Latrine practices posed health risks to early Christian sect
Following directions in the Dead Sea Scrolls, archeologists have found the latrines used by the sect that produced the scrolls, discovering that efforts to achieve ritual purity inadvertently exposed members to intestinal parasites that shortened their lives. The young male zealots who established their sect at Qumran chose a life of austerity and isolation, but they could not have foreseen the hardships created by their religiously imposed toilet practices, researchers said Monday.
'They paid a high price for their holiness,' said archeologist James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the coauthors of a paper appearing in the international journal Revue de Qumran. 'Some people might laugh, but it is terribly sad,' he said. 'They were so dedicated and had such a strenuous lifestyle, but they were probably lowering their life expectancy and ruining their health in an effort to do what is right.' The discovery of the unique toilet area provides further evidence linking the scrolls to Qumran - an association that has recently been called into question by a small but vociferous group of archeologists who have argued that the settlement was a pottery factory, a country villa or a Roman fortress, but not a monastery.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, the revisionists claim, were actually hidden in the caves of Qumran by Jews fleeing the devastation of Jerusalem during the Roman suppression beginning in AD 66. The majority of archeologists, in contrast, argue that the scrolls were copies produced by a small sect, generally called the Essenes, who lived at Qumran. Because the location of the latrine was specified in two of the most important scrolls found at the site, its discovery provides strong evidence associating the settlement with the scrolls, Tabor said. Tabor and his colleagues 'make a pretty good case,' said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review. Nonetheless, he added, 'the argument about whether it is an Essene community will go on for many years and maybe never be settled.' Interest in Qumran dates back to 1947, when Bedouin tribesmen discovered three ancient manuscripts in a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, about 10 miles south of the West Bank city of Jericho. Subsequent searches yielded about 900 manuscripts and fragments dating from about 250 BC to AD 68. Some of the manuscripts are copies of books of the Old Testament, while others are related to more mundane aspects of life.
The Catholic priest Roland de Vaux excavated part of Qumran in the 1950s and concluded that it had been inhabited by an apocalyptic Jewish sect that copied the manuscripts and eventually hid them from the invading Romans. That conclusion is still widely accepted. The Essenes are one of very few ancient groups whose toilet practices were documented. The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus noted that members of the group normally dug holes and buried their waste outside the city. The group was not allowed to defecate on the Sabbath, he said, because its members were prohibited from leaving the city. Two of the Dead Sea Scrolls note that the latrines should be situated northwest of the settlement, at a distance of 1,000 to 3,000 cubits - about 450 to 1,350 yards - and out of sight of the settlement. Mulling these guidelines, Tabor noted that there is a natural bluff about 1,000 yards northwest of Qumran, blocking the view of the area behind it. The soil there, he said, 'looked different' from that around it. Eventually, Tabor and Joe E. Zias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on ancient latrines, went to the site and took samples from the area and from other areas. 'The earth was so nice and soft, while the rest of the desert was very hard,' Zias said. 'In fact, I broke my pick collecting control samples from the other areas.' Zias sent samples to Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseille, France. She found preserved eggs and other remnants of roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms and pinworms, all human intestinal parasites.
Samples from the surrounding areas contained no parasites, while a sample from the stable area of the settlement contained a species of animal worms. 'The evidence shows conclusively that the area was a toilet,' Zias said. Had the waste been dumped on the surface, as is the practice of Bedouins in the area, the parasites would have quickly been killed by sunlight. Buried, they could persist for a year or longer, infecting anyone who walked through the soil. The situation was made worse by the fact that the Essenes had to pass through an immersion cistern, or miqvot , before returning to the settlement. The water would have served as a breeding ground for the parasites. The ritual cleansing 'is a total immersion, which means that it gets in your ears, in your eyes and in your mouth,' Zias said. 'It is not hard to imagine how sick everyone must have been.' The sickness is reflected in the Qumran cemetery, which had been partially excavated previously.
'The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever studied in over 30 years,' Zias said.
Fewer than 6% of the men buried there survived to age 40, he said. In contrast, cemeteries from the same period excavated at Jericho show that half the men lived beyond age 40.
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Nigel Anthony Sellars - 11/18/2006
After reading the two articles about the ancient latrines, I'd say there are some big "Gotcha's" here.
While the discovery of the latrines at Qumram is certainly interesting, the two news reports both repeat widely-held, but now suspect, beliefs about Qumran and the Essenes.
The NY Times repeats the idea that the site of the Dead Sea scrolls was an Essene monastery. But that is unproven, and some scholars now contend the scrolls may be more representative of mainstream Judaism of the period than of Essene thought. In fact, Qumran may have no Essene connections at all.
The LA Times makes the more common mistake, that of claiming the Essenes were an early Christian sect. They weren't; they were an ascetic Jewish sect. We actually know nothing about the earliest Christian groups until at least the second century of the Common Era, something has long frustrated historians and theologians.
Now, I confess that I'm a 20th century Americanist and a skeptic about religion, but, like all of my colleagues at the university where I teach, I've had to teach World Civilization courses covering the ancient world up to the present and have gained more than a passing familiarity with the era in question in order to keep up with current interpretations.
I'd love to hear from experts more familiar with the material who could enlighten us, but I suspect most people only know of the Dead Sea Scrolls through rumor and myth. If all we learn from these discoveries is that residents of Qumran died from an intestinal parasite, then we will have learned very little.