Notes on the Qumran Graveyard


Evaluation of the anthropological examinations of Susan Sheridan and Olav Roehrer-Ertl on Qumran main cemetery remains shows predominantly male burials with a male/female sex ratio of 26/3.

The methods used by Roland de Vaux in excavation of the graveyard accidentally or purposely provided a random statistical sampling of data to permit analytical extrapolation onto the entire graveyard.

The Qumran community was a select group with no children and with no old age members. The data show a rigid social structure that did not permit those portions of a human population as an economic burden. Comparison of mortality rates with Roman Britain military mortality profiles shows Qumran was operated with a social discipline similar to a military organization.

Histograms of the population from the anthropological graveyard data show an average life expectancy of 35 years. If it is assumed that new members came into the community at age 15, a 20-year average life span with a 100-member community over a 200-year existence would extrapolate onto the number of graves now found at Qumran.

Evaluation of community operations suggests that the Qumran membership maintained themselves economically by a) writing religious scrolls for other Jewish communities and worship centers and b) manufacturing pottery for sale. This was the method they used to support their main purpose of preparing religious apocalyptic materials for study and teaching, toward an eschatological perception of the future of mankind. This insight permits understanding of Qumran puzzles long debated.

Graveyard Excavations

Two recent studies permit us to more critically examine anthropological results of the human remains that came from 43 graves excavated by Roland de Vaux from 1949 to 1956. The meticulous work of Susan Sheridan of Notre Dame University, (French Collection, 2000) [1], together with that of a German team headed by Olav Roehrer-Ertl, (German Collection, 1999) [2], have aided our understanding.

(An additional ten graves were reported by Solomon Steckoll from the main cemetery, containing 11 human remains. He had permission from the Jordanian authorities, who then controlled the geographical region that included Qumran. Unfortunately, as Sheridan notes: Steckoll engages in wild speculation about these remains in a little known Italian work, with some highly inventive reconstructions based on minimal supporting evidence, [2]. In 1974 Steckoll himself stated: “Detailed anthropological examination of these skeletal remains have, unfortunately, never been published," [3].  Minimal results republished by Roehrer-Ertl [2] in 1999 from the study of H. Nathan & N. Haas of 1968 [4] added little to trustworthy anthropological results from the Qumran graveyard.)

Some individuals have objected that the sample size excavated by de Vaux is too small to make deductions concerning the population of Qumran. Sheridan expressed her reservations:

As Schuller stated:

By individuals less adapted Sheridan meant those who have died from disease or accident. In most of the work done on Qumran the attitude is taken that the population was relatively stable, at least for a significant period of time, that its members did not migrate or engage in armed conflict, nor did significant numbers travel for reasons of exploration or trade. To most of us it seems that the members, during the period under investigation, simply did not belong to that type of community. While it is true that our assumptions of the membership of Qumran may be inadequate, I shall show that the evidence speaks toward a select group that was mostly male, and was highly religious. The methods of sampling statistics can be employed to draw out very significant results in spite of these fears.

After describing her hopes for a biocultural model Sheridan went on to say:

Sheridan reasserts her reservations:

As I now show, we can come to important further conclusions by additional statistical examination of the limited data.


Sex and Age Data

Original anthropological analysis was done on the remains shortly after they were disinterred but the examinations were relatively superficial compared to recent techniques. They were performed by the following:

Roland de Vaux: 1949, graves 1- 2, no data.

Henry V.Vallois, Paris, 1951, graves 3 - 11.

Gottfried Kurth, Jerusalem, 1953, graves 12 - 19.

Gottfried Kurth, Jerusalem, 1956, graves 20 - 37.

H. Nathan & N. Haas, Jerusalem, 1968, graves 38 - 47. (Steckoll)


For citations to the several investigators see Sheridan [1] and Roehrer-Ertl [2].


Some loss has occurred in the remains over the intervening years. We do not have new reports on graves 1, 2, 9, 14, 25, 27, and 37.


Refer to for maps and guidance in the discussion.

Following is a summary of the results from Sheridan and Roehrer-Ertl showing the grave number, sex, and age. I show the age determinations made by previous workers for comparison purposes: G. Kurth for graves 12 to 19 (Jerusalem, 1953), Kurth graves 20 - 36 (Jerusalem 1956), and H. Nathan and N. Haas for graves 38 to 47 (Jerusalem, 1968) [4], (not identified on map).

