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Led Astray By a Dead Sea Latrine

Recently, Israeli paleopathologist Joseph Zias and American biblical scholar James Tabor claimed that primitive latrines they discovered close to the ancient city of Qumran confirm that Essenes had lived in the area. In doing so, they stepped knee-deep into the controversy about the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered near Khirbet Qumran and are perhaps the most important biblical manuscripts ever found.

Zias and Tabor’s claim that Qumran was an Essene settlement was first put forth in the late 1940s, shortly after the scrolls were discovered and the Qumran architectural complex was excavated. At the time, scholars proposed that the Essene people mentioned by such ancient authors as Josephus, Philo and Pliny deserved to be recognized as the sect described in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But in the years since, particularly after the discovery of additional manuscripts in the 1950s and ’60s, most scholars have come to agree that the scrolls reflect the religious and social ideas of various groups within ancient Judaism. A number of archeologists have raised serious doubts about the theory that the sect that wrote, copied and collected the scrolls built and used the archaeological complex at Qumran as its communal base.

According to Tabor and Zias, however, the primitive latrines they discovered connect Qumran to the Dead Sea Scrolls and give direct evidence of Essene culture at the site. While Tabor and Zias certainly are to be congratulated for their finds, their interpretation of the material raises severe doubts about their claims.

To begin with, Tabor and Zias fail to show why the latrines should be exclusively linked to the Essenes. They point to passages in two Dead Sea Scrolls that speak about the latrines being located in a place to the “northwest of the city” and “not visible from the city.” Why, though, should we think that the city mentioned in these texts represents Essene Qumran?

Tabor and Zias’s reasoning works only if a firm connection among Essenes, Qumran texts and architectural complex is already accepted before the archaeological material is analyzed. Not only does this assumption not prove anything, but it itself is in need of proof, as well.

The second problem with their claim is topography. The fact that they found installations such as latrines to the northwest of Qumran is not all that surprising, because the flat surface north and west of the site represents the only spot where any such structure could have been built. How, then, can the location be an argument in favor of the installation’s Essene origin?

In addition, according to some there was also a latrine located inside the settlement. Zias himself has written about its contents. He should be more than capable, therefore, of explaining how an indoor latrine can be reconciled with the Dead Sea Scroll texts that he quotes to identify the new discovery outside town as Essene, as well as with assumptions about the Qumranites’ extreme obsession with ritual purity.

Furthermore, Tabor and Zias fail to show that the latrine is indeed ancient. Instead of simply presenting a scientifically based date of the feces remains — which would be easy, given the fact that we are dealing here with organic material — we are told only that it cannot be Bedouin because Bedouin usually do not bury their waste. Strange logic, indeed.

Even if the new toilet was not Bedouin, it does not follow that it was Essene. Without physical data, the ancient date of the open-air latrine is up in the air. Tabor and Zias’s attempt to connect their findings from the latrine with material from the cemetery at Qumran is equally unconvincing. While Zias has indeed done previous work on the Qumran cemetery, he is not sufficiently familiar with the bone material itself to conclude, as he did recently, that “the graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group that I have ever studied in over 30 years.”

A large part of the human bone material excavated at Qumran in the 1950s by French priest Roland de Vaux has recently been re-examined and republished by two teams, one led by German anthropologist Olav Röhrer-Ertl and the other by American paleoanthropologist Susan Sheridan. Both scholars explicitly warn against generalizing anthropological data from the Qumran cemetery, because fewer than 50 individuals have been properly examined from well over 1,100 burials.

Zias should know that the statistical value of the material is insignificant and does not allow for drawing conclusions about the mortality rate and general health of the Qumran population. Contrary to Zias’s claim, Röhrer-Ertl and Sheridan have not noted any unusual and surprising characteristics when examining the Qumran bones. The data show a surprisingly wide range of age, including several individuals aged 50 and older, and include both men and women.

On what basis, then, does Zias ignore these data? Zias and Tabor’s hypotheses about the Qumranites’ rigorous latrine and purification practices and an exceptionally high mortality rate are completely unfounded.

Zias and Tabor have demonstrated clearly how much the individuals responsible for the feces in the outdoor latrine suffered from all sorts of parasites. But they fail to show how this phenomenon can be exclusively connected to the Essenes. Moreover, the assumption that the users of the new toilet were of particularly poor health can be made only when the material is carefully compared with data from other sites.

If the ancient date of the organic material from the pit can indeed be established, it should be correlated not to texts of dubious relevance, but to material from other latrines in the region and beyond. Indeed, it is for such comparisons that Zias and Tabor’s fascinating discovery holds potential.

As happens often when it comes to Qumran archaeology, this newly discovered material has been misused as “proof” of the alleged Essene character of the site before it has been properly analyzed and compared. As much as Zias and Tabor should be lauded for their find, the pests from the pit do not prove that Essenes lived at Qumran.

Katharina Galor is a visiting assistant professor at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World and at the Judaic studies program at Brown University. Jürgen Zangenberg is a professor of New Testament and early Christian literature at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.


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