Qumran (Hebrew: קומראן; Arabic: خربة قمران‎ Khirbet Qumran) is an archaeological site in the West Bank managed by Israel’s Qumran National Park.[1] It is located on a dry marl plateau about 1.5 km (1 mi) from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, near the Israeli settlement and kibbutz of Kalya. The Hellenistic period settlement was constructed during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104 BCE) or somewhat later,[citation needed], was occupied most of the time until 68 CE and was destroyed by the Romans possibly as late as 73 CE (see below under “The bronze coinage”). It is best known as the settlement nearest to the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden, caves in the sheer desert cliffs and beneath, in the marl terrace. The principal excavations at Qumran were conducted by Roland de Vaux in the 1950s, though several later unearthings at the site have since been carried out.


Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947–1956, extensive excavations have taken place in Qumran. Nearly 900 scrolls were discovered. Most were written on parchment and some on papyrus. Cisterns, Jewish ritual baths, and cemeteries have been found, along with a dining or assembly room and debris from an upper story alleged by some to have been a scriptorium as well as pottery kilns and a tower.

Many scholars believe the location was home to a Hebrew sect, probably the Essenes. But, according to Lawrence Schiffman, the rules of the community, its heavy stress on priesthood and the Zadokite legacy, and other details indicate a Sadducean-oriented sect either distinct from or one of the various Essene groupings. Others propose non-sectarian interpretations, some of these starting with the notion that it was a Hasmonean fort that was later transformed into a villa for a wealthy family, or a production center, perhaps a pottery factory or something similar.

A large cemetery was discovered to the east of the site. While most of the graves contain the remains of males, some females were also discovered, though some burials may be from medieval times. Only a small portion of the graves were excavated, as excavating cemeteries is forbidden under Jewish law. Over a thousand bodies are buried at Qumran cemetery. One theory is that bodies were those of generations of sectarians, while another is that they were brought to Qumran because burial was easier there than in rockier surrounding areas.

The scrolls were found in a series of eleven caves around the settlement, some accessible only through the settlement. Some scholars have claimed that the caves were the permanent libraries of the sect, due to the presence of the remains of a shelving system. Other scholars believe that some caves also served as domestic shelters for those living in the area. Many of the texts found in the caves appear to represent widely accepted Jewish beliefs and practices, while other texts appear to speak of divergent, unique, or minority interpretations and practices. Some scholars believe that some of these texts describe the beliefs of the inhabitants of Qumran, who may have been Essenes, or the asylum for supporters of the traditional priestly family of the Zadokites against the Hasmonean priest/kings. A literary epistle published in the 1990s expresses reasons for creating a community, some of which resemble Sadducean arguments in the Talmud. Most of the scrolls seem to have been hidden in the caves during the turmoil of the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE), although some of them may have been deposited earlier.

Discovery and excavation

Early site analysis

The site of Khirbet Qumran had been known to European explorers since the 19th century. The initial attention of the early explorers was focused on the cemetery, beginning with de Saulcy in 1851. In fact, the first excavations at Qumran (prior to the development of modern methodology) were of burials in the cemetery, conducted by Henry Poole in 1855 followed by Charles Clermont-Ganneau in 1873.

Rev. Albert Isaacs, British counsel James Finn, and photographer James Graham visited Qumran in December 1856. Isaacs stated regarding Qumran’s tower, “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.” Finn later suggested Qumran was “some ancient fort with a cistern”.

The British scholar Ernest William Gurney Masterman visited Qumran on several occasions between 1900 and 1901. After observing the positioning of Qumran atop a plateau overlooking the ‘Ein Feshkha Springs, he concluded the ruins “may have very well been once a small fortress”. Masterman also questioned why a small fort would require a graveyard of over one thousand tombs.

Gustaf Dalman visited Qumran in 1914, and explicitly identified Qumran as a burg, or fort. Archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah agreed with Dalman’s identification of Qumran as a fort and published a map that identified the remains at Qumran as part of a string of fortresses along the southeastern Judean border.

