Qumran Archaeology: More Grave Errors

Press reports by staff members attempting to link this individual and earlier skeletal remains with John the Baptist, the Teacher of Righteousness, or James the brother of Jesus appear to have been designed to attract media attention and additional funding rather than to have had any scientific value. Neither for quoting nor publishing without the expressed approval of the author.

By Joe Zias
Science and Archaeology Group @ The Hebrew University
February 2004

    In 1988, P. Davies published an article quoted by many entitled, "How not to do archaeology, the story of Qumran." Today, in light of recent excavations, the title seems almost prophetic. Unfortunately in the ensuing years, the message seems to have been lost on many of those involved in research on the archaeology of Qumran.[1] The following is an attempt to critique some of these flagrant violations of science and distortions of the scientific method, which continue to plague Qumran studies.


The latest attempt by Eshel et al.[2] to map the cemetery where they claim to have found 124 tombs, previously unknown, by ground penetrating radar, is highly unlikely and overestimates the actual number of tombs in the cemetery. GPR, as they correctly state in footnote 23 "identifies anomalies in the subsurface and the possible presence of graves, though we assume that all such anomalies are indeed graves, especially within the boundaries of the cemetery, and it remains technically possible that some may not be." While those located within the boundaries of the cemetery probably exist due to patterning and the Bedouin reuse of grave stones, thirty-five percent of these anomalies which appear on the map as "graves located using GPR" lie to the west of the main cemetery excavated by De Vaux in the 1950's. These are suspect since no excavated graves, looted graves, or graves that can be seen visually appear in the area. Secondly, and even more importantly, according to normative Judaism, cemeteries must be at least 50 cubits from the nearest city (Baba Bathra 2:9). If graves are indeed located there, then the reason for the site being sectarian, which is and has been the consensus, is called into question. Since none of these anomalies have been excavated, they will remain but anomalies; publishing them on the map along with the stone marked graves is speculative, unwarranted, and unjustified, sowing unnecessary confusion where there should be none.

In the same volume, both Sheridan (Rosenberg map) and Eshel (Reeder map) publish cemetery maps and data which do not always coincide with one another and at times are in direct conflict with the visual evidence. One particular case in point is the tombs west of the locus where the alleged zinc "coffin" was found. The Rosenberg/Meyers map, (tombs 977, 978) and a nearly identical Reeder map[3] both show that the tomb with the "zinc coffin" in the central eastern extension has additional tombs to the immediate west. Rosenberg records these as three, east-west tombs; however, in the plan prepared by Eshel, Broshi, and Freund, these same tombs are recorded not as three, but as two tombs orientated north-south. These discrepancies are troublesome for those interested in understanding the cemetery, particularly as most of the east-west tombs are Bedouin burials totally unrelated to the Essene community.[4]

Tombs which had been opened earlier by De Vaux and appeared on the Rosenberg map, particularly in the southern region of the cemetery, differ from those recorded by Reeder both in number as well as orientation of the tombs. Closer cooperation between these two teams, i.e., mapping the same site and publishing in the same volume, should have been warranted.

The Place of Mourning

In the article by Eshel et al., the excavators designate the "square building at the eastern edge of the middle finger of the cemetery" as a "mourning enclosure"; this interpretation is highly problematical as well as unlikely on the basis of anthropological and archaeological evidence. Originally, this had been interpreted by the authors as a mausoleum,[5] and now, on the basis of the human remains found there, it is published as a place for mourning. The skeletal remains recovered in 2001 were announced to the press by one of the co-directors as being those of James the Brother of Jesus: the following day the remains became Bedouin women and now are published as the partial remains of two women from the Roman period in a context of secondary burial.[6] The anthropological and archaeological evidence argues differently.

