Friday, February 09, 2007

Why the Essenes Died Young

Cleanliness is next to... disease?
Recent findings show that the Essenes practiced some extreme forms of ritual hygiene which ironically, lead to them being a rather sickly bunch.
According to an article at,

In an article forthcoming in the next issue (winter 2006/2007) of Revue de Qumran, an international research team reports the results of an investigation of a suspected remote latrine site. Located by following clues in the ancient sources that specify the remote placement of latrines, the team positively identified the site as a latrine area through analysis of sub-surface soil samples.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte biblical scholar James Tabor suggested the investigation at a site outside the ruins of Qumran, noting instructions in two of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the “War Scroll” and the “Temple Scroll”) specifically requiring latrines to be located at a significant distance “north-west of the city,” and also to be “not visible from the city.” Tabor had also noted that the first century Jewish historian Josephus described very similar exotic toilet practices among the religiously strict sect known as the Essenes....

“I started thinking that in the scrolls they have these very explicit descriptions of where the latrines have to be,” Tabor explained. “It has to do with religious ritual purity -- the latrines have to be located in a place that the ancient texts designate as ‘outside the camp’. That’s a phrase used in the Torah, where Moses tells the ancient Israelites ‘build your latrines outside the camp.’ When you go to the toilet, take a paddle or a shovel with you and use the toilet and then cover it up,” he said, explaining that the ancient practice appears to have been revived at Qumran.

“This group is very strict and they observe this practice rigorously -- in one text it says go 1000 cubits, and in another text, 2000 cubits -- and they specifically state ‘northwest’ in the scrolls. Josephus, in talking about the Essenes, mentions it as a point of admiration or piety – he says that these people are so holy, that on the Sabbath day they won’t even use the toilet, because on the Sabbath one can’t go outside the settlement,” he said.

...Zias and Tabor also note that the settlement’s unusual latrine practices may be clues in solving some of Qumran’s other archaeological puzzles -- in particular, questions raised by the 1,100 graves found at the site, which are almost exclusively male.

“The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group that I have ever studied in over 30 years and this is readily apparent,” said Zias, who has done previous work on the Qumran burials. “For example, 2,000 years ago in Jericho, 14 kilometers to the north, the chances of an adult male dying after 40 were 49 percent. But when you go to Qumran, the figure for people surviving to 40 falls to six percent -- the chances of making to 40 differ by a factor of eight!

“And yet we are told that these men arrived very healthy – they had physical examinations coming in. The people at Qumran thought that you could look at body types and tell what kind of person you were. Josephus tells us that the Essenes were selective -- you had to be 20 years old, and you had to be healthy,” Zias noted.

The puzzle comes together for Zias when he combines the community’s latrine practices with its near-obsessive use of pools for ritual cleansing and bathing.

“Burying your feces in the outdoors makes a lot of sense until you live in Qumran,” Zias said. “What happened was that 20 to 40 people went out there every day over a period of 100 years. By burying their fecal matter, they actually preserved the microorganisms and parasites. In the sunlight, the bacteria and parasites get zapped within a fairly short amount of time, but buried, the parasites can live in the soil for up to a year. Then people pick up things by walking through fecally contaminated soil -- it’s like a toxic waste dump, and if you have any cuts on your feet…”

Well-defined community bathing practices, combined with a lack of running water, complicated the problem of daily exposure to contaminated soil. A cleansing pool was located at the settlement entrance on the return route from the latrine area and is likely to have been a fertile breeding ground for pathogens picked up from the human waste-enriched soil.

“Here is where things really get bad,” Zias explained. “After they went to the latrines they were required to enter one of the emersion cisterns (Miqvot) before they came back into the settlement. Hygienically, that sounds like a good idea, if you have fresh running water, but there is no running water at Qumran, only runoff which was collected during the three months of winter rains. They enter the cisterns where everyone else has been, with all the bacteria they’ve brought in with them, floating around. The bacterium, which usually doesn’t last long in the air and sunlight, stays active for a longer period in the sediments and is continually re-suspended in the water by people disturbing the pool.”

...“People who have cleansed themselves in the outside pool also have to go into the Miqwah twice a day. The water there may looked clean, but hygienically, it was rarely changed and must have been very dirty with the potentially fatal pathogens shared by everyone who was entering it for ritual purification. And Miqwah cleansing is a total immersion, which means that it gets in your ears, in your eyes and in your mouth. It is not hard to imagine how sick everyone must have been,” Zias said.

...“As a group the men of Qumran were very unhealthy, but I think this would have been likely to have actually fed the Essenes’ religious enthusiasm,” said Tabor. “They would have seen their infirmities as punishment from God for their lack of purity and then have tried even harder to purify themselves further.”

Crossposted to Jewschool


Pragmatician said...

It reminds me of older people saying that despite the lack of luxuries, people were happier 70 years ago.
I always aks them: but you didn't have decent toilets? Wasn’t that awful?

Jack's Shack said...

That is interesting, a little disgusting, but interesting.