The Dead Sea is one of my favorite places, perhaps because of its other-worldly feel. The entire area is full of surprises and mysteries. On the outskirts of the ancient city of Qumran, lies a cemetery which I wrote about here. When you are first walking around the site it is easily missed. The area to the east of the town appears undeveloped and rock-strewn. But after you see the patterns of the stones, the oval low mounds of stones, you realize that there is more to this place than you first imagined. This is the Qumran cemetery, and last year there were new developments which changed our understanding of the community there.
Analyses of 33 newly excavated skeletons in Qumran point to it being a religious sect of celibate men. The findings, presented by anthropologist Yossi Nagar of the Israel Antiquities Authority, show that the men died about 2200 years ago, during the time period of the Hasmonean dynasty. Previously unearthed skeletons excavated in the 1950’s by Roland de Vaux and currently housed in France, were also examined as part of this renewed interest in the cemetery.
De Vaux had identified 7 skeletons, from among those he excavated, as women, pointing to a more balanced community, perhaps including some women to work in the kitchen or other such tasks. New examination of these 7 skeletons found that 6 of them were actually men, confirming more of a monastic nature to Qumran.
Of the new 33 individuals, 30 of them were identified as definitely or probably males. The other 3 lacked enough evidence to assign a gender. The age at death of these skeletons was between 20 – 50 years old and demographically they fit into known patterns from Byzantine-style monasteries.
All of this challenges the established identification of the Jewish sect occupying Qumran as the Essenes, since the Essenes were not a monastic order. The Qumran residents do not appear to be a garrison of soldiers since there were no war-related injuries on the bodies and they are not predominantly young men. The structures built in the town do not point to Bedouin herders, but a settled people.
The written works of the Qumran residents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, do not identify them with any extant group and no other external sources mention the sect. The town was destroyed by the Romans as part of the Great Revolt in 68 C.E. and the many secrets of the town were hidden as well. The re-examination of the cemetery and those buried therein leaves us with more questions than answers. Just another part of the mystery of the Dead Sea area.