The hill on which this structure appears is not artificially constructed but is a natural formation with very steep sides to the north, south and east. The only safe access to this "enclosure" is via the cemetery; such a location automatically makes it off limits for halachic reasons to Kohanim who are forbidden to touch a corpse or to come within 4 cubits of a grave (Lev. 21:1-4). Secondly, the authors assume that the floor of the building[7] and mourning benches may have removed by De Vaux in the 1950s. This is difficult to accept since De Vaux himself examined this locus, and no evidence of a floor or mourning benches appears in his records. Furthermore, what the excavators believe was a possible entrance due to a gap in the northern wall is implausible because it leads down a slope which, due to its precipitous angle, makes access nearly impossible.[8]

Anthropological evidence discovered in 2002 unearthed the undisturbed skeleton of an adult male (T 2000) in situ in the "mourning enclosure"; therefore, it is highly unlikely for halachic reasons that the sectarians would have deliberately chosen a mourning location situated directly above a grave. Carbon 14 dating based on the dentition provided a date from the Roman period despite earlier reports in the press by one of the co-directors that it was another Bedouin woman which in fact turned out to be that of a male. This dating was consistent with the ceramic evidence based upon a late Second Temple period cooking pot buried with the individual. The orientation of the burial with the head in the east is somewhat anomalous though identical to tomb 4 excavated by De Vaux in 1951 in the western cemetery.

Press reports by staff members attempting to link this individual and earlier skeletal remains with John the Baptist, the Teacher of Righteousness, or James the brother of Jesus appear to have been designed to attract media attention and additional funding rather than to have had any scientific value.[9] An admonition directed specifically towards Qumran scholars for this irresponsible, headline-grabbing behavior, ironically, is expressed in the succeeding article of the same DSD volume. Lim writes, "in recent years research has sometimes been forgotten or ignored as scholars compete with each other, fueled by media interests, to be the first one to have made such a discovery."[10]

The answer to this "mourning enclosure" lies in a fence found in later Jewish cemeteries where certain marginal individuals are buried in a section of the cemetery separated by a stone wall/ fence (geder). The fact that this individual is buried in an anomalous fashion, though in a manner in accordance with other Essene burials, suggests that this individual was connected to the community; however, his status within the group was somewhat marginal. One likely explanation for this is found in the Biblical injunctions to treat the ger charitably and allow his participation in religious ceremonies (Dt. 10:19, Num.9:14) and again in the Damascus Document (CD vi21 and xiv.4-6)[11] which was an important document for the Essene community.

Alternatively, as Lubbe suggests in his semantic analysis, the ger may in this context refer to individuals who were still serving their probationary period prior to their full acceptance within the community; therefore, while still being buried in the cemetery, their anomalous burial outside the wall would reflect their somewhat peripheral position within the community. A second possibility includes individuals who were slaves when the owner joined the community; they would have been automatically subject to the sectarians' law that one's personal possessions belong to the community when one becomes a full member. Thus, while having certain privileges within the community, he/she as a slave was not a full-fledged member of the sect and would not participate in its future bliss nor gain the entry to the future temple that was expected.[12] This may explain the two anomalous burials (T 2000, T 4) as well as the lone female (T-9) excavated by De Vaux in 1951 on the northern extension of the cemetery.

The Zinc Coffin

According to the report by Eshel et al., the remains of a zinc coffin were discovered in a tomb in the eastern part of the cemetery.[13] Fragments of this alleged zinc coffin were published earlier in BAR under the sensational title "Religious Jews: Save the bones of your ancestors" as lead (sic) and were used to draw attention to justify the need to excavate the cemetery[14] and obtain subsequent funding since it was presumed that the cemetery was in danger of being looted. Had the authors examined published aerial photographs of the site taken by the Jordanian airforce in 1954 and later the Israeli airforce in 1969, which are available to the public and which should have constituted the basis for any mapping process,[15] they would have seen that the tomb in question (978 on their map) had been excavated either by De Vaux (tomb 11) in 1951 or more probably in 1967 by S. Steckoll (Q.8) along with 977 to the south.[16] In fact, both of the "recently looted" tombs had lain open for at least 33 years, if not more.[17] The authors then state that the these two tombs were "excavated illegally,"[18] implying that they were opened by grave robbers; to the contrary, both De Vaux and S. Steckoll had secured governmental permission from the Jordanian Department Antiquities to carry out these excavations in the cemetery.

In the summer of 2000, I was shown a fragment of the zinc which then was believed by the excavators to be part of a lead sarcophagus. Immediately I told the excavators that due to its thinness (1 mm) it could not under any circumstances support the weight of an individual: this was not a coffin. The following season (2001) one of the excavators asked me to examine the burial site where the zinc was found after the bottom had been removed by staff members. At the northern end of the locus in the balk were a few cranial fragments which appeared to have been uncovered and left by earlier excavators in the cemetery.[19] An additional uncertainty with their interpretation of the locus is that the zinc lay at a maximum depth of 1.20 meters;[20] none of the north-south tomb excavated by De Vaux is less than 1.5 meters in depth. According to information given on site to a reporter, the burial contained the sheeting from what was now believed to be a wooden coffin, apparently from some important personage.