Major excavations

Full-scale work at the site began after Roland de Vaux and Gerald Lankester Harding in 1949 excavated what became known as Cave 1, the first scroll-bearing cave. A cursory surface survey that year produced nothing of interest, but continued interest in the scrolls led to a more substantial analysis of the ruins at Qumran in 1951. This analysis yielded traces of pottery closely related to that found in Cave 1. This discovery led to intensive excavations at the site over a period of six seasons (1951–1956) under the direction of de Vaux.

The Iron Age remains at the site, which were modest but included a lmlk-seal, led de Vaux to identify Qumran as the City of Salt listed in Josh 15:62. The site, however, may be identified with Secacah, which is referenced in the same area as the City of Salt in Josh 15:61. Secacah is mentioned in the Copper Scroll, and the water works of Secacah that are described in this source are consistent with those of Qumran. The excavations revealed that after the Iron Age, Qumran was principally in use from the Hasmonean times until some time after the destruction of the temple by Titus in 70 CE. De Vaux divided this use into three periods:

  • Period I, the Hasmonean era, which he further divided in two:
  • Period Ia, the time of John Hyrcanus
  • Period Ib, the latter Hasmoneans, ending with an earthquake and fire in 31 BCE (this was followed by a hiatus in de Vaux’s interpretation of the site)
  • Period II, the Herodian era, starting in 4 BCE on up to the destruction of the site apparently at the hands of the Romans during the Jewish War
  • Period III, a reoccupation in the ruins

De Vaux’s periodization has been challenged by both Jodi Magness and Yizhar Hirschfeld.

The site that de Vaux uncovered divides into two main sections: a main building, a squarish structure of two stories featuring a central courtyard and a defensive tower on its north-western corner; and a secondary building to the west. The excavation revealed a complex water system that had supplied water to several stepped cisterns, some quite large, located in various parts of the site. Two of these cisterns were within the walls of the main building.

Both the buildings and the water system evince signs of consistent evolution throughout the life of the settlement. with frequent additions, extensions and improvements. The water channel was raised to carry water to newer cisterns farther away and a dam was placed in the upper section of Wadi Qumran to secure more water, which was brought to the site by an aqueduct. Rooms were added, floors were raised, pottery ovens relocated and locations were repurposed.

De Vaux found three inkwells at Qumran (Loci 30 (2) and 31) and over the following years more inkwells have come to light with a Qumran origin. Jan Gunneweg identified a fourth (locus 129). S. Steckoll found a fifth (reportedly near the scriptorium). Magen and Peleg found a sixth inkwell. Without counting the Ein Feshkha inkwell or others with debated provenance, that number is more inkwells than found at any other site of the Second Temple Period, a significant indication of writing at Qumran.

De Vaux’s interpretations

De Vaux interpreted his findings at Qumran based (at least in part) upon information in the Dead Sea Scrolls—which continued to be discovered in the nearby caves throughout his excavations. De Vaux concluded that the remains at Qumran were left by a sectarian religious community. Using his excavations as well as textual sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical accounts recorded by Pliny the Elder, Philo, and Flavius Josephus, De Vaux’s conclusion was that the inhabitants of the site were a sect of highly ritualistic Jews called the Essenes, a conclusion that has come to be known as the “Qumran–Essene hypothesis”. This hypothesis suggests that the original residents of the settlement were the Essenes, and that they established the site in the desert for religious purposes.

He interpreted the room above locus 30 as a “scriptorium” because he discovered inkwells there. A plastered bench was also discovered in the remains of an upper story. De Vaux concluded that this was the area where the Essenes could have written some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. De Vaux also interpreted locus 77 as a “refectory”, or a community dining hall, based on the discovery of numerous sets of bowls in the nearby “pantry” of locus 89. Additionally, de Vaux interpreted many of the numerous stepped cisterns as “miqva’ot”, or Jewish ritual baths, due to their similarity to several stepped and partitioned ritual baths near the Jerusalem Temple Mount.

