The 1948 Arab-Israeli War prevented a close examination of the Qumran ruins. But after a fragile peace set in, a bearded and bespectacled Dominican monk named Roland de Vaux started excavations of the site and nearby caves in 1951. His findings of spacious rooms, ritual baths and the remains of gardens stunned scholars and the public alike. He also unearthed scores of cylindrical jars, hundreds of ceramic plates and three inkwells in or near a room that he concluded had once contained high tables used by scribes.
Shortly before de Vaux began his work, a Polish scholar named Jozef Milik completed a translation of one scroll, “The Rule of the Community,” which lays out a set of strict regulations reminiscent of those followed by a sect of Jews mentioned in A.D. 77 by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder. He called the sect members Essenes, and wrote that they lived along the western shore of the Dead Sea “without women and renouncing love entirely, without money, and having for company only the palm trees.” Pliny’s contemporary, historian Flavius Josephus, also mentions the Essenes in his account of the Jewish War: “Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue.” Based upon these references, de Vaux concluded that Qumran was an Essene community, complete with a refectory and a scriptorium—medieval terms for the places where monks dined and copied manuscripts.
Though he died in 1971 before publishing a comprehensive report, de Vaux’s picture of Qumran as a religious community was widely accepted among his academic colleagues. (Much of his Qumran material remains locked up in private collections in Jerusalem and Paris, out of reach of most scholars.) By the 1980s, however, new data from other sites began casting doubt on his theory. “The old views have been outstripped by more recent discoveries,” says Golb.
For example, we now know that Qumran was not the remote place it is today. Two millennia ago, there was a thriving commercial trade in the region; numerous settlements dotted the shore, while ships plied the sea. Springs and runoff from the steep hills were carefully engineered to provide water for drinking and agriculture, and date palms and plants produced valuable resins used in perfume. And while the heavily salinated sea lacked fish, it provided salt and bitumen, the substance used in ancient times to seal boats and mortar bricks. Far from being a lonely and distant community of religious nonconformists, Qumran was a valuable piece of real estate—a day’s donkey ride to Jerusalem, a two-hour walk to Jericho and a stroll to docks and settlements along the sea.
And a closer look at de Vaux’s Qumran findings raises questions about his picture of a community that disdained luxuries and even money. He uncovered more than 1,200 coins—nearly half of which were silver—as well as evidence of hewn stone columns, glass vessels, glass beads and other fine goods. Some of it likely comes from later Roman occupation, but Belgian husband-and-wife archaeologists Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute believe that most of the accumulated wealth indicates that Qumran was an estate—perhaps owned by a rich Jerusalem patrician—that produced perfume. The massive fortified tower, they say, was a common feature of villas during a conflict-prone era in Judea. And they note that Jericho and Ein Gedi (a settlement nearly 20 miles south of Qumran) were known throughout the Roman world as producers of the balsam resin used as a perfume base. In a cave near Qumran, Israeli researchers found in 1988 a small round bottle that, according to lab analyses, contained the remains of resin. De Vaux claimed that similar bottles found at Qumran were inkwells. But they might just as well have been vials of perfume.
Other theories abound. Some think Qumran was a modest trading center. British archaeologist David Stacey believes it was a tannery and that the jars found by de Vaux were for the collection of urine necessary for scouring skins. He argues that Qumran’s location was ideal for a tannery—between potential markets like Jericho and Ein Gedi.
For his part, Peleg believes Qumran went through several distinct stages. As the morning heat mounts, he leads me up a steep ridge above the site, where a channel hewn into the rock brought water into the settlement. From our high perch, he points out the foundations of a massive tower that once commanded a fine view of the sea to the east toward today’s Jordan. “Qumran was a military post around 100 B.C.,” he says. “We are one day from Jerusalem, and it fortified the northeast shore of the Dead Sea.” Other forts from this era are scattered among the rocky crags above the sea. This was a period when the Nabateans—the eastern rivals of Rome—threatened Judea. But Peleg says that once the Romans conquered the region, in 63 B.C., there was no further need for such bases. He believes out-of-work Judean soldiers and local families may have turned the military encampment to peaceful purposes, building a modest aqueduct that emptied into deep rectangular pools so that fine clay for making pots could settle. “Not every pool with steps is a ritual bath,” he points out. He thinks the former soldiers built eight kilns to produce pottery for the markets of Ein Gedi and Jericho, grew dates and possibly made perfume—until the Romans leveled the place during the Jewish insurrection.
But Peleg’s view has won few adherents. “It’s more interpretation than data,” says Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who shares de Vaux’s view that the site was a religious community. She says that some archaeologists—by refusing to acknowledge evidence that residents of Qumran hid the scrolls—are inclined to leap to conclusions since their research relies solely on the ambiguous, physical remains at the site.