Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence

By Yizhar Hirschfeld
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (2004). xxvi + 270 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 241-243

Yizhar Hirschfeld, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology and author of The Judean Desert Mountains in the Byzantine Period (Yale, 1992) and The Palestinian Dwelling in the Roman-Byzantine Period (Franciscan Press, 1995), currently directs excavations at En Gedi, Ramat Hanadiv, and Tiberias. All of these projects focus on the Roman and Byzantine periods, the eras of his expertise. Joining a chorus of archaeologists questioning the traditional findings of Roland de Vaux at Qumran (cf. de Vaux’s Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls [Oxford University, 1973]), Hirschfeld proposes that the site was the prosperous rural estate of an influential member of Israelite metropolitan society. Although he is not the first to make such an identification, his major contribution to the debate relates to his employment of results from a regional survey of sites in order to place Qumran within its regional as well as chronological context.

Firstly, Hirschfeld discusses “The Study of Qumran” (1-27), describing the nature, setting, and significance of the find as well as a brief history of the archaeological field work and recent scholarly work. Secondly, he introduces the reader to the debate of the scrolls’ origins (29-48): Qumran or Jerusalem? He concludes that the heterogeneity of the scrolls is more characteristic of a setting in second temple Jerusalem than a sectarian community in Qumran (48).

“The Archaeology of Qumran” (49-182) comprises the third chapter and the volume’s core content. Excavations by de V aux, though typical of his time, were inferior to today’s conventions and standards (52-53). Archaeological evidence depicts the Late Iron Age settlement at Qumran as a general settlement that might have functioned as a military post starting in the late seventh century B.C. (59). It is most likely that John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.) in the Hasmonean period reconstructed Qumran as a field fort and road-station (87). In the Herodian period (ca. 37 B.C.-A.D. 68) the site became a civilian rural estate (88) with a striking similarity to George Washington’s estate at M t. Vernon in Virginia (90). De Vaux’s “scriptorium” might turn out to be a private dining room (93-96). Unfortunately, de Vaux appears to have ignored the lamps, juglets, lathe-turned stoneware, and glass vessels that help to demonstrate the economic wealth of Herodian Qumran (142). Architectural details, geometric tiles, stucco, columns, evidence of arches, and flagstone also indicate a wealthy settlement rather than a monastic sectarian settlement (142). A “far cry from Pliny’s description of the Essenes as living ‘without money’” (143; see also, 230), large quantities of coins at Qumran contradict the sectarian hypothesis.

Fourthly, after examining the available evidence at nearby ‘Ein Feshka (183-209), Hirschfeld proposes that the site played a role in the perfume industry (207). De Vaux, on the other hand, had concluded that ‘Ein Feshka housed a tannery that produced the parchment for Qumran’s scrolls (203). Lastly, the author leads a tour of the Dead Sea Valley in the second temple period (211-43). In geographical and historical context, Qumran fits the classification of fortified estates or manor houses (221, 229). Expelling the Essenes from Qumran, however, does not invalidate Pliny’s identification of an Essene site near the Dead Sea. In fact, Hirschfeld has excavated a potential Essene sectarian site situated above En-Gedi (233).

For the most recent archaeological study offering support to de Vaux’s viewpoint, this reviewer (and Hirschfeld) would refer the reader to Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002). The newest contribution to the ongoing debate comes from Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg who believe that Qumran was nothing more than a pottery factory (“Back to Qumran: Ten Years of Excavation and Research, 1993-2004,” in The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates, eds. Katharina Galor et al., 55-113, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 57 [Brill, 2006]).

Compellingly written, richly illustrated (73 black and white plates, 16 color plates, and 47 drawings, plans, and maps), and systematically presented, Hirschfeld’s Qumran in Context is must reading for anyone interested in the manuscript and/or archaeological finds at Qumran. Academic libraries should acquire this volume for their collections on the topic of the Dead Sea scrolls.