Table One
de Vaux Excavations



French Collection German Collection
Grave Sex Age(S) Age(K) Grave Sex Age(R) Age(K) Grave Sex Age
3 M adult - 20 M Late Adult 30-35 38 M >70
4 M 30-35 - 21 M Early Mat. 35 39 M 65
5 M 45-50 - 22 F Late Adult 30-35 40 M 40
6 M 35-45 - 23 M Late Adult 50 41 M 22
7 M 40-45 - 24a M Late Adult 25 42a F 25
8 M 40-45 - 24b F 20-21 18-20 42b ? 2
10 M 40-45 - 26 M Late Adult 35-40 43 F 14-16
11 M adult - 28 M 20-22 22-23 44 F 23
12 M 30-35 30 29 M Late Adult 40 45 M 65
13 M 40-45 - 30 M Late Adult 30-35 46 M 25-26
15 M 15-16 16 31 M Early Mat. 25-30 47 F 45-50
16a M 30-40 30 32 F 25-30 30-35
16b M 30-40 30-40 33 F Late Adult 30
17 M adult - 34 F Late Adult 25
18 M 30-33 30 35a F 25-30 30-40
19 M 40-42 30-40 35b F 20-22 no data
A F 45-50 - 36 F Infant no data
B M 60+ -        

Roehrer-Ertl reports age mostly as estimates. Sheridan reports adult where she was unable to make a determination of age.

The sequence of the grave numbers follows the order in which they were excavated.

As stated by Sheridan:

Grave #4 shows on the Jordanian photograph with an enlarged east-west orientation. However, it shows on maps as a north-south orientation. Furthermore, it falls in the midst of a group of other graves with a north-south orientation. Perhaps it had a later shallower east-west burial imposed above a previous deeper north-south grave. Did de Vaux first excavate a north-south grave that was expanded by later excavators to include an east-west grave?  The maps may reflect the knowledge of a deeper north-south grave, while the photograph shows the shallower east-west grave. We do not know how to differentiate this enigmatic grave.

Graves #17, #18, and #19 are unusual for their location somewhat outside the main cemetery. Roman nails associated with wooden coffins confirms that they were Roman burials. Their location shows where their Roman comrades were forced to place them because Qumran Jewish graves already filled the main graveyard, and they did not wish to place them remotely.

Grave #11 stirs a curiosity: Why would the one re-interred grave be in the Central Extension outside the main cemetery? We do not have other excavations from the Central Extension to make any deductions concerning the nature of those internments. Were individuals buried there ostracized from the main community? Perhaps the unusual nature of the grave is simply a coincidence.

Graves #7 and #8 were both outside the main cemetery, but have now been lost. (I see no reason why Sheridan should include #14 in this classification).

Graves #9 and #10 were from the Northern Cemetery. Two graves, #A and #B, came from a "North Cemetery" reported by de Vaux, but the identity of the location is now lost. They contained an "elderly" man and woman but we do not know if they were husband and wife. They do not show on the map. However, they may help offer insight into the demographics of the Qumran community.

The remains of grave 37 have been lost.

With the exception of the enigmatic grave #4 all of these graves had a north-south orientation. A series of graves from the Southern Extension, 32 - 36, all had an east-west orientation with features to place them outside the body of evidence from the main graveyard.

The locations of the graves excavated by Steckoll are unknown. I show graves excavated since the work of de Vaux with open ovals on the map. They have no numbers assigned. I count 26 such graves; 10 were by Steckoll. Some excavations were by grave robbers or the curious, without permission from authorities. Hence, we can only guess at the location of Steckoll's excavations. Some may have been from graves oriented east-west.

De Vaux's numbered graves are scattered throughout the cemetery. Apparently he attempted a more comprehensive sample, not concentrating his digging to one area. His grave #1 was at the southernmost extremity of the cemetery. He then jumped into the middle for #2, to return to the southern extremity and then to make his way north by skipping through intervening graves to the North Cemetery for #9 and #10. He then dropped down to the Central Extension for #11, after which he skipped around the north part of the main cemetery for his remaining excavations.

By this method he gave us a nearly random sample of graves.

This strongly suggests that neither the French nor German collections slant anthropological results toward any particular male or female group. If women had been buried in one area, for example, they should appear in the analysis, as happened for graves #32 through #36. These latter graves may have been excavated as a concentrated area because they were shallow graves, of a half-meter, compared to the deep main cemetery graves of two meters.

Other Cemeteries

Sheridan collected cemetery reports for the entire Palestine region, from the Second Temple Period to the time of the Byzantine Empire. She titled her Table 6 as Comparison of Sex Ratios for Regional and Temporal Counterparts to the Qumran Community. While she shows the sex ratios she does not discuss them. She rather concentrates on differences in stature, dental data, and other aspects of the anthropological information, [5].

