Part 6. Do Skeletons Tell Tales?

There are several graveyards near the Qumran compound. This one, which is the closest, is referred to as the "western cemetery." It is actually on the east side of the compound, but it is called "western" to distinguish it from another cemetery slightly further toward the east (toward the Dead Sea). There is also a smaller cemetery north of the compound, across a little wadi (a wadi is a wash that spring rains have eroded), as well as a small southern cemetery. The graves are visible at the surface as oval-shaped mounds of loose, large rocks, with a flat vertical stone standing at the head and foot.

The map to the right illustrates where these cemeteries were located relative to the Qumran compound. The compound is center left, labeled KQ. The western cemetery is immediately to its right, and is divided into three sections. Four dark patches reach even further to the right/east from this central graveyard; the lowest of these four is sometimes called the eastern cemetery. The northern cemetery is the dark, rectangular patch center top, while the southern cemetery is in the bottom left corner, across Wadi Qumran. (You can get a better view of the map by right clicking on it and selecting "View Image"; just remember to use the back button on your browser to return to this page OR reference Magness Fig. 46-48 in front of book or Hirschfeld pp. 84-85 if you have/can borrow a book). Qumran.Plan_of_cemetery.png

There are more than 1200 graves in the three cemeteries, and the number of skeletons may be even greater than that, since in one excavated grave two skeletons were discovered. But of these 1200+ graves, only 43 were explored in excavations by professional archaeologists (de Vaux, 1949, 1951, 1953, 1956), while another handful were excavated by clandestine grave-robbers and by amateurs (one by Clermont-Ganneau in the 19th century, and 12 by Qumran.Cemetery2.jpgSolomon Steckoll in 1965-1967, without the permission of de Vaux). The skeletons were removed from the site and stored in various locations, depending on who purchased them. Some remained at the École Biblique in East Jerusalem, some ended up in the Kurth Collection in Munich, and some others ended up in the Vallois Collection in Paris. A few have disappeared.

It is unlikely that future excavations will be conducted at the cemetery, since there many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who, for religious reasons, oppose the exhumation of presumed Jewish corpses because they believe such activity desecrates the dead. They regularly block archaeological excavations of graves by surrounding the sites and preventing access.

There are several ways in which these cemeteries can provide evidence for us as we try to reconstruct what went on at this site. First, we must determine if they are connected to the site in some plausible way. Then we can study the orientation of the graves and compare this to other graves from the period to determine whether the practice here is unique, which might indicate a sectarian or non-mainstream population. Finally, we can excavate the graves to determine their shape, the manner of burial, and the presence of artifacts which may attest to social status and views of the afterlife. We can also analyze the skeletons themselves to determine the gender and age of the individuals and possibly certain attributes of their health and diet.


Evidence & Questions
1. Relationship to Site
In this picture, you can see the graves of the western cemetery in the foreground, and the walls of the Qumran compound in the background.
If you have adduced from other evidence (water system, for example) that the people who lived at this site were concerned about purity, then it will not surprise you that they would remove corpses some distance away from the rooms they used each day (why?). That is to say, some distance between living space and cemetery is to be expected.

Question #1: Do you think the distance between the cemetery and the compound is too far to argue that they are connected, or is the space so close to make a case that this is the cemetery for the people who lived at this site? What other kinds of information would you want to know in order to make a better case that the cemetery and compound are or are not connected?

Question #2: A second question is related to the first. In all three of the cemeteries together, there are over 1200 graves. Does that support or disprove the view of the site by Hirschfeld (compare his discussion 152-163)?
Qumran cemetery burials
Qumran cemetery burials

2. Orientation of GravesQumran.Cemetery3.jpg
This picture of the western cemetery was taken looking to the southwest. You can see the parallel rows of graves separated by regular aisles.
Almost all of the graves are oriented on a north-south axis. This appears to be a phenomenon in the Dead Sea region generally, but is not true of all Jewish graves of the period. It has been attested that there was a belief in some literature of the period that paradise was understood to lie in the north. In the excavated graves at Qumran, all of the skeletons in the n-s graves are buried so that their heads are at the south, facing north.

