Some Notes on the Archaeological Context of Qumran in the Light of Recent Publications

Netzer, E. 2001. Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho.Vol. I. Jerusalem.
Bar-Nathan, R. 2002. Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho. The Pottery. Vol. III. Jerusalem.
Amit, D., Patrich, J. and Hirschfeld, Y. (eds) 2002.The Aqueducts of Israel., JRA Supplement 46. R.I.
Magness, J. 2002. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge U.K.

By David Stacey
Field Archaeologist (1975-1987), Jericho Excavations
June 2004

For some years, Norman Golb has pointed out that the order in which various assemblages of ancient documents were found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea may have influenced their interpretation (Golb 1985, 1990). It is equally probable that the physical isolation of Qumran at the time that it was excavated meant that the site was viewed in a different manner to that in which it would be if it were discovered for the first time today. In the 1950s, the site was at the end of a dirt track which was, literally, the end of the road, for the then border between Jordan and Israel lay only a short distance to the south. For a visitor - and I hitchhiked to the site in 1964 - it seemed to be miles from anywhere and thus an ideal location for any group of people who wanted to isolate themselves totally from the rest of the world. Archaeologically, it was equally isolated as few of the contemporary, nearby sites had yet been excavated.

The recent publication of Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces in Jericho (Netzer 2001, Bar-Nathan 2002) reveals that in those periods Qumran, situated only 12 km from the heart of the Hasmonean royal estate, was not as isolated as it seemed to be in the 1950s. If Qumran had been discovered today, its possible relationship to the estate could not be ignored; indeed, it would be seen as an integral, though outlying, part of that estate.1

The early Hasmonean kings invested much effort in Jericho to secure a steady income from the processing of the valuable products of the date palms and balsam trees which grew so well there that they are specifically mentioned by a number of classical writers (for references, see Gleason 1988, Patrich 1989). They had the "broad vision and high technical ability" (Netzer and Garbrecht 2002:377) to build aqueducts, and a large area of previously uncultivated land to the west of the town was developed for agriculture by diverting water from springs within Wadi Qelt and carrying it by aqueduct onto the plains lying to the north of where the wadi disgorges from the Judean hills (Netzer and Garbrecht 2002). Netzer dates this, justifiably, to the time of John Hyrcanus, 134-104 B.C.E., or possibly his father Simeon, 143-134 B.C.E. (Netzer 2001:1). Gradually, a building complex grew up near the Qelt to house the administrators of the agricultural estate and to supply the Hasmonean royal family with a place for rest and relaxation. As their agricultural endeavours flourished, the Hasmoneans had to look for ways both to bring more land into production and to minimize the non-agricultural use of the crucial water supply.

It was probably at the time when the Qelt aqueduct had been fully exploited (late in the reign of John Hyrcanus or early in that of Alexander Janneus – the earliest pottery from both Qumran and Jericho dates from this period) that the Hasmoneans showed an interest in Qumran by cleaning out and renovating the Iron Age cistern (de Vaux 1973:4). Agriculture was probably not the main objective. De Vaux firmly dates two pottery kilns (in L66) to period Ia, adding "there is nothing to indicate that these kilns were already in service during the Israelite period" (de Vaux 1973:4-5).2

There would have been a great demand for pottery in Jericho. The expanding agricultural endeavours could only have been possible with a large influx of labor, all of whom would have needed domestic wares. Thousands of small bowls and plates were found in the silt at the bottom of mikva’ot and large pools (Bar-Nathan 2002: 86, 198, Pls. III, V). Whether they played some part in purification rites, as their provenance might suggest, or served a more mundane purpose need not be considered here. What is certain is that these vessels, which were crudely made and often poorly fired (Bar-Nathan 2002:95), but would pack together neatly for transport,3 must have been mass-produced nearby in large numbers. These bowls are found in Qumran; indeed, there is a strong resemblance in the coarse pottery in daily use at the two sites (Bar-Nathan 2002: 5, 89, 111-2, 196, 203-204), which contradicts the statement that the pottery "found at Qumran contrasts sharply with contemporary assemblages at other sites in Judea" (Magness 2002:89).4 The manufacture of pottery requires a steady supply of water, a commodity which, in Jericho, was wanted for agriculture but which in Qumran could be easily supplied by cleaning out the already existing cistern. Fuel would have been in short supply in Jericho, but it is possible that in Qumran bitumen from the Dead Sea was pressed into use as fuel. Although it would have produced particularly noxious gases, locating the kilns in Qumran would have ensured the fumes were well away from the royal palace.5