Broshi, while characterizing the coffin's occupant, remarked to reporters that "the only thing we can be sure of is that he was a very affluent man." Had their interpretation been credible, there would have been traces of wood along with the human skeletal remains left behind by the looters; neither of which was found in the locus nor in the back dirt from the locus surrounding the tomb. According to the excavators, the looters took "the most valuable item in the tomb, the lid of the coffin, which could have included clues to the occupant." This is a bit hard to believe: did they take the skeleton and the wood but leave the base behind? Following their report in DSD in which the zinc coffin, which then became a wood coffin covered with zinc, now reverts back to a zinc coffin in the BAR article which appeared sometime later.[21] The zinc report which appears in the appendix[22] shows that the zinc is almost pure zinc. This should have been perfectly clear to the researchers: pure zinc is a relatively recent phenomenon so the "coffin" must be of recent origin.[23]

Instead, they provide comparative material from Europe, from the Hellenistic period, to bolster their claim that the person (who was never found) buried in the zinc coffin, which could not support even its own weight, is ancient. Furthermore, according to their footnote 38, "the corrosion of these zinc fragments is consistent with that of other zinc finds from the Roman period." This may sound impressive to the layperson until one reads further only to find that the three zinc objects cited for comparison are all pre-Roman.[24] In that same footnote, the authors state "the tests showed that the zinc contained traces of lead and iron, (quoting one of the co-directors, Robert Feather), which excludes a modern form of processing zinc and points to the coffin's antiquity." Such reporting, particularly when the published zinc analysis shows no lead or iron in the sample, calls into question the value of this information and the credentials of those associated with these statements.[25]

On the basis of the archaeological/anthropological and photographic evidence, it should have been clear to all the authors, particularly since two teams had mapped the cemetery that the tomb had been opened since 1967 and not looted recently as BAR and the excavators reported. In short, the evidence shows that the so-called zinc coffin had to have been placed in the empty tomb by someone post 1966-7, the date when it was excavated by Steckoll; thus, its provenance must be questionable. Who planted the object there and the reasons why are a matter of conjecture.

The Skeletal Material

Their reporting on the human remains recovered in 2001 and in 2002 again raises more questions for an anthropologist than it provides any answers. For example, when one sees the proximal end of one tibia sticking out of the sand, partially uncovered, and next to it are two bones which appear to be bones of the forearm why were these not cleared for photography nor mentioned in the anthropological report? What the relationship between a forearm and the lower leg will remain a mystery. Since they fail to appear in the appendix by Y. Nagar, again this information is of questionable value.

What is particularly disconcerting in the DSD article and newspaper reports published is the authors' citing a C-14 date of 2,079 BP for the bone pile (sic) and stating that the remains are from the Second Temple period. However, what is telling and equally important but omitted by the authors are two additional C-14 dates by the same lab from the same locus showing dates of 7,000 and 5,000 BP, thousands of years before the Second Temple period. They neglect to explain this contradiction of skeletal material from 7000 BP and 5000 BP, appearing in concert with material C-14 dated to 2079 BP. They report that the Bedouin reused the cemetery and inadvertently dug into "Second Temple burials," which they have now reburied in the "mourning enclosure." In a long article published in Ha'Aretz,[26] one of the directors stated, "the Bedouin took these ladies' bones and threw them out" of their original graves "because we did not find them deep underground.

They pulled them out apparently in order to bury them their own dead in their place." It is hard to believe that a small deposit of human remains found together spanning 5 millennia (7000-2000 BP) would be excavated and reburied there in the cemetery that began ca. 2,100 years ago. Moreover, the sectarians buried their dead at a depth of 1.5.to 2 meters; the Bedouin bury their dead in shallow graves. Did the Bedouin excavate three graves from 7000, 5000, and 2000 BP two meters in depth in order to reuse it for their shallow burials, some less than a one-half meter in depth? By deliberately omitting the C-14 dates, their explanation of Bedouin reburial may sound convincing to the media and laypersons; however, since there is no archaeological/anthropological evidence of prehistoric material appearing in the cemetery or the site, it is obvious that someone has recently and deliberately collected skeletal remains elsewhere and placed this material 20 centimeters below the surface.

