October 16, 2018

Armchair archeologists can explore Qumran virtually

After glancing at the nearby caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were stored, I walked through the entrance to the main building at Qumran, checked out the scriptorium with its ink wells and oil lamps and the pottery-making workshop, and then up to the four-story tower for spotting approaching Roman legions.

Although it was a hot day, I was perfectly comfortable because my virtual walking tour of the desert settlement was conducted at a sophisticated UCLA computer site, courtesy of the Qumran Visualization Project.

“What we’ve built here is a fully reconstructed, three-dimensional, real-time, interactive model of Khirbet Qumran,” explained Robert C. Cargill, a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Joining Cargill was his department chairman, professor William Schniedewind, who initiated the project to graphically enliven his class on ancient Israel and to probe current scholarly disputes on the genesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After a Bedouin shepherd discovered the first scrolls in a cave in 1947, archaeologists turned their attention to nearby Qumran. Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest, was the first to excavate the site in 1951 and concluded that it was the communal home of a pious Jewish sect, the Essenes, who created the scrolls.

Hardly were his conclusions published, when scholars began to question his theory, a debate that has continued to this day.

As further excavations revealed more about the original structures, some experts backed de Vaux’s assertions. But others proposed that the site was a fortress constructed by the Hasmoneans, whose victory against the ancient Greek occupiers is celebrated during Chanukah.

A third interpretation held that the place had been a mega-mansion, built as a winter retreat by a wealthy Jerusalem family.

Taking the excavated remains as its blueprint, the UCLA team began to model the structure wall by wall, reflecting their thickness, strength and, even, texture.

What the model showed was that the ancient inhabitants of Qumran, like Beverly Hills homeowners, had remodeled and expanded the original structure.

According to its “visualization” and the research of numerous scholars, the UCLA team concluded that the original 20,150-square-foot structure, built around 160 B.C.E., consisted of a two-story building and four-story tower, and was designed as a fortress.

The fortress was abandoned after some time, perhaps because it was no longer needed for defensive purposes. The site was reoccupied in 130 BCE, apparently by the Essenes, who began to repurpose and expand the place for their own communal needs.

Over the years they added a large dining hall, a pottery production plant, and, most importantly, the scriptorium where the scrolls were written.

The idyll was destroyed in 70 CE or shortly thereafter by the conquering Roman legions, after they had laid waste to Jerusalem and its Holy Temple.

According to the descriptions of communal living in the scrolls, the number of eating utensils and the size of the sleeping quarters, Qumran during the Essene era was inhabited by about 75 residents – all men.

One of the true marvels of Qumran, vividly illustrated through the computer model, was an elaborate water system of dams and canals, fed by runoffs from occasional flash floods and a spring, collected in a holding pool.

The system supplied enough water for no less than 11 mikvahs, or ritual baths, for separating clay at the pottery plant, and for the community’s livestock and crops.

Cleanliness was a high priority. Latrines were dug some distance from the structure and scribes had to wash themselves before entering the scriptorium.

Adding to the model’s allure is a series of high-resolution panoramic photographs of the sky, the cliffs to the west of Qumran and the Dead Sea and Jordanian plains to the east.

Cargill and Schniedewind, who developed the computer model over a 15-month period, plan to eventually replace the panoramic photography with satellite imagery, which will allow them to simulate the surrounding topography and terrain. They also hope to create virtual models of the caves where the scrolls were found.

Both Schniedewind and Cargill are practicing Christians with a deep appreciation and knowledge of Judaism and Israel.

After attending a Christian college as an undergraduate, Schniedewind, 44, earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Brandeis, and an additional master’s at Jerusalem University College, a Christian institute in Israel’s capital.

He is fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and Northwest Semitic dialects and his primary scholarly interest is in ancient Israel, especially the era of formative Judaism from 1000-1 B.C.E.

No ivory tower theoretician, he has worked on separate archaeological digs in Israel, including Qumran in 1993, and frequently praised the cooperation and pioneering research of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Cargill is 34, of Scottish descent, and has handled most of the computer modeling. He graduated from Pepperdine University, majoring in biblical studies, and “realized that to understand Christianity I had to first understand Judaism,” he said.

When first asked if he were Jewish, he asked back, “Aren’t we all?” As a token of his affection for Israel, his forearm is tattooed with the Hebrew word “ahava,” or love.

The Journal got an advance introduction to the virtual Qumran during a demonstration of digital innovation projects at UCLA.

It will be officially unveiled to the public on June 29 at the San Diego Natural History Museum, as part of the largest and most comprehensive public exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in any country.

In all, 27 scrolls will be on view during the seven-month exhibit, 10 of which have never been publicly displayed.

The San Diego museum underwrote 75 percent of the $100,000 cost of the Qumran project.

The preview at UCLA also featured 25 other digital innovation projects, ranging from an urban simulation of Los Angeles to an analysis of Old Icelandic.