I am more familiar with the stories of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and the beginning of the Temple Mount Sifting Project than I am the archaeological discoveries associated with those sites. Both stories are very romanticized and have political implications. I want to outline some of the most significant archaeological discoveries from the sites but also discuss why the romantic narratives are focused on more than the archaeology.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are kept at the Israel museum in Jerusalem. Small parts of the scrolls are displayed to the public in the Shrine of the Book. Our guide, Danny was right to point out the romantic name of their exhibit. The Scrolls are believed to belong to a Jewish sect: the Essenes because “Pliny had written about a band of Essenes living near the shores of the Dead Sea not far from En-Gedi.” (VanderKam, 8) The scrolls were actually spread out over five different caves, six others held archaeological remains but no scrolls (18). Danny believes that not every cave has been searched yet and there may be more to be found. The scrolls are not the end of the story at Qumran, as excavations began, a community was revealed- the most famous area is probably the cemetery.
Cemeteries are extremely important for understanding a community’s religious beliefs and beliefs about the afterlife (which is important when considering the Dead Sea community because their texts are particularly apocalyptic). But the interest in the cemetery may also be related to the romantic aura around the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Within the cemetery, “only 43 of 1100-1200 tombs” had female remains. (Kugler and Chazon, 168). De Vaux initially believed that there were no women at the community. There is still controversy about women in the community- there were so few women “only two females were located in the “main” western sector of the cemetery complex, while the remaining women (and children) were in the southern extension and southern cemetery” (168). Joseph Zias adds a layer to the issue:
“five individual burials containing women and children, excavated by R. De Vaux in the southern extension of the main cemetery are all oriented along an east-west axis. Furthermore, these burials are archaeologically dissimilar in several ways from the estimated 1,100 burials in the main cemetery with their strict north-south orientation, of which twenty eight have been excavated.” (Zias, 222).
Simply, Zias does not believe that the women and children found were part of the community- which given the evidence is likely. He settles on the theory that the outlying burials are Bedouin.
While the cemetery is very interesting, it is not as much of a romantic mystery as the copper scroll found. In 1956 it was deciphered and found to be “a list of buried treasure.” (Wolters, 145). Wolters begins his article with the romantic story of the deciphering of the scroll and the excitement that it produced, but he is right to point out: what is a community that is waiting for the world to end doing with a treasure map? (148). His interpretation is that the treasures listed “would remain hidden until the coming of the Messiah.” (148). So the basic understanding of the Qumran community is an apocalyptic community concerned with purity (likely celibate, with stone vessels) and they may or may not have been the Essenes. Although not a lot can be said with certainty about the community the Dead Sea Scrolls are still extremely important to our understanding of the Hebrew Bible and those committed to the book in the second temple period.
Crawford’s overview of the Dead Sea Scrolls focuses on the subject in “the popular imagination”(81). She begins the article with the very romantic description of the discovery and continues to describe the different theories of the Dead Sea community through time in the same tune, as if the theories are part of the romantic narrative. Why is the focus on the story of the discovery and not their content? Krugler, explaining his student’s observation says: our knowledge of the Qumran Scrolls “is no more certain after sixty years of research, no less debated, than it was in the beginning of the first generation of Qumran Scroll Study” (6). Kugler admits this is a bit overstated, but perhaps the fact that the scrolls remain a mystery and a controversy pushes those to focus on the romantic narrative of their discovery.
The same phenomenon occurs with the beginnings of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Of course the Temple Mount Sifting Project is a very political issue (of course the Qumran Scrolls also play into a Jewish claim to the land). The thought of Hebrew University Students going to the Kidron Valley where 400 truckloads of rubble and soil were dumped in 1999 to sift the soil and rubble is very romantic. Gabriel Barkay told us himself that his students showed up at his house with pottery and asked him to identify it. The discoveries of the Temple Mount Sifting project are very controversial, particularly the early ones because there was no context for the finds.
The controversy, as Barkay described was that in the 1990s, Bill Clinton descried to work on peace in the Near East and had identified the Temple Mount as the source of conflict. Clinton’s team thought the best solution would be split sovereignty of the space. In 1996, the Muslim authorities decided to build a mosque over what was believed to the Solomon’s Stables (likely not stables, definitely not Solomon’s) and in 1999, 400 truckloads of soil and rubble were dumped into the Kidron Valley: a national park. In November 2004 Barkay got his licence to sift the soil.
In the presentation Barkay gave, he described a couple different finds from the project, he highlighted early- late Bronze scarabs, “purposely smashed figurines” (GAH!), many bullae but one in particular with a AMD or AMR that he believes belonged to the priestly family. He highlighted a seal impression of wine that was imported from Rhodes (non-kosher) and stone vessels which indicates a an issue of purity. They found many coins from the fourth century BCE to modern (Napoleon to World War I- present). Interestingly, he left to the end the fact that they had found Ottoman wall tiles- from the decoration of the dome- “proof that it came from the temple mount.”
The most infamous discovery from the temple mount remains is the Jehoash Inscription. The inscription was discovered in the remains- cooked with gold flecks when the second temple burnt. The Jehoash inscription is what I associate with the Temple Sifting Project, perhaps because Professor Dolansky has a personal connection to the inscription but even so, it seems like an important part of the story and I was surprised we did not discuss it. I guess it has been completely discounted as a fake.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the beginning of the Temple Mount Sifting project both have romantic narratives associated with them. The stories of their beginnings seems to be more important than the finds themselves, probably because they are more accessible- because the finds do not tell a coherent narrative, in fact there is a lot of mystery around many of the finds.
Crawford, Sidnie White. “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Retrospective and Prospective” Near Eastern Archeology 65. 2002. 81-86. JSTOR
Kugler, Robert. “Whose Scripture? Whose Community? Reflections on the Dead Sea Scrolls Then and Now, by Way of Aramaic Levi.” Dead Sea Discoveries 15, 2008. 5-23 JSTOR
Kugler, Rob, and Chazon, Esther. “Women at Qumran: Introducing Essays.” Dead Sea Discoveries 11, 2004. P. 167-173. JSTOR
Wolters, Al, “Apocalyptic and the Copper Scroll” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 49. 1990 p. 145-154. JSTOR
Zias, Joseph, “The Cemeteries of Qumran and Celibacy: Confusion Laid to Rest?” Dead Sea Discoveries 7, 2000, p 220-253. JSTOR.