritual pools, a cemetery and refectory, but no houses? Where did the people who composed the scrolls live? And what about the people who dipped in the pools and used the thousand pottery vessels that were found at the site?

Qumran cavesCredit: Emil Salman

Over the years, researchers have raised several possibilities for solving this question. The most accepted one is that the people there lived in dwellings that left no remains, built with perishable materials. These could have been tents or booths, or perhaps they lived in nearby caves. But given the magnificence of the investment in high-quality building in the public structures, this solution seems somewhat forced. Why would they invest in such glorious public structures while living in tents or caves?

A new study published this month in the periodical Religions offers a new interpretation for the entire site. It asserts that this was not a permanent dwelling of the Essenes but the site of an annual gathering. “If you were an Essene you were obliged to come once a year to this meeting in order to renew your covenant with God. In order to convene thousands of people you need infrastructure, which is why you have the largest ritual pool in the country, with a large empty plaza. I claim that this plaza is the key,” says the study’s author, Dr. Daniel Vainstub, an archaeologist and philologist from Ben Gurion University and the Israel Museum.

The Damascus Document includes the rules for this yearly event, he maintains.

During a visit to Qumran, Vainstub explains how he interprets the site based on the text of the Damascus Document and the Community Rule document, a manuscript that describes the customs and way of life of the Yahad community, which most researchers associate with the Essenes. For Vainstub, the plaza at the southern part of the site, devoid of buildings, is the main feature. That is where the men of this community gathered once a year, during the Shavuot festival. The Essenes were a Jewish sect but did not recognize the temple in Jerusalem or the priestly families of Jerusalem, or the Hebrew calendar, thereby exempting themselves from the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Instead, they went to the desert.

Qumran cavesCredit: Emil Salman

With this in mind one can understand the other buildings surrounding the plaza on three sides. One side is the graveyard, with a low stone fence separating it from the plaza so that the impurity of the dead would not cross to the sanctified gathering area. On another side is the pantry, where a thousand pieces of pottery were found during excavations, “lined up as if after a rinsing,” says Vainstub. The wall of the pantry contains a low window. “In the Roman architecture of the period you never find such a low window. Beside the window are two stands, on which one could place pots,” he says, explaining that the strange location of the window indicates that it did not serve for cooling, but for serving food to hundreds of people outside.

This also explains the unusual system of ritual pools at Qumran. Two very large pools were found there, among the largest in the country, as well as eight smaller ones, in addition to large cisterns. A small community of 20-30 people, religious and pedantic with purity rites as they may be, does not require so many pools. But if this is an annual meeting site where hundreds of people need to bathe, it makes sense.

This also explains the absence of dwelling structures and the presence of agricultural installations, such as an area for treading grapes. He believes that a few people occupied the site on a permanent basis, maintaining it and preparing it for the annual gathering. When hundreds of people arrived for a few days, they slept on mats in the surrounding area, which is why there are no buildings for dwelling.

Vainstub’s theory may help solve another mystery at Qumran. In several places clay pots were found buried under the floor, apparently containing food remnants. Vainstub proposes that these contained the remains of communal meals and that their burial was part of the rites that characterized the sect.

The Essenes were less isolated from the general society as was previously thought, since during the year they lived within or alongside regular Jewish communities across the land, only separating during the annual gathering. Moreover, according to the Damascus Document, the person conducting the ceremony had to know different languages, “since they came from all over the country, with Jews then speaking three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek,” says Vainstub.

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