QUMRAN, West Bank — The discovery of a 2,000-year-old toilet at one of the world's most important archaeological sites is focusing renewed interest on a question that has preoccupied scholars for more than half a century: Who lived at Qumran?
In a new study, three researchers say they have discovered the outdoor latrine used by the ancient residents of Qumran, on the barren banks of the Dead Sea. They say the find proves the people living here two millennia ago were Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect that left Jerusalem to seek proximity to God in the desert.
Qumran and its environs have already yielded many treasures: the remains of a settlement with an aqueduct and ritual baths, ancient sandals and pottery, and perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The scrolls, which include fragments of the books of the Old Testament and treatises on communal living and apocalyptic war, have shed important light on Judaism and the origins of Christianity.
Thanks to an Israeli anthropologist, an American textual scholar and a French paleoparasitologist, researchers can now add another find: human excrement.
Subject of lively debate
The discovery is more significant than it may seem. The nature of the settlement at Qumran is the subject of a lively academic debate.
The traditional view, supported by a majority of scholars since the site was first excavated in the 1950s, is that the settlement was inhabited by Essene monks who observed strict rules of ritual purity and celibacy and who wrote many of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The second school says the people living at Qumran were farmers, potters or soldiers, and had nothing to do with the Essenes. The scrolls, according to this view, were written in Jerusalem and stashed in caves at Qumran by Jewish refugees fleeing the Roman conquest of the city in the first century.
The researchers behind the latrine finding, which is being published in the scholarly journal Revue de Qumran, say it supports the traditional view linking the residents of Qumran with the Essenes.
A description of Essene practice by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius in the first century notes that Essene rules required them to distance themselves from inhabited areas to defecate and "dig a trench a foot deep" which was then to be covered with soil.
Joe Zias, a Jerusalem-based anthropologist, and James Tabor, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert from the University of North Carolina, decided to look for the Qumran latrine. If it was far from the settlement ruins and if the excrement was buried, it would offer evidence the people living at the site were Essenes.
Zias and Tabor identified an area behind a rock outcropping, took soil samples and sent them to Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue, a French scientist specializing in ancient parasites. The samples tested positive for pinworms and two other intestinal parasites found only in humans.
Traces found underground
The excrement traces were found underground — meaning the feces had been buried, as required by Essene law — a nine-minute walk uphill from the settlement.
Still, there is no way to date the fecal parasites, which could have been left by Bedouin. To counter this, the paper quotes a Bedouin scholar as saying the nomads do not bury their feces.
Another problem is that archaeologists have already identified a toilet at Qumran — inside the settlement. But Zias believes it was for emergencies: In some cases, divine commandments notwithstanding, nine minutes outside the camp was too far to go.