Hermits ousted by a wealth of evidence

Qumran in Context
March 3, 2006

Few ancient sites stir the passions quite like Qumran, whose peaceful ruins nestle halfway up a mountain on the western, Israeli bank of the Dead Sea. Set amid the searing heat of the Judaean wilderness, this well-preserved Hasmonean (134-104BC) to Roman period (37BC-AD68) site was comprehensively excavated in 1951-56 by Roland de Vaux. Pots similar to those discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls caves littered Qumran, leading to near-evangelical anticipation that the authors of the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century once lived here.

Unsurprisingly, de Vaux, a man of the cloth, read into the ruins the splendour of the world's earliest monastic community. A great hall and clay inkwells conjured images of a spectacular scriptorium where the 850 Dead Sea Scrolls were penned; the ten water pools were a reflection of adherence to strict Jewish laws of ritual purity. The holy trinity linking the Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumran and the extremely pious Jewish Essene sect became academic orthodoxy. The scrolls pushed back knowledge of how the Bible and Apocrypha were compiled by 1,000 years. People wished to be able to touch the place where world religion sprung to life.

In what will be judged a highly controversial book, Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem plunges the knife deep into the Qumran-Essene jugular. For Hirschfeld, Qumran makes sense only in a regional geopolitical context. With impressive discipline, he systematically summarises the archaeological history of the site, its physical setting and the origins of the scrolls. Particular emphasis is given to Flavius Josephus's description of the reclusive Essenes living around Ein Gedi.

Josephus is crystal clear that the Essenes were "despisers of riches" and guarded against "the lascivious behaviour of women". They studied the Scriptures and adhered obsessively to laws of ritual purity. This ascetic image is confirmed by Pliny the Elder, who wrote that "the solitary tribe of the Essenes... has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money and has only palm trees for company."

Hirschfeld exposes how Qumran's archaeology is in fact incompatible with these historical citations. Cosmetic utensils, needles and spindle whorls betray the presence of women in the settlement, while hoes, sheep shears, knives and sickles shatter any illusion that the occupants were mere bookworms. Even more damaging is the presence of 673 bronze and silver coins, which reflect intimate involvement in market forces. The Qumranites were sufficiently prosperous to decorate their home with moulded stucco, columns and flashy opus sectile tiles, and to import glass vessels from Phoenicia and Eastern Terra Sigillata bowls. Qumran was no isolated desert retreat.

After the Battle of Actium in 31BC, Caesar Augustus granted control of the Dead Sea region to King Herod and later the upper classes of Judaea, ushering in a new wave of prosperity. Rome and its puppet rulers were keen to cream off the world-renowned Dead Sea resources, including dates, the highly prized balsam perfume, and salt and bitumen from the lake itself (used in Egyptian mummification and as a sealant for ships). A web of small harbours evolved along the shore at Rujum el-Bahr, Khirbet Mazin and Callirrhoe, and rustic villas sprung up to manage the new economic interests.

To Hirschfeld, Qumran fits perfectly the model of a mansion house owned by a rich absentee Jewish landlord. The decisive argument is Qumran's extensive industrial complex, encompassing a potter's workshop, wine press and date-drying installation. Moreover, a 3km-long wall linked Qumran to a satellite farm at Ein Feshkha that seems to have specialised in date wine or honey, and perhaps the perfume industry. The recent discovery of Roman legionary-stamped tiles here clarifies the motivation behind Rome's invasion of Israel in AD66: to secure the empire's economic interests. This was the First Gulf War 2,000 years ago.

While Hirschfeld often generalises without qualifying his thought processes sufficiently, the main thrust of Qumran in Context is hot stuff. At best the Qumranites may have helped Jerusalem's priests conceal the Dead Sea Scrolls as the Roman military machine closed in on Jerusalem, but they are otherwise incidental to their mysteries. Qumran was far too busy creaming the fruits of land and sea. Hirschfeld's bold new book smashes a popular orthodoxy and will be taken as sacrilege by many establishment figures. Yet his model certainly fits the facts, and this book will become a classic among students, academics and the interested public. Qumran is finally out of the closet.

Sean Kingsley is managing editor of Minerva , the international review of ancient art and archaeology.

Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence

Author - Yizhar Hirschfeld
Publisher - Hendrickson Publishers
Pages - 304
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 56563 612 0

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