Sunday, January 07, 2007

Ancient toilet may hold clues about the Dead Sea Scrolls

The mystery of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls may get solved by the analysis of some 2000 year old poop (yes, this is official scientific lingo) in Qumran on the West Bank. Quite apporpriately, there is also a moral to the story: you die if you slack off regarding hygiene even while providing cool data to future archeologists. Here is the story from Science:
Evidence for an ancient latrine in Qumran, a settlement on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in Israel, has bolstered the idea that Qumran was occupied by the Essenes, a strict, all-male Jewish sect linked to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some years ago James Tabor, a scholar of early Christianity at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, spotted what appeared to be the remains of ancient toilet stalls behind a bluff about 1000 meters northwest of the Qumran camp. Recent soil samples turned up intestinal parasites specific to humans.

The find supports the notion that the Essenes did in fact inhabit Qumran from around 150 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., Tabor reports in the forthcoming issue of the journal Revue de Qumran. The men apparently followed toiletry practices prescribed in the scrolls, which included placement of latrines out of sight of camp and burial of feces.

The latrine may also help explain why more than 90% of the men interred in a Qumran graveyard died before age 40. Burial of feces meant that intestinal parasites survived rather than being dried up in the sun, says Tabor. The men evidently tracked the pathogens into a pool they were required to immerse themselves in on returning to camp. "In effect, the pool becomes a toxic waste pool," he says.

"There is a great deal of debate among scholars about how [Qumran] functioned and who lived there," says historian Joan Branham of Providence College in Rhode Island. "The discovery of a possible latrine could be an important piece of the overall puzzle."

Alleged laterine is behind rocks at upper left.

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