For illustration I include here Sheridan's report for only two parts of her Table, the Dead Sea Region and the Jordan Valley, and Jerusalem and the Judean Hills. I do not include the later Roman and Byzantine cemeteries.  In the columns n is the total number of remains; m and f are the male and female count; a is  undetermined sex count.

Table Two
Dead Sea Region and Jordanian Valley Jerusalem and Judean Hills
Site Period n m f a Site Period n m f a
Jericho Late Helenistic/Roman 192 86 52 54 Akeldama Tombs Helenistic/Late Roman/Byzantine 115 9 15 91
En Gedi Early Roman 87 52 27 8 French Hill Late Helenistic/Roman 64 15 10 39
En Gedi Helenistic 65 40 25 - Caiaphas Tomb Second Temple Period 64 11 7 46
En Gedi & Jerusalem Roman 49 30 19 - Beit Safafa Herodian 42 15 10 17
Goliath Family Herodian 31 11 7 13 Givat Ha-Mivtar Roman 35 11 12 12
En El-Ghuweir Roman 20 13 6 1 French Hill 2 Late Helenistic 33 10 8 15
Cave of the Letters Bar Kochba 19 4 9 6 City of David Herodian 18 5 12 1
Nahal Hever Bar Kochba 10 4 3 3 Ramot Second Temple Period 9 3 3 3
Hiam El-Sagha Roman 2 1 - 1  Mount Scopus Roman 6 2 1 3
            Nahal Raqafot Late Roman 5 3 - 2
            Manahat Roman 2 2 - -
            Samuel ha-Navi St. Roman 2 1 1 -
  Total 475 241 148 86   Total 394 87 80 227

In the first section of Table Two the total number shows a heavy preponderance of male graves, 1.6:1, with about 20 per cent undetermined sex. In the second section the total number for the ratio of male to female is essentially 1:1, but with a large number of undetermined sex, approximately 60 per cent.

Since females show in all we must assume they were family burial centers. Perhaps the list includes military burials, foreigners who do not belong to the native population, but interred alongside families. Certainly the results from ancient burial centers are fraught with deep uncertainties in the sex ratios because of skeletal deterioration, and because we do not know their history. This may be the reason Sheridan did not discuss these data.

(Many Jewish internments are in rock-cut tombs. We view this evidence as indication of economic wealth. Poor people could not afford rock-cut tombs. Hence, the exclusive internment in the earth shows that the population of Qumran either did not have the economic means for rock-cut tombs, or elected to be buried as paupers. However, the exhumed graves show that efforts were taken to make an earthen shelf somewhat aside of the main grave shaft where the body was placed, and then covered with a layer of stone, before enclosing the grave. The Qumran graves thus show a tomb-like burial.)

For comparison, now consider memorial tombstones from ancient Rome. These are scattered all around Europe. While the data from tombstones are notoriously difficult, with the rounding of ages to even years, a bias in terms of social rank, ability to pay for the commemoration, the importance of men over women, and otherwise reflective of social status, they offer us some insight into mortality rates. The following was published by Louise Revelle, the University of Southhampton, [7]. They are for the geographical regions of Samnium, Picenum, Umbria, Etruria, Conventus Cordubensis, and Britain.

Figure One

Clearly, the inscriptions are weighted heavily of men over women, and of years beyond childhood. Social achievement with age was important to commemoration. We can see the youthful mortality; major portions of the population died before age 50.

If we gather evidence from actual graves, or from tombstones, cemetery information is incomplete and fraught with uncertainty.

Sheridan classified the Qumran graveyard as Hellenistic/Roman. She does not assign the graves to the Second Temple Period nor Herodian. In her attempt to put the Qumran cemetery into a larger secular context she bypassed the heart of its operation as a Jewish community. She also deflected the implications of a community dedicated to God, culturally bound to the region for physical needs, but not bound by philosophies. Hence, her classification seems specious simply because it does not deal with the Qumran questions.

Sex Evidence

Sheridan reports one teen age boy. Roehrer-Ertl reports one infant from the group in the Southern Extension. No elderly persons show in the French and German collections, except #A and #B noted by Sheridan. There are no children of puberty age or less. All individuals are otherwise relatively young or low middle age adult, a very unusual statistic for a family burial ground.

This curious information is further evidence why Sheridan cannot force the Qumran community into a broader secular social context. It is not a normal or average family internment center. She felt that the results from the small sample size cannot be extrapolated to the entire cemetery.