During the time of Alexander Jannaeus, who was "during his reign of 27 years, almost continuously involved in foreign and internal wars, for the most part deliberately provoked by him" (Schürer 1973: 22), Qumran’s strategic location gave the pottery workshop an added importance. In the 7th century B.C.E., a small fort at Qumran, guarding a track leading up to the Buqei’a, had been part of the defenses of the eastern borders of the Kingdom of Judah. When Alexander Jannaeus tried to expand into central Transjordan (c. 95 B.C.E.), thereby antagonizing the Nabateans, he would have ensured that the same track was protected, particularly as Hyrcania, a desert fortress named after his father (Patrich 1993: 639), probably already existed at the top of the track in the hills above Qumran (Hirschfeld 1998:172-173, Fig. 11).

In Jericho, Jannaeus brought more land into production to the north of Wadi Qelt by building a technically demanding aqueduct starting in Na’aran (Netzer 2001:3). The construction of the Qumran aqueduct,6 and of a building to house a small permanent detachment of troops, detectable in the core of de Vaux’s Period Ib (de Vaux 1973:5ff), should be dated to the same time (c. 95-90 B.C.E.).

When describing the Qumran aqueduct, Magness concludes that "although visitors are understandably impressed by this feat of engineering, much grander hydraulic systems which were constructed using similar principles can be seen in the contemporary Hasmonean and Herodian desert palaces such as Masada and Hyrcania" (Magness 2002:54). Elsewhere she writes that "it is important to remember that any comparisons we make should belong to the same period" (Magness 2002:90), so it is odd that here she compares a Hasmonean system with the work of Herod some two or three generations later.7

Jannaeus encountered serious opposition from the Nabateans and was defeated by both Obodas I in c. 94 B.C.E. (Antiquities XIII: 375) and, a few years later, by Aretas III, who, briefly, invaded Judea (Antiquities XIII: 392). In Jericho, Jannaeus felt so insecure that he buried the existing palace building with the spoil from a 7m deep moat with which he surrounded it (Netzer 2001: 3-4). For safety, he and the estate officials were reduced to a small building, the "Fortified Palace," erected on top of this artificially created hill. In size and plan, the main building at Qumran is not dissimilar to the near contemporary "Buried Palace" in Jericho, with both buildings having a square tower incorporated into one corner (cf. Hirschfeld 1998: fig. 14 with Netzer 2001: Plan 3).8 A number of architectural fragments found out of context, some associated with debris from the 31 B.C.E. earthquake and others rebuilt into later walls, may have come from the main building in Qumran (Hirschfeld 1998: 181, Magness 2002: 69, 124). If, however, the columns, voussoirs, and consoles were integral parts of the period Ib architecture, then that building was of considerable sophistication, at least the equal of any of the contemporary royal structures at Jericho and scarcely within the capabilities of a small group of Essenes, drawn from a marginal sect of small agriculturalists who despised riches (Wars 2: 122as Magness contends.

It is, however, very difficult to reconstruct logical locations for these architectural elements within the excavated building. De Vaux and Magness have suggested various ground floor locations, but without conviction (Magness 2002: 69, 124), while Hirschfeld, even less convincingly, elevates them to an upper storey (Hirschfeld 1998: 181). If, however, the stronghold was built hurriedly in response to a threat from the east, salvaged building stones, including these architectural elements, may have been brought to the site from elsewhere. Architectural elements of dressed stone were found at two anchorages, Qasr el-Yahud and Rujm el-Bahr, both about 6km from Qumran; the ceramics from these sites (Bar-Adon 1989: 8-12, 26-29) indicate that they were occupied at least from the time of Jannaeus until the mid 1st century CE. The excavations at both sites were only exploratory, however, and it is not known whether their architectural elements all belong to the original Hasmonean phase or some, perhaps, to a Herodian rebuilding. Moreover, as a large quantity of architectural elements were still visible at Rujm el-Bahr in 1818 (Forbin 1819:Pl. 24), it is unlikely that the site had been quarried for building stones before that time. On the other hand, parts of the "Buried Palace" in Hasmonean Jericho were demolished by Jannaeus during his construction of the defensive moat (Netzer 2001: 3-4), and surplus building stones may have been transported from Jericho to Qumran to construct another defensive position at the same time.9

