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November 2015

Who Were the Essenes?

What social archaeology tells us about the Essenes of Qumran

A recent study has sought to determine by sophisticated new methods whether Khirbet Qumran was home to a Qumran community of sectarian Jews, the Essenes of Qumran.

The new study by Eyal Regev of Bar-Ilan University examines the architectural plan of Qumran and applies so-called “access analysis” to map the site’s spatial organization in order to uncover the social ideology of the Essenes of Qumran.

.Who Were the Essenes?

In a recent study about the Essenes of Qumran, archaeologist Eyal Regev used the tools of social archaeology to answer the question “Who were the Essenes?” Photo: Zev Radovan.

Regev characterizes this approach to studying the Qumran community as social archaeology, “now an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.”

By physically dividing up and demarcating spaces—walls, doorways and entrances that are used on an everyday basis—the architecture thereby classifies and controls the movement of people and the spaces they inhabit. Studying these spaces can help archaeologists answer the question “Who were the Essenes?”

 

In a detailed analysis of the physical spaces of the Qumran community, Regev finds the occupied area is divided into different space segments, “each connected to a controlling central passage with minimal connections between segments.” The spaces within segments are also “minimally connected.” Access to most spaces is therefore “limited, and several boundaries must be crossed to reach most spaces from any starting point on the site.”

The large rooms (such as the dining room and the so-called scriptorium) used by the Essenes of Qumran “were not easily accessible and were out of view of casual entrants.” This, says Regev, means that “social encounters between the inhabitants were quite uncommon.”

From such analyses, Regev concludes that the spaces of the Qumran community reflect “an ethos of social segregation, not only between the inhabitants themselves, but, more importantly, between the inhabitants and the outside world.”

The organization of space at Qumran thus “reflects sectarian organization and ideology.” Moreover, all this is consistent with the ideology of the famous Community Rule, one of the original intact scrolls. While this does not prove that the sectarian Qumran community was Essene, together with much other evidence, both from the architecture and the finds from the excavation, the Essene identification, says Regev, is “extremely plausible.”

——————Based on “Moving About at Qumran,” sidebar to Sidnie White Crawford, “A View from the Caves,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011. This feature was first republished in Bible History Daily on February 7, 2013.

Remains of ‘End of the World’ Epidemic Found in Ancient Egypt

 a bonfire where many of the victims of an ancient epidemic were incinerated

Here, a bonfire where many of the victims of an ancient epidemic in the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt were ultimately incinerated.

 

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an epidemic in Egypt so terrible that one ancient writer believed the world was coming to an end.

Working at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the west bank of the ancient city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Egypt, the team of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL) found bodies covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). The researchers also found three kilns where the lime was produced, as well as a giant bonfire containing human remains, where many of the plague victims were incinerated.

Pottery remains found in the kilns allowed researchers to date the grisly operation to the third century A.D., a time when a series of epidemics now dubbed the “Plague of Cyprian” ravaged the Roman Empire, which included Egypt. Saint Cyprian was a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the plague as signaling the end of the world. [See Photos of the Remains of Plague Victims & Thebes Site]

Occurring between roughly A.D. 250-271, the plague “according to some sources killed more than 5,000 people a day in Rome alone,” wrote Francesco Tiradritti, director of the MAIL, in the latest issue of Egyptian Archaeology, a magazine published by the Egypt Exploration Society.

Tiradritti’s team uncovered the remains of this body-disposal operation between 1997 and 2012. The monument his team is excavating was originally built in the seventh century B.C. for a grand steward named Harwa. After Harwa’s death, the Egyptians continuously used the monument for burial (Akhimenru was a successor who built his own tomb there). However, after its use for body disposal during the plague, the monument was abandoned and never used again.

A lime kiln to produce lime to cover bodies
A lime kiln built to produce enough lime disinfectant to cover the human remains of victims from the epidemic in the ancient city of Thebes.

The use of the complex “for the disposal of infected corpses gave the monument a lasting bad reputation and doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the early 19th century,” Tiradritti writes.

End of the world

Cyprian left a gut-wrenching record of what the victims suffered before they died. “The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength [and] a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth),” he wrote in Latin in a work called “De mortalitate.” The “intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting, [and] the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” he wrote, adding that “in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction …”

Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end.

“The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world …” (translation by Philip Schaff, from the book “Ante-Nicene Fathers”, volume 5, 1885).

While the world, of course, did not end, the plague weakened the Roman Empire. “It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270,” wrote Tiradritti. It is “a generally held opinion that the ‘Plague of Cyprian’ seriously weakened the Roman Empire, hastening its fall.” [In Photos: 14th-Century ‘Black Death’ Grave Discovered]

The newly unearthed remains at Luxor underscore the plague’s potency. Tiradritti’steam found no evidence that the victims received any sort of religious rites during their incineration. “We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime,” he told Live Science in an interview. “They had to dispose of them without losing any time.”

What caused the plague?

