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Qumran and Judaean Desert Caves

Survey and Excavations in the Judaean Desert Caves


A systematic archaeological survey of the Judaean desert caves was initiated by me in 1983, in collaboration with the late Prof. Y. Yadin, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The survey, conducted in the fall and winter of each year until 1987, was followed by trial soundings, especially in some of the Qumran caves. The area surveyed extended from Nahal Og (Wadi Mukellik) in the south to Wadi Auja in the north. The limestone cliffs of Qumran and Ein Feshkha were subject to a particular reexamination. This project of the Hebrew University preceded by 10 years Operation Scroll of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Staff Officer for Archaeology in Judaea and Samaria.


The research enabled to determine settlement patterns in the Judaean Desert in pre-historic and historic times and in particular during the Second Temple period. These were preliminarily described in numerous articles listed below. A unique find came from one of Qumran caves - a juglet containing oil, perhaps balsam oil - the best perfume of antiquity, cultivated only in the valley of Jericho and exported throughout the Roman world. The oil inside the juglet was still in a liquid state when found. This unique find had aroused a great excitement in the media.


Our survey and excavations in the Caves near Qumran led to the conclusions that the limestone caves located in the escarpment fault did not serve as permanent dwellings for members of the Dead Sea sect, that habitable caves in the marl plateau were very few (the already known caves nos. 4,5, 7-10), and that actually there were no extramural dwelling quarters at Qumran. The architectural layout of Qumran indicates that the permanent population residing there could not count more than few dozens. Yet, some features of the site point to a larger population: the refectory could have served ca. 150 inhabitants or more, the ten miqvaot could as well serve a much larger group than the small permanent population. Similarly, the cemetery is much larger in size relative to the small settlement. These seemingly contradictory data might be resolved if we assume that sect members from Jerusalem and elsewhere used to come to Qumran in days of feast, to celebrate communally, according to the solar calendar and the distinct liturgy of the sect. These were different than the official Jewish practice in the temple of Jerusalem. Qumran should be conceived as an integral part of the Essene community of Jerusalem. This important conclusion is an inevitable outcome of our acquaintance with the local topography and archaeology. The final report would substantiate it.


Artificial hideouts in the desert caves, dated to the end of the Second Temple period, were another significant find of the project. In the cliffs near Ein Fara the cave encampment set up by Simeon son of Gioras, one of the leaders of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome was traced - the camp mentioned by Josephus Flavius in the ravine called Pheretae . Aramaic inscriptions and paintings of menorah and a pentagram were found in one of the caves refuge from that period in Nahal Michmas.



Articles and preliminary reports stemming so far from the project (1984-2000):

Les grottes de el‑‛Aleiliyat et la laure de Saint Firmin, Revue Biblique 91 (1984), pp. 379‑387 (together with R. Rubin).

Inscriptions arameennes juives dans les grottes d el-‛Aleiliyat, Wadi Suweinit, Revue Biblique 92 (1985), pp. 265-273.

Hiding Caves and Jewish Inscriptions on the Cliffs of Nahal Michmas, Eretz Israel 18 (Avigad Volume), Jerusalem 1985, pp. 153‑166, pls. 24‑27 (Hebrew).                                

Jewish Caves of Refuge in the Cliffs of Nahal Mikhmas, Qadmoniot 19 (1986), no. 73‑74, pp. 45‑50 (together with Benny Arubas and Eyal Naor, Hebrew).

The Caves Encampment of Simon Son of Gioras in the ravine called Pheretae , Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies, B.1, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 21‑26 (Hebrew).

Chronique Archeologique: Refuges juifs dans les gorges du Wadi Mukhamas, Revue Biblique 96 (1989), pp. 235‑239, pl. XV.

A Juglet with (Balsam?) Oil From a Cave Near Qumran, Eretz Israel 20 (Yadin Volume), Jerusalem 1989, pp. 321‑329 (together with Benny  Arubas).

A Juglet Containing Balsam Oil(?) From a Cave Near Qumran, Israel Exploration Journal 39 (1989), pp. 43‑55 (together with Benny Arubas).

Judean Desert Caves, in: E. Stern, (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Jerusalem 1993, pp. 820-837 (update on more recent research to entries by other contributors).

Khirbet Qumran in light of New Archaeological Explorations in the Qumran Caves, Acts of the Eleventh World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 1994.

Khirbet Qumran in Light of New Archaeological Explorations in the Qumran Caves, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol. 722, (1995), pp. 73-95.

Agricultural Development in Antiquity: Improvement in the Growing and Manufacturing of Balsam, J. Shwartz (ed.), Village Life in Eretz Israel in Antiquity. Collected Essays in Honour of Y. Felix, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan 1997, pp. 139-148 (Hebrew).

Was There an Extra Mural Dwelling Quarter at Qumran? Qadmoniot XXXI/115 (1998), pp. 66-67 (Hebrew).

Did Extra Mural Dwelling Quarters exist at Qumran? The Dead Sea Scrolls - Fifty Years after their Discovery. [Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20-25], edited by L. H. Schiffman, E. Tov, and J. C. VanderKam, pp. 720-27. Jerusaem 2000.


Short field reports in: Hadashot Archeologiot ‑ The Periodical of the Israel Department of Antiquities (Hebrew); An English translation of all reports were also published in: Excavations and Surveys in Israel. 

1984  Caves Survey in the Judean Desert, no. 84, pp. 40‑41.

1985  Deir Mukelik ‑ Greek Inscriptions, no. 86, p. 23.

1988  Caves Survey in the Judean Desert, 90, pp. 39‑43.

1989  Caves Survey in the Judean Desert, no. 93, pp. 65‑67.

1994  Excavations in the Judean Desert Caves, no. 100, pp. 52-54.

1994  Qumran Caves, no. 100, p. 55.


The following 10 entries for the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (editors: L. H. Schiffman and J. C. VanderKam), Oxford 2000:

Archaeology (pp. 57-63).

Buqueia (pp. 103-104).

Churches (pp. 129-31).

Ein Fara (pp. 236-37).

Ghweir, Wadi (pp. 308-309).

Mazin, Khirbet (pp. 529-30).

Michmash, Nahal (pp. 548-59).

Mird, Khirbet (563-66).

Monasteries (pp. 574-75).

Wadi en-Nar (pp. 603-604).

Selected photographs