Sectarianism and the Archaeology of Qumran

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Regev at the entrance to Cave 11 with his students from the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology department, Bar-Ilan University

By: Eyal Regev

In a couple of articles published in BASOR and Revue de Qumran[1], I have analyzed the social aspects of the inhabitants of kh. Qumran using social-scientific theories, without direct consideration of the scrolls.

I have examined the spatial organization and architecture of kh. Qumran using Hillier and Hanson’s Space Syntax Theory, commonly called Access Analysis. The results show strong social boundaries and the division of the site into distinct clusters, in a specific hierarchal structure which entails ritualization. kh. Qumran is divided into different segments in a hierarchal distribution of spaces which marks separation between different spheres. I have compared the Access Analysis map of kh. Qumran to those of seven other contemporaneous manor houses or villas, in which all the spatial boundaries are substantially weaker. The results point to hierarchal structure, ritualization, and a complex social organization The spatial characteristics of Kh. Qumran correspond to sectarian social organization and ideology as defined by sociologists of religion and documented in studies of different sects, and are typical of the spatial organization of several modern sects, especially the Shakers. These general characteristics are also typical of the Yahad sect of the Community Rule (1QS). They may relate to a certain social correspondence between the inhabitants of the site and the Yahad.

My analysis of pottery, burial and ritual baths led to several social phenomena which are related to sectarianism. Ritualization is one of the manners in which sects express their ideology in relation to the outside world, creating a sense of togetherness and modes of distinctive sacredness. The use of numerous tableware vessels by each diner at each meal attests to an emphasis on symbolic distinctions, implying the ritual role of meals. A relatively large number of people dined together and attributed a special social meaning to their meals which were divided into separate courses. The large number of cups and goblets may also indicate ritual drinking. Ritual markers are also manifested in the deposits of animal bones and the vessels in which they were cooked.

There are further markers of ritualization which are also related to hierarchy. By hierarchy I mean not only social distinctions between different classes of people, characteristic of only a certain type of sects, but also a division into different categories of occupations and practices, such as between the mundane and sacred ones. The division of the private and communal life of the sectarians into different spheres of daily and sacred activities is common to all sects, and is more intense than in non-sectarian societies. As a result, greater significance is attributed to rituals such as rites of passage. Such hierarchies are reflected in the three ritual baths divided into separate lanes by two or four partitions. The differentiation between lanes reflects a division into different kinds of ablutions, probably between sacred and more sacred (or perhaps different classes of who immersed). The large amount of tableware also points to a certain hierarchy, related either to the structure of the meals (e.g. different courses) or to different classes among the diners.

Resistance to the outside dominant society is implied by the animal bone deposits buried within the settlement. These deposits represent resistance expressed through special meals in which the meat and bones of the animals were considered sacred. The consumption of meat in these meals as analogous to the sacrificial meals at the Temple was an intentional challenge to the priestly cult in Jerusalem. The inhabitants thereby claimed that a comparable holiness could be achieved at a site remote from the Jerusalem Temple. The burial in single burial shafts, creating a break from the norm of familial burial caves, seems to derive from a certain ideology rather than from lack of means. This type of burial seems to demonstrate the uniform and distinct communal identity of the deceased, resisting the familial structure and the Jewish elites. The types of pottery used at the site do not represent seclusion or a distinctive style and therefore cannot be interpreted reflecting resistance.

Strong social boundaries in relation to the outside world are implied in the exceptional abundance of more than 1600 tableware vessels (84% of the entire ceramic assemblage) which attests to ritual meals, and also indicates a very cohesive society. Their unique commensality created a sense of exclusiveness and elitism from which outsiders were excluded.

As for the scrolls, I have discussed the ideology and practices of the Qumran sects (the Yahad and the Damascus Covenanters) and showed that it corresponds with those of modern sects in my Sectarianism in Qumran: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, Religion and Society Series 45, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter 2007. There you can also find the definitions and characteristics of sectarianism.

Eyal Regev is the Chair of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology
Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He is the author of Sectarianism in Qumran: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Religion and Society Series 45; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2007).

[1] Eyal Regev, “Access Analysis of Kh. Qumran: Reading Spatial Organization and Social Boundaries,” BASOR 355 (2009): 85-99; idem, The Archaeology of Sectarianism: Ritual, Resistance and Hierarchy in Kh. Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 24/94 (2009): 175-214.


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