The necessity for a garrison at Qumran was of fairly short duration. Even during the lifetime of Jannaeus, the moat he had dug in Jericho became a convenient refuse dump (Netzer 2001: 145), indicating a reduction in the threat of attack from the east. Following his death (76 B.C.E.), the "Twin Palaces" (Netzer 2001: 5) were constructed, in part, over a section of the moat that had already gone out of use and completely filled in (Netzer 2001: 146). In Qumran, the garrison may have been withdrawn as early as c. 80 B.C.E, with the buildings becoming largely surplus to requirements.

At the same time that there is a reduction in the strategic importance of Qumran, there are signs that there were new occupants. A profusion of miqva’ot gradually surrounded and encroached into the earlier structure,10 and unusual gatherings of animal bones were deposited. The new arrivals also brought with them the changed funerary practices11 revealed in the cemetery. There is no evidence for a break in occupation and any incomers must have arrived with the encouragement of the Hasmonean royal estate. Pottery production continued and was still important. Some of the over 700 bowls found in Locus 89, "the pantry," were probably produced for trade and, as they strongly resemble vessels found in late Hasmonean and early Herodian Jericho (Bar-Nathan 2002: 89), it seems that there were still close economic ties between the two sites. In all likelihood, Qumran also supplied some pottery to such nearby sites as Rujm el-Bahr, Qasr el-Yahud and, perhaps, Ein Gedi and Masada.

Who were these newcomers? By now the greatly increased area under cultivation in Jericho would have required a further influx of labor, some of it, particularly at harvest time, seasonal. Josephus described the Essenes as men "of the highest character, devoting themselves solely to agricultural labour" (Antiquities XVIII: 19) and, as such, would have been welcomed by the Hasmoneans. A considerable proportion of the population of Qumran probably worked (and slept) during the week on the royal estate, particularly in that area opened up south of Wadi Qelt12 closest to Qumran, which would have been only two or three hours walk away. This would help account for the noticeable shortage of living space at Qumran, which has led some to conclude that "some of this habitation could have been seasonal—that is, perhaps some of the members lived at Qumran on a temporary basis" (Magness 2002: 69-71). On the eve of the Sabbath, they would return to Qumran where, being beyond the boundaries of the estate, they were separated from what, if they were indeed Essenes, they would have considered the impurities of the world and could conduct themselves according to their ascetic ideals.

Some of the Qumran community were potters; others were, perhaps, acolytes hoping to join the Essene sect. During their three year "apprenticeship," they could support themselves and their community with laboor on the Jericho estate. Once accepted into the sect, some may have remained in Qumran, but others would have moved to Essene communities elsewhere. Over a thousand people are buried in the Qumran cemetery, too many for them all to have lived and died there. The marl into which they are dug offered an easier and cheaper burial option than the bed-rock of Jerusalem, and it is probable that many of the corpses were carried down from communities in the hill country, perhaps accompanied by superannuated documents belonging to the same communities.

There is no reason to assume that the scrolls found in Qumran were all hidden in haste at a time of conflict. It is far more likely that the caves served as genizot for other communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Over the years, torn and damaged scrolls and documents that had become "old-fashioned" because they contained outmoded philosophies or rules that had been surpassed were brought down from the hill country and quietly deposited in the safety of the caves. Some scrolls may have been as much of a curiosity to those who deposited them as a book of Victorian sermons would be to us.


(back) 1 Bar-Adon came to a broadly similar conclusion when the excavation of Second Temple Jericho was in its infancy (Bar-Adon 1981). Drori and Magen more recently concluded that "the founding of Qumran should be viewed as an integral part of the Hasmonean plan to settle and fortify the Jordan Valley" (Wise, Abegg, and Cook 1996:22-23).