A rather startling fact stands out in the summary shown in Table One. A major portion of the remains from the exhumed graves were male. Sheridan reports one female, #A, but she is from outside the main cemetery. Roehrer-Ertl reports two females from the main cemetery, and a group of six females in the Southern Extension. Although I include Steckoll's results in Table One for comparison purposes I do not include them in the analysis because they are clouded in great uncertainty. Some of the remains examined by Nathan and Haas may be from the Southern Extension where we find a preponderance of female burials.

The male/female ratio of the French Collection is 17/1. The ratio for the German Collection is 9/2, if we exclude the female group of six remains from the Southern Extension. Of the two women from the main cemetery one is a double burial with a male, to suggest a husband and wife. From reliable data for both the French and German collections the men/women ratios are 26/3.

Assume that the graveyard was a family burial center, and that there was an equal probability of excavating a male or female grave. De Vaux uncovered one male grave. He then uncovered a second male grave. As he continued randomly through the graveyard he increasingly faced the probability of meeting a female grave if there were an equal distribution of male and female graves. Out of the French collection the chances of meeting all males 16 times in sequence is about 3.5 out of 100,000 if the graves are equally mixed. When we add the German collection to these odds, with a total of three women from both collections, the odds now increase to 5 per 10 million that there would be so many males. Hence the statistical odds are overwhelmingly against a population of an equal number of men and women.

The Controversy Over the Southern Extension

A major contribution to the Qumran question comes from the adjunct burial area in the Southern Extension. Joe Zias explicitly detailed how the adjunct area differs from the main cemetery. In addition to the east-west orientation of the graves, in contrast to the north-south orientation of the main cemetery:

Thus the isolated group of women's graves in the Southern Extension is obviously not part of the main burial pattern. Because of these facts I exclude the Southern Extension graves in my analysis of the data from the main cemetery.

Another fact causes the main cemetery to differ from the adjunct Southern Extension. Fragments of jars and one lamp were found in graves  4, 14, 15, 23, 26 (lamp), 27, 30, all from the main cemetery [9]. These are typical of what one might find in Jewish graves. Compare this with the (Bedouin) relics from the Southern Extension.


Summary of Sex Evidence

From this limited evidence we find an overwhelming male population in the graves from the main and northern cemeteries, with a ratio of 26/3. This shows that the Qumran cemetery was not an ordinary family internment center.

Unfortunately, the Israel Authorities will not permit further excavation under a general command of not disturbing old grave sites. (Special exemptions are given but with the prerequisite that the grave materials not be disturbed if transporting to another location.)

Children and the Elderly

The death age profile found at Qumran also shows an important difference from ordinary family cemeteries. Prior to our modern methods of health care it was common to have a high rate of youth mortality. This can be seen by touring the cemeteries of Europe and America. As Joe Zias pointed out: When viewing the demographic data in antiquity, sub-adult mortality (under eighteen years) usually averages around 50% with some reported figures for this period as high as 68%, [8]. Examination of the Roman Tombstone data above shows that 40% of commemorated deaths occurred before the age of 20. On the other hand, a segment of the population from all biological groups escaped the youth health dangers and many lived into advanced old age. Refer to the Tombstone evidence above. A wealth of information is available on the demographics of ancient times. For example, consider Walter Scheidel, Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt [10], or Bagnall and Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt, [11].

Many studies report new-born infant death rates in ancient times at greater than 300 per thousand. Eleanor Scott estimated mortality rates for new-born infants in early medieval England at about 100 per 1000, [12]. But infants often are absent from cemeteries. A range of historical and ethnographic parallels provide possible reasons for this. Scott notes the practice in Roman Italy of burying the new-born under the eaves of the house. She cites the ancient Greek practice of burying infants below the house, to enable their soul to enter the next child born to the household. In the large Egyptian Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BCE) town at Lahun, (William Flinders) Petrie uncovered infant burials in boxes beneath the floors of houses. There is no written evidence to account for this, and the historical and ethnographic parallels can only make us aware of the range of possible social and individual motivations behind the practice, [13].

Until the past century children were highly important to families economics. An agriculture family found children indispensable to operation of the family farm. A potter might find it economically helpful to have a child run errands for him. Such use of child labor applies to many occupations. In the face of the Qumran grave statistics we have another startling fact. Since youth mortality in ancient times was nearly the same in all communities, across all ethnic lines, and across all national boundaries, we should find at least 12 children buried at Qumran, from our sample size of 26 and if it were an ordinary family burial ground. But none were found. Clearly the Qumran community did not have ordinary families nor did they depend upon children as part of their economics.

High mortality rates extended throughout life. On the basis of a study of well over 30,000 Roman period tomb markers showing age John Durand reports:

The Roman tombstone evidence shown above also speaks to high mortality rates for the elderly. Only about 16 percent of the population survived past 50.

