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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.

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