The plague may have been some form of smallpox or measles, accordingto modern day scientists. While the discovery of human remains associated with the plague will give anthropologists new material to study, Tiradritti cautions they will not be able to extract DNA from the bodies.

While stories about researchers extracting DNA from mummies (such asTutankhamun) have made headlines in recent years, Tiradritti told Live Science he doesn’t believe the results from such ancient specimens. “In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed,” he said. DNA breaks down over time, and permafrost (something not found in Egypt) is the best place to find ancient DNA samples, Tiradritti said.

Immense monument

The discovery of the body disposal site is just one part of the team’s research. Thebes is a massive site containing a vast necropolis, and the excavations of the MAIL are providing new data that allows scholars to determine how it changed between the seventh century B.C. and today.

The funerary complex of Harwa and Akhimenru, which the MAIL has been excavating since 1995, is one of the largest private funerary monuments of Egypt. Tiradritti notes that it is considered a key monument for studying a peak period in Egyptian art known as the “Pharaonic Renaissance” that lasted from the start of the seventh century B.C. until the mid-sixth century B.C. During this time, Tiradritti notes, artists created innovative new works that were rooted in older Egyptian artistic traditions.

Originally published on Live Science.

Secret pagan basilica in Rome emerges from the shadows after 2,000 years

An underground chamber that was a place of worship for a mysterious cult 2,000 years ago has opened to the public for the first time

Riccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta Maggiore

Riccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta Maggiore Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

A mysterious Roman basilica built for the worship of an esoteric pagan cult and now lying hidden more than 40ft below street level has opened to the public for the first time.

The basilica, the only one of its kind in the world, was excavated from solid tufa volcanic rock on the outskirts of the imperial capital in the first century AD.

Lavishly decorated with stucco reliefs of gods, goddesses, panthers, winged cherubs and pygmies, it was discovered by accident in 1917 during the construction of a railway line from Rome to Cassino, a town to the south. An underground passageway caved in, revealing the entrance to the hidden chamber.

Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica   Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

A painstaking restoration that has been going on for years has now reached the point where the 40ft-long basilica can be opened to visitors.

The subterranean basilica, which predates Christianity, was built by a rich Roman family who were devotees of a little-known cult called Neopythagoreanism.

Originating in the first century BC, it was a school of mystical Hellenistic philosophy that preached asceticism and was based on the writings of Pythagoras and Plato.

A fresco depicting birds on the walls A fresco depicting birds on the walls   Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

“There were lots of cults worshipped at the time and the empire was in general fairly tolerant towards them,” said Dr Giovanna Bandini, the director of the site. “But this one was seen as a threat because it discounted the idea of the emperor as a divine mediator between mortals and the gods.”

The basilica is thought to have been constructed by the influential Statilius family.

Stucco figuresStucco figures  Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

But they were accused of practising black magic and illicit rites by Agrippina, the ruthless, scheming mother of the Emperor Nero.

The head of the family, Titus Statilius Taurus, was investigated by the Senate for what Tacitus in his Annals called “addiction to magical superstitions”. He protested his innocence but committed suicide in AD53.

The basilica eventually fell into disrepair and was sealed up during the reign of the Emperor Claudius before being forgotten about.

A dedicated team of experts is restoring the interior of the basilica, scrubbing away mould and removing encrusted deposits of calcium with chemicals, tools and lasers.

Riccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the basilica of Porta MaggioreRiccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the basilica of Porta Maggiore  Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

Scaffolding platforms have been built in order to allow the restorers to access the arched ceiling, which is covered in stucco reliefs, some decayed but others in a remarkable state of preservation.

The restorers remove thick layers of calcium deposits first by hand, with scalpels, and then use small drills.

“They are the sort that you see in a dentist’s surgery,” said Riccardo Mancinelli, the technical director of the project.

The basilica consists of three naves lined by six rock pillars and an apse, all decorated with finely executed images of centaurs, griffins and satyrs.

There are depictions of classical heroes such as Achilles, Orpheus, Paris and Hercules.

Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica   Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

The head of Medusa guards the entrance to the chamber, while the lower parts of the walls are painted a deep ox-blood red, with renditions of wild birds and women in togas.

The basilica, which is entirely hidden to the outside world and accessed via a door masked from the street by a mesh fence, lies directly beneath the railway line. Trains rumble noisily overhead.

It was dug out of tufa, which is a rock that is easy to excavate. It is the reason that there are so many catacombs beneath Rome,” said Mario Bellini, an engineer involved with the project.

Although the restoration is still under way, the basilica can now be visited by tourists. Groups will be kept small because of the fragility of the monument.

Daniela Duranti, one of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta MaggioreDaniela Duranti, one of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta Maggiore  Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

“The temperature and humidity must be kept constant,” said Dr Bandini. “The temperature must not rise above 18C and humidity must not rise above 92 per cent. “But it mustn’t go below 87 per cent either, otherwise the stucco starts to dry out and crack.

“This place is unique in the Roman world in terms of its architecture and design. It was a precursor to the basilicas built during the Christian era, centuries later.”

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