The results of the lack of medical competence to provide longevity is also described by Douglas W. Owsley and William M. Bass from the Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, [15]:

Although the illustration is remote in time and place, we can see how strikingly it describes the exhumed population of Qumran. 

On the other hand, old age was well known in antiquity. The Emperor Augustus of Rome lived to be 84. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the age of exemption from compulsory civic and military service was often 70, and examples of older people remaining active are frequent. A 13th-century Doge of Venice led his forces into battle when he was 97! A summary of this history of old age was edited by Pat Thane, Thames and Hudson, [16].

On the basis of the Roman tombstone evidence we should expect to find about four people older than 50 in the Qumran graveyard, out of our sample size of 26. We find two, and they are of lesser age. Because of this lack of elderly from exhumed graves we can also surmise that the economics of Qumran did not allow older people who would become a burden on the community.

The random sampling methods of grave exhumation used by de Vaux makes child internments without discovery highly unlikely if we accept the childhood statistics cited above.  Since children are missing from Qumran we can conclude, with a high degree of certainty, that the main Qumran graveyard is not a family burial ground. This conclusion is further confirmed by the absence of elderly people. The evidence strongly suggests that individuals were brought into the Qumran community after they were past puberty, and left Qumran before old age. Families did not live and die at Qumran.

This raises the obviously important question: Was Qumran organized as a community for some purpose other than family life?

Age Profile

When Sheridan attempted to obtain radio-carbon dates on the remains from the cemetery she discovered that the material from the bodies was completely contaminated by the grave environment. Apparently, this problem affected all Qumran graves, suggesting that all internments were buried with sufficient time to bring the contamination. (The shorter time period suggested by Zias for the Southern Extension graves might countermand this finding, if the remains of those graves were subjected to further radio-carbon examination.)

Death and burial in all communities since ancient times have been a local operation. One did not transport dead bodies long distances to bury them. This was especially true for the Near East where warm weather quickly caused deterioration. The rule among both Jews and Arabs was to bury the body within one day. Hence, any theory that would demand the transport of dead bodies over a day's journey to a remote graveyard is unrealistic. If a man died at Qumran he would be buried at Qumran. If someone died in Jerusalem he would not be carried to Qumran for burial. (The walking distance at a rapid pace from Jerusalem would be about five or six hours. The transport of a dead body would make this journey much slower, taking up the good part of a day.)

A profile of number of deaths within our sample size of 26, both from the Sheridan and the Roehrer-Ertl reports, plotted against age, shows the following:

Table Three




























































































Note that this table includes all burials exhumed at Qumran, male, female, and Roman.

This histogram shows that a preponderance of deaths occurred between the ages of 30 and 45 at Qumran. This finding is in contradiction to the general cemetery statistics of ancient times, as shown in Figure One above. A larger number of deaths should occur earlier in life. Refer to the Roman tombstone evidence below, Figure Two, [7]. This graphical plot is skewed because gravestones are an indication of family wealth, and because of the social importance of the individuals who died. Poorer families could not afford tombstones, and childhood may not have obtained social notice.

Figure Two

However, the Qumran profile agrees with another finding from the Roman tombstones. This may be seen from the commemorative evidence from Britain, Figure Three below, [7].

Figure Three

The male and female commemorations in Britain appear similar to those from Roman Italy, except that childhood death seems to have been given more consideration. However, the military commemorations are notably different. No childhood mortality shows because members came into military service at the ages of 17 or 18. On the other hand, the military profile shows commemoration well into old age.

The similarity between Roman Britain military deaths, and the Qumran death profile shown in Table Three above, may be seen by a graphical plot showing both on the same chart, Figure Four below.

Figure Four

For this Figure, I have taken the Roman Britain military data directly from Figure Three above. The Britain military sample size was 84. I have calculated the Qumran data from Table Three above, with a sample size of 26, including the three known Roman and three female burials.

The commemoration of Roman Military deaths in Britain probably was more faithful to the military population than commemorations were to the civilian population because of a more certain income that would pay for the memorial, and because of the honor the military received. The practice might be compared to the burial of those who die in military service today.

The similarity of these two graphical plots is remarkable. They speak toward a social discipline in both cultures that would bring about the same mortality profiles. The underlying causes of death at Qumran compare to the underlying causes of military deaths in Roman Britain. Since the military mortality profiles are markedly different from the civilian, Figure Three above, what is it in the military that would cause this difference? If we examine those causes we should be able to reach certain conclusions about death at Qumran.

Military age does not begin until after puberty. This means that all youth mortality has been removed from the population. Diseases that occur in youth do not affect the military death rates. Mortality depends on health dangers that are purely adult. Qumran mortality profiles follow the purely adult profiles of a military group.

