Scrolls Lead Archaeologists to Latrines Used By Authors
November 19, 2006
Following directions found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeologists have discovered the latrines used by the sect that produced the scrolls, discovering that efforts to achieve ritual purity inadvertently exposed members to intestinal parasites that shortened their life span.
The young male zealots who established their sect at Qumran chose a life of austerity and isolation, but they could not have foreseen the hardships created by their religiously imposed toilet practices, researchers said Monday.
"They paid a high price for their holiness," said archaeologist James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, one of the authors of a paper appearing in the international journal Revue de Qumran.
"Some people might laugh, but it is terribly sad," he said. "They were so dedicated and had such a strenuous lifestyle, but they were probably lowering their life expectancy and ruining their health in an effort to do what is right."
The discovery of the unique toilet area provides further evidence linking the scrolls to Qumran - an association that recently has been called into question by a small but vociferous group of archeologists who have argued that the settlement was a pottery factory, a country villa or a Roman fortress, but not a monastery.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, the revisionists say, were hidden in the caves of Qumran by Jews fleeing the devastation of Jerusalem during the Roman suppression beginning in A.D. 66. The majority of archaeologists, in contrast, argue that the scrolls were copies produced by a small sect, generally called the Essenes, who lived at Qumran.
Because the location of the latrine was specified in two of the most important scrolls found at the site, its discovery provides strong evidence associating the settlement with the scrolls, Tabor said.
Tabor and his colleagues "make a pretty good case," said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review. Nonetheless, he added, "The argument about whether it is an Essene community will go on for many years and maybe never be settled."
Interest in Qumran dates to 1947, when Bedouin tribesmen discovered three ancient manuscripts in a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, about 10 miles south of Jericho. Subsequent searches revealed about 900 manuscripts and fragments dating from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 68.
Some manuscripts are copies of books of the Old Testament, while others are related to more mundane aspects of life.
Catholic priest Roland deVaux excavated part of Qumran in the 1950s and concluded that it was inhabited by an apocalyptic Jewish sect that copied the manuscripts and eventually hid them from the invading Romans. That conclusion is still widely accepted.
The Essenes are one of the few ancient groups whose toilet practices were documented. The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus noted that members of the group normally went outside the city and dug a hole, where they buried their waste. The group was not allowed to defecate on the Sabbath, he said, because they were prohibited from leaving the city.
Two of the Dead Sea Scrolls note that the latrines should be situated northwest of the settlement, at a distance of 1,000 to 3,000 cubits - about 450 to 1,350 yards - and out of sight of the settlement.
Considering these guidelines, Tabor noted that there is a natural bluff about 1,000 yards northwest of Qumran, blocking the view of the area behind it. The soil there, he said, "looked different" from that around it.
Tabor and Joe E. Zias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on ancient latrines, went to the site and took samples from the disturbed area and from other areas.
"The earth was so nice and soft, while the rest of the desert was very hard," Zias said. "In fact, I broke my pick collecting control samples from the other areas."
Zias sent samples to anthropologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France. She found preserved eggs and other remnants of roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms and pinworms, all human intestinal parasites.
Samples from the surrounding areas contained no parasites, while a sample from the stable area of the settlement contained a species of animal worms.
"The evidence shows conclusively that the area was a toilet," Zias said.
Had the waste been dumped on the surface, as is the practice of Bedouins in the area, the parasites quickly would have been killed by sunlight. Buried, they could persist for a year or longer, infecting anyone who walked through the soil.
The situation was made worse by the Essenes having to pass through an immersion cistern, or Miqvot, before returning to the settlement. The water would have served as a major breeding ground for the parasites.
The ritual cleansing "is a total immersion, which means that it gets in your ears, in your eyes and in your mouth," Zias said. "It is not hard to imagine how sick everyone must have been."
The sickness is reflected in the Qumran cemetery, which had been partially excavated previously.
"The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever studied in over 30 years," Zias said. Fewer than 6 percent of the men buried there survived to age 40, he said. In contrast, cemeteries from the same period excavated at Jericho show that half the males lived beyond age 40.
-- By Thomas H. Maugh II
Hope of Israel
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