What they did succeed in doing is to bring headline-grabbing attention to the find. One of the co-directors claimed that it was the remains of James the Brother of Jesus only to be contradicted by another co-director that it was Bedouin, and now it is published as two Bedouin women. The C-14 data clearly show that at least three individuals from three widely differing periods appear in this assemblage. Locating skeletal material from these three widely differing periods is not difficult for anyone to collect since many caves (Wadi Maquk) and sites (Jericho) in the region have skeletal material from these periods.


While reading the report, one is confronted with certain methodological and stratigraphic issues defying all reason and logic. For example, significant omitted data, particularly the C-14 dates for the skeletal remains in the "mourning enclosure" which are dated to the Neolithic (7000 BP), Chalcolithic (5000 BP) and Second Temple period (2000 BP), discovered together and above skeletal material in situ from 2000 BP, would have raised serious questions as to how this skeletal material entered the site. So as not to raise any questions, the data is "conveniently and deliberately omitted from any and all reports."

The finding of zinc plating 1 mm in thickness in a tomb which had been excavated 34 years earlier again should raises serious questions about its probable recent manufacture and provenance, not to mention that it could not hold the weight of a body. Calling this plating of the coffin an important figure, even though no skeletal remains were reportedly found, is a bit disingenuous, not to mention the fact that no qualified metallurgist dealing with ancient metals has studied it. Had the authors taken the time to read studies on the history of metallurgy, they would have seen that what they describe as pure zinc is actually a very late technological process. Furthermore, both teams independently mapping the cemetery published the tomb in question as having been excavated earlier and thus was emptied by the time of their "finding," yet they never questioned the improbability of finding the coffin "of a rich man" in such? Was he buried there post 1966-7 by the Jordanians or by the Israelis? This and many other issues raise serious questions concerning methodology, funding, and scientific integrity as well as cooperation among the directors. Interestingly enough, perhaps by sheer coincidence, one of the co-directors of the excavation who discovered the zinc is employed by an international organization searching for zinc deposits around the world.[27]

The excavators have presented here a deliberately biased and distorted picture, raising questions about funding, institutional support, media, and the scientific value of the whole excavating process. Perhaps the time has come for those in the profession to show their peers C-14 dates, scientific data, pottery analysis, and other relevant scientific data in order to remove any suspicion of manipulating the data for personal gain. By doing so, there would be less misconduct and those unwilling to produce such data would in and of themselves cause suspicion.

John the Baptist complete with a skull, James the Brother of Jesus, The Teacher of Righteousness, Bedouin women, Bedouin men -- all of which was bandied about and appeared in the media depending on which co-director was addressing the press begs the question: is this archaeology? Entertaining, headline-grabbing, perhaps so, but scientifically questionable, deliberately misleading, irresponsible, and lacking any creditability.[28] Reading the report and the numerous articles in the media raises serious questions of scientific impropriety and misconduct by many, though not all, of those involved in funding and the excavation process itself.

Those Essenes who lived, struggled, and died in Qumran some 2,000 years earlier as well as the world of Qumran studies certainly deserve something better than what has been presented in their excavation report. Miguel De Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, wrote that "Science is a cemetery of dead ideas."[29] It is hoped that this current research on Qumran, particularly the cemetery, falls into this category. Will it change, based on past and present experience? Probably not. In fact, immediately following their excavation, a new excavation took place in the summer of 2002 at Qumran where the excavators presented some interesting finds on their web site, World of the Bible. Unfortunately, on the same web site, the co-director of excavations is promoting the sale of antiquities. So much for the world of Qumran archaeology where, like the world of consulting, "if you are not part of the solution, there's good money and fame to be made in prolonging the problem."


[1] Due to its association with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the site has over the years attracted a wide number of individuals, among them people claiming to be the prototype for the Indiana Jones character (which was found not to be true). One unifying factor found among fringe types has been their tendency to exploit the site via the media for their own personal interests. Under Israeli law, they are not granted licenses to excavate. In the past, they have always found ready and willing individuals within the academic community to secure them this license, providing them funding as a trade off for their own excavations. Unfortunately, leading individuals in the museums of Israel and the universities have succumbed to this temptation in order to secure funds to carry out their research, often in conflict with those for whom they secure the licenses.

