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.
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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 paleo-parasitologist, researchers can now add another find: human excrement.
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 to then 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 human feces. Samples from locations nearer the settlement tested negative.
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.
"A lot of people were concerned with what went into the body, but the Essenes were perhaps the only group in antiquity concerned with what came out," Zias said. "No one else would have gone to the trouble of walking this far."
Still, there is no way to date the fecal parasites, which could have been left by Bedouin who are known to have inhabited the area. To counter this, the paper quotes a Bedouin scholar as saying the nomadic tribespeople 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.
Norman Golb, a history professor at the University of Chicago and a critic of the link between Qumran and the Essenes, called the new paper "an outrageous claim."
"There's no plausible connection between what they found and the conclusion that the Essenes lived at Qumran," Golb said. "Anyone living at the site would have done the same."
Golb maintains that Qumran's residents had nothing to do with the Essenes or the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Those who claim a connection do so because "they're committed in their writings to it," Golb said.
Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Stephen Pfann, of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said questions about the parasites' age have to be cleared up, but the find is potentially significant.
Qumran, he says, could have been inhabited at different times by different groups: first by Jews of the Hasmonean dynasty in the second century, then by a monastic group of Essenes who left after an earthquake and were replaced by a lay group of Essene date farmers, then again by Essene ascetics, before being finally taken over by Jewish rebels fighting the Roman legions and abandoned when Judea fell.
"Qumran isn't one thing, it's many things," Pfann said. "This makes it more exciting, but also more complicated to understand."