Regarding the scrolls De Vaux cautiously stated that “manuscripts were copied in the scriptorium of Qumran… We may also suppose… that certain works were composed at Khirbet Qumran. But beyond this we cannot go.” He believed that the Essenes later hid the scrolls in the nearby caves when they felt their safety was in danger.

Roland de Vaux died in 1971 without having provided a full report on the excavations at Qumran. In 1986 the École Biblique appointed the Belgian archaeologist Robert Donceel to the task of publishing the final results of de Vaux’s excavations. Preliminary findings were presented at a conference in New York in 1992, but a final report never eventuated. According to Pauline Donceel-Voûte the final report was impossible to write, because many artifacts had been lost or corrupted (in particular, according to the Donceels, some of the coins excavated by Roland de Vaux from Qumran had been lost.) To fill the gap, the École had a synthesis of de Vaux’s field notes published in 1994. This volume included several hundred photographs, 48 pages of measurement, and summary descriptions of the field diaries. An English translation of the field notes synthesis was published in 2003. However many of de Vaux’s archaeological findings from Qumran (which are stored in the Rockefeller Museum) are still not published and are inaccessible to scholars and the public.

Further excavations and surveys

Although de Vaux’s excavations of Qumran were quite exhaustive, and thereby the most important source of information on the settlement, there have been several excavations since de Vaux finished his work. As de Vaux left little of the settlement unexcavated, later archaeologists have often turned elsewhere to continue research, including dump sites from de Vaux’s excavations. During the 1960s, according to Catherine Murphy, there were some unpublished excavations at Qumran by John Allegro and by Solomon Steckoll. Steckoll also carried out work in the cemetery, excavating twelve tombs. In 1967 restoration work was performed at Qumran by R.W. Dajjani of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

In 1984 and 1985 Joseph Patrich and Yigael Yadin carried out a systematic survey of the caves and pathways around Qumran. Between 1985 and 1991 Patrich excavated five caves, including Caves 3Q and 11Q. One of Patrich’s conclusions was that the caves “did not serve as habitations for the members of the Dead Sea Sect, but rather as stores and hiding places”.

From mid-November 1993 to January 1994 the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out works in the Qumran compound and nearby installations as part of “Operation Scroll” under the direction of Amir Drori and Yitzhak Magen. In the winter of 1995–1996 and later seasons Magen Broshi and Hanan Eshel carried out further excavations in the caves north of Qumran; they also dug in the cemetery and in marl terrace caves. In 1996 James Strange and others dug at Qumran using remote sensing equipment. From 1996 to 1999 and later Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg carried out excavations at Qumran under the auspices of the National Parks Authority. Randall Price and Oren Gutfield dug on the Qumran plateau, seasons in 2002, 2004 and 2005 (and plan a 2010 season).

Recent archaeological analysis

Most of the small finds from the de Vaux excavations were taken back to Jerusalem to be used in later excavation reports for Qumran, but the death of Roland de Vaux brought a halt to the reports and the small finds were left to gather dust on shelves in museum backrooms. In the late 1980s, archaeologist Robert Donceel worked on the de Vaux materials in a new effort towards publishing excavation reports. He found artifacts he believed did not fit the religious settlement model, including “sophisticated glass and stoneware”. In 1992 Pauline Donceel-Voute put forward the Roman villa model in an attempt to explain these artifacts. In 2002 archaeologists Minna and Kenneth Lönnqvist published their archaeological and spatial studies at Qumran bringing another view to the settlement interpretations including the astronomical orientations of some structures at Qumran. A recent final publication of the French excavations by Jean-Baptist Humbert outlining evidence of a decorated frieze, opus sectile, fine columns etc., indicates a phase of a wealthier occupation, “une grande maison”, at Qumran.