Note that the Roman burials at Qumran probably came from the military outpost stationed at Qumran, and hence obeyed the rules for military mortality. They would contribute sympathetically to the Qumran death profile. Similarly, females invited into Qumran probably would obey the same rules for adult admission as the males, and hence their mortality profile would not include childhood contribution. Mortality dangers associated with adult females would not be displayed if, for example, childbirth was forbidden. Since the female representation is a small proportion of the graveyard population other uniquely female mortality dangers probably do not show in the small sample size. Thus the female mortality profile also contributed sympathetically to the Qumran death profile.

The dangers of death were similar in both populations. (Death on the battlefield did not appear to contribute significantly to the Roman Britain military mortality rates.) This implies that mortal illnesses were similar in both geographical regions, and that they were due to natural causes. We do not know how much heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, diabetes, liver and kidney diseases, and so on may have contributed. Most likely old-age dangers, such as stroke, did not affect the Qumran youthful population, although those statistics may appear in the Britain military population. We can infer that the Jewish population at Qumran did not have superior physical genetic endowments to make them more immune to the causes of natural death.

These facts have a peculiar importance to Qumran. The data imply that the Qumran population was screened to selectively solicit healthy membership after puberty, as in the military. Handicapped were not accepted into Qumran unless the handicap did not affect the function of the individual. In functional respects Qumran was similar to military practices and discipline. But this probably was true for physical attributes only; the population could have been screened for superior education and intellectual capacity that does not show in the mortality statistics.

Statistical Sampling

Over the past century mathematical techniques were developed to evaluate the quality of a product on a manufacturing production line. For example, a gun bolt must fit within the gun chamber fairly tightly, to seal the compression chamber when the round is fired. However, this must not be so tight that the rounds cannot be introduced into the chamber with relative ease. This restriction places a requirement that both the chamber and the bolt meet standard dimensions. Since mechanical variations take place in manufacturing some limit must be placed on both dimensions that will hold the variations to a range that will make an efficient weapon. On a mass production line a measurement of each piece would place an onerous financial burden on the manufacturer. Therefore sampling techniques were established to ease that burden. Only a small percentage of the production need be tested to verify that the finished product will work to specifications. This method is called Quality Control. Most often the requirement is that these methods measure random samples. This is called statistical sampling, and is based upon mathematical theories of probability density functions. Many books have been written around these methods designated Engineering Statistics. The United States government provides information on such methods, [17].

When de Vaux went through the Qumran cemetery exhuming graves he did so in a manner that in all practical aspects was random. He was simulating a sampling process that was similar to quality control on manufacturing production lines. He knowingly or unknowingly provided us with sampling statistics. The histogram in Table Three above shows the age distribution of the sample. Because of the simulation to manufacturing sampling statistics we can extrapolate the Sheridan and Roehrer-Ertl results onto the entire main cemetery with considerable confidence. Assuming a random distribution of age from the exhumations I calculated the arithmetic mean at approximately 35 years. I then found the 3-sigma limits of that sample at +/- 30 years. More than ninety-nine per cent of the population of Qumran should mathematically fit within longevity of 5 to 65 years.

We must keep in mind that the population was truncated. Childhood deaths are missing from the population because members were admitted after puberty. Old age is truncated because members were asked to leave the community when they reached an older age. Therefore, conclusions drawn from the principles of sampling statistics are subject to some modification. Certainly we have some estimate of group health, longevity, and demographics by the comparisons I have made here. Community adaptation and daily life now has more open doors to our understanding, contrary to the opinion of Sheridan. The meaning of the data is not subject to a limit of the 3% exhumed graves as she and Schuller stated, [5, 6].

The Purpose of Qumran

To understand the population of the graveyard we must address several questions: How many people lived within the complex? Where did everyone sleep? Why is the graveyard so large, when the community appeared so small?

Our choices in understanding the function of Qumran then devolve to (a) a military center, (b) a commercial center, perhaps (c) an educational institution, or perhaps (d) a community dedicated to the preparation of religious scrolls.

The answer to these questions depends on an understanding of the living population of Qumran.

The following is edited from a lecture given by Yizhar Hirschfeld, [18]. I have removed his speculative remarks.