(back)   2 Although Magness points out that when they were first discovered de Vaux wondered whether these kilns might have been Iron Age (Magness 2002:64), she does not draw attention to this emphatic denial made after further excavation and mature consideration.

(back)   3 Both vessels are common throughout Judea, but for flat plates near the Dead Sea, see: at Qumran (de Vaux 1954: Figs. 2:3, 5,8-9; 3:9; 1956: Figs. 1:9-10, 3:1-4), at Rujm el-Bahr (Bar-Adon 1989: Fig. 9A:6-9) and at Ein Gedi (Mazar 1966: Fig. 265:1-6).

(back)   4 Magness cites the lack of fine wares, particularly Eastern Sigillata A, at Qumran as a peculiarity (Magness 2002:75-6, 100), but ESA and other imported wares were also absent from Hasmonean Jericho (Bar-Nathan 2002:121, 197-8).

(back) 5 The Qumran kilns were not extensive enough to have produced all the pottery needed in Jericho, and kilns certainly existed there too (Bar-Nathan 2002:108 for lamp mould, 196, Pl. VII).

(back) 6 Only five or six pre-Hasmonean aqueducts are known in Palestine, which, as they served urban communities, would have been major municipal and/or provincial undertakings. The Hasmoneans built a number of run-off aqueducts associated with their desert fortresses in Judea, some of which had been instigated in the days of John Hyrcanus or Simeon (I Macc. 12.35, 13.33). No "private" aqueducts are known from this period (Patrich and Amit 2002: 16-17). Although the Qumran aqueduct has been dated to the time of Herod Archelaus (Ilan and Amit 2002: 385), no explanation is given for this late dating which ignores its "excellent white plaster" (ob. sit. 384), typical of the Hasmonean period (Porath 2002:35), and the fact that the mikva’ot, from which came Hasmonean material, were fed by the aqueduct.

(back) 7 The aqueduct system at Masada dates to Herod’s time and certainly no Hasmonean channels have been identified there (Netzer 2002: 355). At Hyrcania, although some of the aqueduct system can de dated to the Hasmonean period, much is attributed to the major rebuild by Herod (Patrich 2002: 336-337).

(back) 8 Of the ruins at the site, a mid-19th-century visitor said, "It can hardly be doubted that this formed a tower or stronghold of some kind. The situation is commanding and well adapted for defensive operations" (Taylor 2002: 151).

 (back) 9 A close parallel to the column bases found in Qumran can be seen in Herod’s Second Palace in Jericho (cf. Hirschfeld 1998: Fig. 16, Magness 2002 :Fig. 27 and Netzer 2001: ills. 251, 252). In Jericho, these bases would not have been seen in the round and may have been in secondary use.

(back) 10 It is doubtful that all the mikva’ot were constructed at the same time although ultimately they may all have existed together (cf. the changes made to the mikva’ot in Area AB in Jericho Netzer 2001: 97-100).

(back) 11 The recently discovered Tomb 1000, with characteristics distinct from other graves in Qumran (Eshel et al. 2002: 147-153; Broshi and Eshel 2003) can be compared with a grave excavated in Jericho and dated to the 2nd century B.C.E. (Stacey forthcoming). The similarities suggest that Tomb 1000 should be dated similarly, but we must await its final publication.

(back) 12 Land to the south of Wadi Qelt had been developed for agriculture by the construction of Birket Musa, "the largest man-made water tank ... in the country" (Netzer and Garbrecht 2002: 377), which was probably fed by the diversion of winter flood waters. Although no evidence exists for a precise dating, the walls of the pool were originally coated with the white lime plaster typical of the Hasmonean period (Porath’s formula I.1, see Porath 2002: 35). As no Hasmonean buildings have been found in the limited excavations around Birket Musa, we can assume that the pool was for agricultural purposes and that it would have irrigated a considerable area to the south of Wadi Qelt, stretching perhaps two or three kilometers in the direction of Qumran.
In the Herodian period, some villas were built near the pool (the remains of at least two were noted by the author in a trench being dug for the installation of a water pipe in the late1970s) but, by that period, some spring water from Qelt had also been diverted south of the wadi (Meshel and Amit 2002: 320-321), which would have allowed the agricultural area to be expanded even further to the south, perhaps as much as an additional two or three kilometers closer to Qumran.


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