The range of pottery, glass and high quantity of coins found at Qumran do not sit well in the context of a sectarian settlement according to the Donceels.[46][47] These materials point to trade connections in the area, and provide evidence that Qumran may not have been in a vacuum in the Graeco-Roman period. Rachel Bar-Nathan has argued from similarities between pottery finds at Qumran and at the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces of Jericho that Qumran should be seen as part of the Jordan valley context, rather than as an isolated site.[48] While the cylindrical “scroll jars” from Qumran were once thought unique, she cites a proposed similar find at Jericho, shows a related form existed at Masada,[49] and reports that such jars have been found at Qalandiya.[50] Bar-Nathan states from the Jericho palace data that, “It is possible to trace the typological development of this group of jars”, i.e., the cylindrical jars.[49] Jodi Magness, citing Bar-Nathan’s M.A. thesis on the Jericho pottery data, refers to cylindrical jars at Jericho, saying “[a]t Jericho, most of these jars .. come from an industrial area dating to the time of Herod”.[51] Jan Gunneweg observed that the supposed single partial parallel at Jericho – “a partly preserved rim and neck with a vertical loop handle” – is in fact not a “scroll” jar.[52] Another one was reported found in Jordan in a later burial near Abila but no photos or drawings were published and the jar has not been relocated, showing de Vaux sought parallels. Taking into account subtypes of pottery, true cylindrical “scroll” jars are not common outside Qumran. They are, however, clearly not unique to Qumran. Bar-Nathan noted the jar’s “rarity in the Second Temple period”.[53] Of some of the proposed parallel Masada jars, Bar-Nathan wrote “It seems that this group of storage jars was brought (or pillaged?) from the area of Qumran and probably also from the Plain of Jericho.”[54]

Many scholars have viewed the several large stepped cisterns at Qumran as ritual baths. This supports the religious settlement model. There are difficulties in understanding all these cisterns as baths, however. Qumran’s water arrived perhaps twice a year from rainwater runoff. Water was one of Qumran’s most valued commodities, and water management is an integral part of the site, as seen with the numerous cisterns and channels. If the large cisterns were ritual baths, the water would sit getting dirtier through ritual bathing throughout the year and was extremely infrequently replenished by the run off. The current state of analysis of the cisterns is still unresolved, but Katharina Galor suggests a mixed usage of the stepped cisterns as both ritual baths and water storage.[55] According to the Israeli archaeologists Magen and Peleg, the clay found in the cisterns was used for pottery factory facilities.[56]

Numismatic studies
Coins from Qumran are one of the most important groups of primary evidence from the ancient site. Much of what has been written on the chronology, the occupational periods and the history of Qumran is based on the preliminary report and lecture by the original excavator, Roland de Vaux in 1961, which was translated in 1973. A tentative list of the Qumran bronze coins along with Roland de Vaux’s field diary from the excavations was published in 1994 in French, in German in 1996 and in English in 2003.[58] The first reconstruction of the Qumran bronze coinage, including a complete coin catalogue with up-dated and cross-referenced coin identifications, was done by Kenneth Lönnqvist and Minna Lönnqvist in 2005. Also in 1955, three very important silver coin hoards were found at Qumran. The first lot of the Qumran silver coins was published by Marcia Sharabani in 1980. The last two hoards located in Amman, Jordan, were published by Kenneth Lönnqvist in 2007.

The bronze coinage
De Vaux’s excavations uncovered about 1250 coins (569 silver and 681 bronze coins) altogether from Qumran, though today some Qumran coins have been lost, some lots mixed-up, and records less accurate than ideal.

There are a surprisingly high number of coins from the site. This means that the site was highly monetized in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, i.e. that the occupants of Qumran were not a community of poor and isolated people. That the flow of cash at Qumran may have been large in the 1st century CE is hardly surprising given the archaeological evidence of trade at Qumran in luxury goods such as glass, which is specifically dated to this period.

The coin profile of Qumran shows that there do not appear to have been any major changes in the role of coins and money in the economic system at Qumran during any of the occupational periods from ca. 150 BCE. to 73 CE. Worth noting here is that the amount of coins found at Qumran suggests according to numismatic principles of loss and survival of ancient coins that millions of bronze coins must have circulated at Qumran.