  • The part of Qumran which is most similar to the other sites is the main building. The dominant feature of the main building is the tower in the northwestern corner of the courtyard. The main building was probably the living quarters of the site. The surrounding wings were the industrial area of the site. The water supply system of Qumran was capable of collecting 1,127 cubic m of water. This is a considerable amount of water, but not unusual in comparison to the quantities that were collected at other desert sites in the region.
  • The site of Qumran does not appear to have been a center for the people living in nearby caves. A systematic survey of the caves has demonstrated that they were used for hiding objects, not for permanent inhabitation. On the other hand, the site does not appear to be a fortress either. The tower surrounded by a glacis made the site defensible, but the living quarters, featuring several entrances and irregular construction, were characteristic of a civilian complex. The industrial installations and the nearby tracts of work land prove that a principal occupation of the inhabitants was agriculture and agricultural processing. 

A survey of the Qumran geographical area through Google maps shows cultivation nearby today. We would be hard pressed to suggest that it was not possible to have an agricultural operation associated with the Qumran complex 2,000 years ago. Questions such as rainfall, Dead Sea level, aridity, and so on during the period of occupation are beyond the scope of this paper. The existence of farming did not preclude a religious function of the community. It merely could have been the way the community helped support themselves.

Recent excavations revealed several kilns, an entire room full of pottery, many pottery shards and other evidence possibly supporting an extensive ceramics industry at the site. Some of the over 700 bowls found in Locus 89, "the pantry," were probably produced for trade and, as they strongly resemble vessels found in late Hasmonean and early Herodian Jericho, it seems that there were close economic ties between Qumran and other areas, reaching perhaps as far a Jerusalem. In all likelihood, Qumran supplied pottery to such nearby sites as Rujm el-Bahr, Qasr el-Yahud and, perhaps, Ein Gedi and Masada. The similarity in style of pottery found in the ruins and the clay jars that held the scrolls was an important point in associating Qumran with the cave scrolls when the traditional hypothesis was first proposed. The pottery activity may simply have been one source of revenue for the community, without assuming that was its only source, or forcing it into a solely commercial enterprise. (Or, on the contrary, forcing the community into a distorted monastery complex with all male members.)

Although recent excavations reveal a more refined mode to the architecture, this merely means the community did not confine itself to austere surroundings. We should not conclude that Qumran was a rich Manor House for royalty. The graveyard, with the lack of children and the elderly, is a mighty reflection of the lives lived at Qumran.

Hirschfeld felt that Qumran required considerable economic resources. He argued that the lack of any scroll evidence within the site strongly suggests a proposal that no scrolls were written there, [19]. But the proposal is not valid. Excavations at nearby Masada and Hyrcania revealed scroll evidence at those sites but they were not used exclusively to write scrolls. Masada was a palace for Herod the Great. We would expect religious texts to be in use at all sites. Hence, the lack of scroll evidence points toward an opposite proposal, that all scrolls and scraps of scrolls were gathered and placed in the Dead Sea Caves when the site was abandoned. Someone could have gone through the site and carefully removed all scroll material.

The point that Hirschfeld made about Qumran economics places emphasis on the care the managers of the site had to maintain to keep it financially viable. It was a site that could not permit extra financial burden. Therefore, the rule was simple: no children and no old people. It was also a site that was dedicated to the production of religious scrolls, an occupation that had no need for women.

(We should not become confused about the nature of the sociological function of Qumran. The group may have been completely outside the main cultural stream of the Jewish people, including Essenes. It may have been a group dedicated to God, and showing no allegiance to other human associations.)

I have tried to estimate the possible numbers of people living in the Qumran complex and see no reason why it could not easily reach 100 or higher. The sleeping quarters could easily have been on an upper floor, traces of which were lost because of the methods of the 1950's excavations. Besides the complex water system, the overall design of Qumran points to a communal way of life. Qumran had a scriptorium where scrolls were produced, a dining hall, a garden, stables, a bakery and various workshops. This evidence reveals the style of the daily life of the community.

I have refrained from identifying the inhabitants of Qumran as Essene. I do not believe they were Essene. I believe they were a community dedicated to the preparation of scrolls for their religious expression, as first proposed, but had to maintain themselves economically. They had husband and wife teams that served in domestic roles, such as cooking and cleaning. But the population was mainly male. This is the evidence of the graveyards. It was a population that could not afford families, nor childhood costs, nor cost for maintenance of the aged.

Operation of Qumran may have occupied perhaps two hundred years, from circa 150 BCE to 70 CE. But now I expand the meaning of the preparation of religious scrolls. In addition to their own needs, the members prepared scrolls for other Jewish communities, thus to support themselves economically. Furthermore, such activity would be compatible with a deeply religious life pursuit. Such proposal would help explain why there was such an abundance of scrolls. It would also explain why the caves carried such a rich assortment of different scrolls never before known. The caves around Qumran were not a place to stash scrolls from Jerusalem or other Jewish intellectual centers at the imminent threat of Roman armies; they were a place to stash scrolls from Qumran, as originally proposed. (I avoid discussion why the unique Qumran religious scrolls were not known from other Jewish communities prior to these discoveries.)

