January 4, 2007
After far too many depressing posts, a little light, uh, relief:
Researchers say their discovery of a 2,000-year-old toilet at one of the world’s most important archaeological sites sheds new light on whether the ancient community was home to the authors of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
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 the Dead Sea Scrolls, perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th Century.
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 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 1st 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.
… [But] 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.”
Hey, it was a slow news day.
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