Question #3: Can you account for why the graves are oriented on a n-s axis, on the basis of the limited evidence that you have been given?

The sketch to the left is a map of the excavated graves in the Qumran cemeteries. It can be expanded so that you can see it more clearly. Ticks next to each number indicate the orientation of the graves.

Question #4: Note all of the graves that do not lie on a north-south axis. Identify all of the graves that do not have a n-s orientation by sector (for example, northern cemetery: graves 45 and 46). Interestingly, these graves have a larger percentage of female and infant skeletons than the n-s graves, and they lie farther from the compound. Can you come up with a thesis or two about whether the people buried in the e-w graves were related to the Qumran community? If they were, why are their graves farther away?

The picture on the right shows the near graves of the western cemetery (the stones in the foreground). Just beyond the bushes in the center distance lies the eastern cemetery, where some of those "farther" graves are located. You can see some cultivated land down below; these are modern farms irrigated by natural springs. In the distance, you can make out the Dead Sea and the hills of Jordan.

3. Shape and Contents of Graves
Most of the excavated graves are of a shaft form, with a niche cut out of one side at the bottom into which the skeleton has been placed. The niche has then been closed in with mud bricks. This practice in known from other areas around the Dead Sea, but contrasts to a practice known from wealthy graves from the period. Indeed most gravesites from this period are actually loculi family tombs cut into the rock, especially by those who seem to be wealthy (compare Hirschfeld 152 and his reconstruction of a Qumran grave p. 154). There are places for several members of the same family and, to save space, the bones of decomposed bodies were later placed in ossuaries or bone boxes that were highly decorated. Furthermore, very few grave goods were found with the exhumed skeletons. Sometimes a fine dust was collected near the heads, which may have been the remains of hair, skin or cloth. Since no chemical analysis was conducted on the dust, we cannot draw any conclusions from it. But we can draw conclusions from the limited artifacts in the graves, which from 50+ graves amounted to only some potsherds, a Herodian oil lamp, and some jewelry in graves representing more recent Bedouin burials. Qumran.Tomb_18.jpg

Question #5: What conclusions can you (or can you not) make about the people buried at this site on the basis of graves goods and the shape of their graves in comparison to those of the wealthy from the period?

4. Skeletons
The exhumed skeletons certifiably from the Qumran period are mostly males, ranging in age from 14 to 65. This skull, retrieved from Grave 24, is of a young man about 25 years old.
One of the most interesting of the skeletons was that of a 30-year old male, in absolutely perfect health. In the words of Dr. Susan Sheridan, a paleo-anthropologist conducting ground-breaking work on the skeletons, this man should not have died. She found no evidence of any disease or trauma that would have led to his early death. Even more interesting is the fact that, unlike most of the skeletons unearthed at Qumran, this man was buried in a coffin.

Question #6: What conclusions can you draw from the fact that this young man was buried at Qumran in a coffin?
The last matter relating to the skeletons has to do with the strange red color of many of the bones. The color was not evenly distributed on the bones, but was most pronounced at the extremities and in the medullary cavities, suggesting that it was due to something in the diet of the people. The phenomenon was widespread enough to prompt several scientists to conduct a chemical analysis of some of the bone material. They discovered that the red stain was due to the consumption of alizarin, the main dye component of the madder root. Madder root has long been thought to have healing properties.
Now read the following passage from the ancient historian Josephus, who wrote about the "Essenes" living along the Dead Sea:
[They] also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients and choose out of them what is most for the advantage of their soul and body, and they inquire after such roots and medicinal stones as may cure their distempers. (War 2.8.6 [§136])
There is no specific question to answer here; simply consider this evidence as we continue to discuss who this group along the Dead Sea was.