Qumran had a primary function that was at the heart of their purpose. That function was the preparation of scrolls designed to fulfill a need for apocalyptic expression. Qumran was more than a simplistic Essene community; it was a community dedicated to apocalypse and understanding of the future of mankind. The heart of their purpose, their worship services and their theological discussions, was centered on that eschatological framework. They helped sustain themselves by writing religious scrolls and making pottery for other communities.

The evidence speaks to the solicitation of young men for membership in the community. If life expectancy was short, the new entry of middle-age persons or older would not be economically sound. The mortality profiles demonstrate this conclusion.

If we follow this occupation model young men would be solicited to enter the community directly after the age of puberty. With a high mortality rate in the general population young persons would be at a premium. The time from age 15 to the average death would be 20 years. If the occupiers of Qumran numbered perhaps 100, how many men would die each year? If fifty percent of the population of Qumran would die within 20 years, and if the Qumran operation went on for 200 years, then five would die per century, multiplied by two centuries, multiplied by the number of members. This simple mathematical calculation reveals the size of the Qumran graveyard. The graveyard would grow to 1000 graves over 200 years. This is the approximate size of the graveyard we have discovered.

Ernest P. Moyer

January 12, 2007

List of References:

[1] Susan Guise Sheridan, Jaime Ullinger and Jeremy Ramp, Anthropological Analysis of the Human Remains from Khirbet Qumran: The French Collection, The Archaeology of Qumran, Vol. II., J-B Humbert, OP and J. Gunneweg, eds., Presses Universitaires de Fribourg, Suisse and the École Biblique et Archéologique Française, pp. 133-173, 2003. See also

[2] Olav Roehrer-Ertl,  F. Rohrhirsch and D. Hahn, “Über die Gräberfelder von Khirbet 1999 Qumran, insbesondere die funde der campagne 1956. I: Anthropologische datenvorlage und erstauswertung aufgrund der collectio Kurth”, Revue de Qumran 19/73, p. 3-46. See also

[3] S.Steckoll, The Community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Atti de Centro studi e documentazione sull’Italia romana 5: Convegno internazionale sui metodi di studio della città antica, p. 198-244, 323-344

[4] Haas N. and H. Nathan, “Anthropological survey on the human skeletal remains from 1968 Qumran”, Revue de Qumran 23/6, p. 345-352

[5] S. G. Sheridan. "Scholars, Soldiers, Craftsmen, Elites?: Analysis of the Human Remains from Qumran,"  Dead Sea Discoveries, 9(2):199-248.

[6] Schuller E., “Women in the Dead Sea scrolls”, The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty, 1999 Years: A Comprehensive Assessment. Vol II. Ed. by P.W. Flint and J.C. VanderKam, Leiden, Brill, p. 117-144

[7] Louise Revell, "The Roman life course: a view from the inscriptions," European Journal of Archaeology, Vol 8, (1), pages 43-63, 2005.

[8] Joe Zias, The Cemeteries of Qumran, Celibacy: Confusion Laid to Rest? Dead Sea Discoveries Vol 7, 2000,  pp. 220-253.


[9] Sigrid Peterson:

[10] Walter Scheidel, Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, in the series History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, Volume 228, Brill, Leiden, 2001.

[11] Roger S. Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[12] Eleanor Scott. The Archaeology of Infancy and Infant Death, Oxford, 1999.

[13] Presentation on the Flinders Petrie Egyptian Archeology web site:


[14] John D. Durand, Mortality Estimates from Roman Tombstone Inscriptions, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Jan., 1960), pp. 365-373


[15] Douglas W. Owsley and William M. Bass, A demographic analysis of skeletons from the Larson site (39WW2) Walworth County, South Dakota, American Journal of Physical Anthropology Volume 51, Issue 2 , Pages 145 - 154, published On Line May, 2005.


[16] Pat Thane, Ed., The Long History of Old Age, Thames and Hudson, London, 2005.

[17] Engineering Statistics: and

[18] Yizhar Hirschfeld, Recent Discoveries in the Archaeology of Qumran, Greenfield Seminar Series on March 19, 1998.


[19] Y. Hirschfeld, Qumran in the Second Temple Period, Reassessing the Archeological Evidence, Liber Annus, Vol 52, 2002, pages 247-296.

This notice was  posted on the Hebrew University website: (The Institute of Archaeology deeply regrets to announce that Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld passed away on November 16th, 2006.)