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Holistic Qumran: Trans-Disciplinary Research of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Holistic Qumran: Trans-Disciplinary Research of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Edited by Jan Gunneweg, Annemie Adriaens, and Joris Dik (Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 87). Pp. xviii+191, figs. 51, color pls. 12, tables 7, maps 3. Brill, Leiden 2010. $127. ISBN 978-90-04-18152-6 (cloth).

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This book summarizes a workshop organized by Gunneweg in 2008. The book has 15 chapters, nine of which are authored or coauthored by Gunneweg. The two coeditors, Adriaens and Dik, each contributed to one chapter. The topics covered in the volume are varied in subject matter and quality and are largely scientific. Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, and 15 report on material analysis and conservation science; chapters 8, 10, and 11 are on dating; and chapters 3 and 12 are by Qumran scholars. Chapter 5 is an introduction to the research reported in chapter 6 and also research reported in chapter 10. Chapter 13 is an introduction to the research reported in chapter 14. The book could have benefited from some editing and critical scientific review of the presentations.

In the introduction, Gunneweg formulates 12 questions, some of which are of questionable value or are incomprehensible—for example, question 2 is “What is the final setup for Qumran by ignoring the existence of the Dead Sea scrolls as written by and for the Qumranites?” (2). There is also a lot of speculation sprinkled throughout the chapters. For example, in chapter 13, Gunneweg speculates that the Qumranites used soap for ritual purification (163–69), and in chapter 15 he speculates that they may have used mud from the Dead Sea for ceramic containers (176). Gunneweg seems to equate spiritual with physical purification. There are many errors in the volume, and some of these are mentioned below. For the purpose of discussion, I have grouped the chapters according to their content rather than the order in which they appear in the book.

In chapter 12, Tov describes, from the perspective of a Dead Sea Scroll scholar, where the hard sciences can be of help in deciphering, piecing together, dating, and preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls. This chapter gives a rationale for earlier chapters that deal with conservation chemistry, dating, and imaging. The volume would have been more coherent if this had been presented earlier in the volume.

In chapter 3, Galor deals with evidence for gender at Qumran. Galor concludes that there is nothing touching on gender to differentiate Qumran from other contemporary sites.

Chapter 1 (Adriaens, Dowsett, Lehman, Farhi, Gunneweg, and Bouchenoire) is an exercise in imaging corroded coins by cold neutron tomography and synchrotron radiation, but the coins are from seventh-century C.E. Caesarea Maritima and Atlit and have no relation to Qumran. Conventional optical and X-ray imaging techniques could have been used.

In chapter 2, Dik, Helfen, Reischig, Blaas, and Gunneweg use micrometer-sized (in cross-section) X-ray beams to view the internal structure of a scroll fragment with the objective of understanding the processes of scroll deterioration in a minimally destructive manner, although the results reported raise more questions than they answer. For example, the authors make the observation that degradation of their scroll specimen proceeds from the inside to the surface, whereas the opposite is expected if degradation is the result of chemical reaction with the environment. The authors have no explanation for their observation. In chapter 7, Murphy, Cotte, Mueller, Balla, and Gunneweg study degradation of parchment and ink. The results are not conclusive, but they demonstrate the use of synchrotron X-ray and infrared spectrometry in studying of parchment degradation due to ink and binders. Chapter 9 (Rabin, Hahn, Wolff, Kindzorra, Masic, Schade, and Weinberg) deals with developing methods to characterize the inks, binding agent, and water source used for the scrolls from Qumran. The study employs a battery of tools, including optical and electron microscopy, micro X-ray fluorescence (XRF), synchrotron XRF, infrared spectrometry, and synchrotron infrared. Only quality research of this nature holds hope of a better understanding of Qumran material and its preservation.

In chapter 4 (Gunneweg and Balla), the authors claim that they were told by archaeologists (no references given) that ceramics cannot be made from Dead Sea mud. This is not correct, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they report to have produced a ceramic vessel from the mud. Instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) results are reported for marl/clay deposits in cisterns resulting from floodwaters, which the authors propose was used for making pottery. They report using INAA data from Berkeley and Jerusalem, but no references are given, nor is there any explanation as to how comparisons were made with these other laboratories. Some of the Berkeley data has only recently become available through the University of Missouri, where it is archived (M.T. Boulanger, “Salvage Archaeometry: Lessons Learned from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Archives,” The SAA Archaeological Record 13 [2013] 14–19). An explanation is needed as to what exactly they mean by the Berkeley and Jerusalem data.