[2] H. Eshel, M. Broshi, R. Freund, B. Schultz, "New Data on the Cemetery East of Khirbet Qumran," Dead Sea Discoveries 9, 2. 135-163.

[3] Sheridan "French collection of Human Remains from Qumran," Dead Sea Discoveries. 2002.

[4] J. Zias, "The Cemeteries of Qumran and Celibacy: Confusion laid to rest?" DSD vol. 7 no. 2 2000. pp.220-253.

[5] 2001, by Steve Weizman, Associated Press.

[6] Y. Nagar, "Appendix C: Study of Burial 1000." Dead Sea Discoveries 9, 2. 165

[7] Eshel et al., p.153.

[8] M. Broshi and E. Eshel, "Whose bones?" Biblical Archaeological Review Vol.29, No.1 , p. 31.

[9] M. Rees, D. Van Biema, "Digging for the Baptist," Time Magazine, Aug 12th, 2002.

[10] T.H. Limm, "Intellectual Property and the Dead Sea Scrolls," Dead Sea Discoveries vol.9 no.2 2002. p.1.

[11] J. Lubbe, "The Exclusion of the Ger from the Future Temple," Papers on the Dead Sea Scrolls offered in Memory of Hans Burgmann, ed. Z.J.Kapera, The Enigma Press, Krakow 1996, pp. 175-182.

[12] Ibid. 11.

[13] Eshel, DSD. p.143.

[14] H. Shanks, "Religious Jews: Save the Bones of your Ancestors!" BAR 27/2 (Mar/Apr 2001) 19.

[15] The Jordanian Royal Air Force aerial photograph taken 28/3/1954 (PAM 42032) constitutes the cover of the recent monograph by the Donceels on Qumran (The Khirbet Qumran Cemeteries. A synthesis of the archaeological data. The Enigma Press, Crackow 2002). The photo by the Israeli Air Force was taken on 1/8/69. Thanks to the Israel Mapping Center for permission to publish this photograph.

[16] De Vaux opened up tomb 11 in the central extension in 1951. Unfortunately the resolution on the Jordanian map and the height from which it was taken do not permit one to state unequivocally where its exact location was; however, based on other maps, I would have to agree with Donceel that these two tombs lying adjacent to one another are those excavated by Steckoll.

[17] S. Steckoll, "Excavation Report on the Qumran Cemetery," RevQ 23 (1968) 323-52. Donceel, see Fig 12, plan of the cemetery.

[18] Eshel et al., p.144.

[19] An alternative possibility is that these fragments may represent another tomb to the north, which is not marked because the Bedouin reused Essene grave coverings for their own graves.

[20] Eshel, et al., p.144.

[21] M. Broshi and H. Eshel, "Whose Bones?" BAR Jan/Feb. 2003 vol.29 no1. pp. 26-33,71.

[22] E. Izraeli, "Appendix B: Test Results from the Metal Coffin," p.164.

[23] A.W. Cramb, "A Short History of Metals." Zinc as a metal, as opposed to zinc as a pigment, was known to the Chinese in the 14th century; however, it was not imported to the west until 1738 when it became common.

[24] Eshel et al., p.144, 146.

[25] Robert Feather, who refers to himself as a metallurgist turned journalist is the author of The Copper Scroll Decoded (HarperCollins 2000) claims in an interview given to HarperCollins, the publishers of his book, to have located treasures mentioned in the Copper Scroll as well as believing that the Bedouin skeletons buried east-west, facing Mecca, are actually thousands of years earlier and are gazing at the pyramids of Egypt.

[26] "Dead Sea Scrolls: A Never-ending saga." Ha'Aretz (Dalia Shehori) July 12, 2002. p. B7.

[27] Authorities had officially warned the excavation directors in the past that the use of metal detectors was forbidden in the site and that any use of this necessitated a special permit. (Per. comm. Yoav Tsionit) Evidently, they ignored this warning. As to whether or not metal detectors were responsible for finding this zinc plating is unknown as no specific mention appears in the article as to how it was found.

[28] The BBC in a report on the 2002 excavations wrote that "these days, it is hard to distinguish the smell of sulfur from the rotten stench of claims, counterclaims and accusations emanating from the nearby site of Qumran," Ari Goldberg. BBC News World Edition 27 August 2002. Unlike many other journalists taken in by the lure of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Goldberg quickly sized up the situation and portrayed the reality of the excavations.

[29] M. De Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life (1913).

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