The bronze coins identified from Qumran, some dating to the second and third years of the Jewish War, indicate that the site was still in use in 68 CE and only destroyed after 70 CE, perhaps as late as 73 CE. The coins from Qumran of this period end with a peculiar series of bronze coins minted in 72/73 CE at Ascalon, which sent auxiliary troops to assist the Roman army in the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE).

In 73 CE the Romans stormed the mountain fortress of Masada, which also was located on the western bank of the Dead Sea. It is more than likely that Qumran was destroyed this same time, as the coin finds from Qumran end with the same peculiar bronze coins minted at Ascalon.

The silver coinage
According to the publications prior to 2007, the most recent silver coin in the Qumran hoard(s) is a tetradrachm of Tyre from the year 9/8 BCE.

Lönnqvist analysis of 2007
The publication of the bulk of the silver coins by K. A. K. Lönnqvist, and his regional analysis, resulted, in 2007, in a new interpretations as to the importance, chronology and significance of the coins. According to Lönnqvist, the newly dated coins in the silver coin hoards give an earliest possible burial date for the coin hoards to 52/3-66 CE, based on an interpretation of a countermark. However, the archaeological and numismatic nature of the silver coin hoard burials may suggest that the coin hoards may have been buried in the early 3rd century CE. The final coin belongs to Emperor Caracalla and came from the mint of Rome (206–210 CE).

The new suggestion made is that the silver coin hoards from Qumran may be connected to Roman military campaigns in the region, as these are widely attested to in the early 3rd century CE. It is also quite possible that the silver were part of Roman army payments made to troops in a local garrison.

According to Lönnqvist, the technical evidence of the recording and documenting of the Qumran silver coin hoards in 2006–2007 showed that the coins came from lots, groups or batches of coins that originated in a few or one single large payment. This payment may have come from a mint, bank or an authority like the treasury of the Roman army. The new evidence refutes the possibility that the silver coins could have been collected from single individuals, for instance, as tax payments, or that Qumran could have been a regional ‘tax house’.

The new 2007 analysis of the silver coinage contradicts the findings of de Vaux, Seyrig, and Spijkerman as well as the findings of Robert Donceel. Donceel was surprised to find in the Amman museum unrecorded coins, notably denarius coins of Trajan, that he claimed were intrusive. The original Amman Museum records of the Qumran coin hoards and the museum bags where the coins where kept do not support the hypothesis that the 2nd- and 3rd-century Roman coins are intrusive in relation to the Tyrian silver.

Furthermore, the new countermark that went unrecorded is apparently from 52/53 CE and the Greek letters in it do not support a date of 9/8 BCE, as the other countermarks. This means archaeologically and numismatically that at least one, but probably two minimum, of the three hoards post-date de Vaux’s suggestion of a burial date after 9/8 BCE.

The unusual and intensive die-linkage of the Qumran silver hoards suggest that the three hoards were buried at the same time, and this would mean at the earliest in 52/53 CE.

According to Lönnqvist, a highly unusual type of coin hoard found at Ain Hanaziv in the Jordan Valley in the early 1960 and reported in the Israel Numismatic Bulletin supports his theory of a third-century CE date for the three silver coin hoards from Qumran. This Ain Hanaziv coin hoard spanned hundreds of years, starting from the Seleucid era and ended with the same kind of coins from reign of Septimius Severus in 210 CE.

Therefore, according to Lönnqvist, claiming an earlier date for the silver hoards is untenable and contradicts the first complete recording of the Qumran silver hoards made by him in 2007, which includes the first photographic evidence of the coin hoards, and the regional coin evidence from other hoards. It has already been shown that de Vaux’s dating system of Qumran and the silver coin hoards was based on what is generally known as a circular argument; the end of the first major settlement period was dated after the assumed date of hiding of the coin hoards, which in turn dated the coin hoards themselves.

Nevertheless, Lönnqvist’s theories have been criticized by Farhi and Price. They point to the fact that the identity of the silver coins from Qumran held at the Amman Museum in Jordan is not certain.

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