Chapter 15 (Gunneweg) reports again that “serious scholars” (who are not named) told the author that ceramic vessels cannot be made from mud of the Dead Sea (176–77). The author concludes that the Dead Sea mud analyzed is not “real clay” (181). It is not clear what the author means by “real clay.” In fact, Dead Sea mud may contain some clay minerals (e.g., K. Momani et al., “Heavy Metals Distribution in Dead Sea Black Mud, Jordan,” Jordan Journal of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2 [2009] 50–9 [with references]). The chapter has some other errors: the author notes that firing the mud resulted in higher concentrations of all elements, but elsewhere on the same page (177), he states the opposite. It is also stated that aluminum cannot be measured by INAA, and this is wrong. A reference is made to an XRF spectrum of fired and unfired mud (fig. 51), but only the fired mud spectrum is shown, and the horizontal axis is not labeled with proper units. On another page, the author states that firing the mud produces calcium aluminates, “which will give the end product the look of a real ceramic, although it is not” (181)—but calcium aluminates are ceramics. It appears that the author is using “pottery” and “ceramic” interchangeably. Pottery is a ceramic but a ceramic need not be pottery.

In chapter 5 (Gunneweg), the author proposes corroborating a ¹⁴C date with a thermoluminescence (TL) date, an idea that is not sound, as TL dating is less accurate than ¹⁴C dating. Some reasons for the poor accuracy of TL dating follow. In chapter 10 (Rasmussen, Gunneweg, van den Plicht, and Balla), TL and ¹⁴C dates are presented for both a complete jar (Jar 35) excavated by Price and Gutfeld and organic matter from the same context as the jar. The handles of the jar were dated and yielded ages of ca. 680 C.E., much too young to be associated with Qumran. The authors speculate that the TL signal from the jar handles may have been bleached by some heating process, so they sampled flakes of pottery from the inside of the pot and obtained a TL date consistent with the habitation period of Qumran. This should be taken with a grain of salt. It is unlikely that whatever bleached the TL signal from the pot handles did not have an effect on the rest of the pot. It is more likely that the TL signal was bleached by sampling or sample preparation, such as crushing the pottery or drilling the pottery for INAA, as the authors report doing. Furthermore, the background radiation (radioactivity from the rocks and earth in the immediate vicinity of the jar’s burial area) was not measured, but rather some mean dose rate was used, with no reference given.

In chapter 6, Kahila Bar Gal, Rosenberg, and Greenblatt report on two bones that were subjected to DNA analysis. However, DNA could not be recovered for these two specific bones.

During the 1950s, the Dead Sea Scrolls were treated with castor oil. This may have biased ¹⁴C dates by introducing young ¹⁴C into the scrolls. Chapter 8 (van der Plicht and Rasmussen) reports that a precleaning procedure was carried out before standard ¹⁴C procedure to eliminate contamination from castor oil. Unfortunately, new ¹⁴C dates are not reported.

Chapter 11 (Rasmussen, Bond, Doudna, and Gunneweg) reports that an object excavated by Roland de Vaux and thought to be iron is actually a silicate. The authors speculate that the inhabitants of Qumran mistook it for bentonite and tried to process it for pigment.

In chapter 13, Gunneweg speculates that soap was used in Qumran. In chapter 14, van der Vaart, van den Broek, Klerkx, and de Vree demonstrate that the inhabitants of Qumran could have made soap. This chapter’s title (“Making Soap as the Qumranites Did”) is misleading, since there is no evidence presented in the volume to support the idea that they did make soap.

While presentations in a workshop may be preliminary, these are published presumably to serve as an educational tool, and therefore critical scientific review and less speculation is called for. In my opinion, the book adds little to understanding Qumran, but nevertheless shows the potential of various nondestructive methods. Clearly, the workshop was biased toward research involving the organizer (nine out of 15 presentations), and that no doubt limited the scope of the research reported in this volume.

Joseph Yellin
Edmond Safra Campus–Givat Ram
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
91904 Jerusalem

Book Review of Holistic Qumran: Trans-Disciplinary Research of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Jan Gunneweg, Annemie Adriaens, and Joris Dik

Reviewed by Joseph Yellin

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Yellin

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