But Qumran itself went largely unexplored for the longest time. Even the results of the few initial excavations in the 1950's have remained mostly unpublished and unavailable for independent study.
The situation, some scholars say, is not unlike the handling of the scrolls themselves, which were tightly held by select biblical scholars whose control over their publication was finally broken after a rancorous struggle a decade ago.
Now it is the archaeologists who are restive. Many no longer accept without question the view of Qumran advanced after the first excavations by the Rev. Roland de Vaux, a French biblical scholar and archaeologist.
Examining building foundations, graves and possible ritual baths at the site, Father de Vaux concluded that this had been a self-contained monastic settlement of Essenes, a strict Jewish sect, and that it was their scribes who wrote the scrolls in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. Some of the ascetic practices and radical religious beliefs mentioned in the scrolls appeared to correspond with Essene doctrine, as recorded by near-contemporary historians like Josephus, Pliny and Philo Judaeus.
Challenges to this interpretation have been mounting in recent years. Qumran may instead have been a military fortress, some scholars contend, or a fortified manor house or a villa. It may have been an agricultural community or commercial entrepôt. In any case, it is increasingly argued, there is no firm archaeological evidence linking the Qumran settlement to the scrolls found in the nearby caves.
The crumbling consensus was manifest at a conference of Qumran archaeologists held here in November at Brown University. Organizers said this was the first meeting to focus solely on the archaeology of the site, 12 miles south of Jericho on a rugged plateau above the western shore of the Dead Sea.
From their new research, archaeologists described pottery that seemed to refute the de Vaux hypothesis and other pottery in support. They inferred from the tableware the possible size and nature of the community. They reported on skeletons exhumed from the graveyard — why would a couple of women be buried in an Essene cemetery? They argued over whether an aqueduct and some basins were there for ritual baths or were simply for drinking water or agriculture. Sometimes the discord grew heated.
"There is no new consensus," Dr. Katharina M. Galor, a Brown archaeologist and an organizer of the conference, said during a break in the talks. "Or the new consensus is that the old consensus is dead."
Dr. Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, successor to Father de Vaux at the school, now deceased, generally defended the traditional interpretation. But he conceded, "Today, no one can prove that Qumran is an Essene site, though the hypothesis remains the most likely one."
Dr. James D. Tabor, a historian and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said in an interview: "Most would agree, that's the best hypothesis. But if you go beyond that and ask specific questions, then you get a different story."
Perhaps reflecting the view of many skeptics of the Essene connection, Dr. Yizhar Hirschfeld of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said, "To support the monastic nature of the settlement, scholars sometimes have overmanipulated the archaeological evidence."
Father de Vaux, for example, has been criticized as perhaps seeing
Qumran through the lens of his own life as a Dominican priest living
in a close religious community.
It may be understandable that he saw the outlines of large rooms
in the main building and the absence of private dwellings as evidence
of a communal social structure, like a monastery. The traces of
water basins suggested the presence of miqva'ot, or Jewish ritual
baths, which an Essene community would have had. And the individual
graves in the cemetery were unlike the burials in family tombs favored
by most Jews at the time, and nearly all of those dug up contained
skeletons of adult men.
In Father de Vaux's defense, Dr. Galor noted that archaeologists at that time had scarcely studied the shores of the Dead Sea. "Only after you see other things at other sites, getting a regional picture, then you see that Qumran is probably not such a unique site," she said.
As they sought to re-evaluate the site, several speakers ended their reviews of new findings on a note of frustration.
"I am hampered by the fact that most of the material for Qumran is not published," said Dr. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a defender of the de Vaux thesis who is the author of the well-regarded "Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls" (Eerdmans, 2002). "This is all subject to revision after everything is published."
Dr. Jürgen Zangenberg of the University of Wuppertal in Germany said, "The deplorable lack of relevant data affects all theories on Qumran, the mainstreamers and the rebels and iconoclasts alike."
Only one volume of Father de Vaux's excavations report has been published, with two more yet to come from Dr. Humbert's group, possibly in the next year or two. The project, based at the French school in Jerusalem but involving an international team of scholars, has been held up by a lack of money.
As of now, many archaeologists say, there is no unequivocal evidence of who the people living at Qumran were, or what they were doing there. These are the core questions driving renewed excavations, which started in the 1990's.
Several conference speakers, notably Dr. Hirschfeld, reported findings suggesting that this was an agricultural community. The people there may have cultivated dates and other fruit. There was some reason to think the people grew balsam for perfume or indigo to dye linen. Therefore, archaeologists said, the number of workshops on the premises could be explained, and the basins could have been soaking pools for balsam or vats for processing indigo.
As Dr. Mireille Bélis of the French school in Jerusalem said, indigo plants were grown on the shores of the Dead Sea, required plenty of water and were a valuable commodity. "One pound of linen required approximately 50 pounds of dye, which in cost would be equal to 4,000 chickens," she said.
Dr. Magen Broshi of the Israel Museum and Dr. Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University in Israel disagreed. They said the area's aridity and water salinity were not favorable to extensive agriculture. A nearby oasis was indeed a farm, they pointed out, but it seems to have been limited to a single crop, date palms.
Others said the existence of some farming did not necessarily preclude a religious function of the community. It could have been the way the Essenes supported themselves.
Recent excavations revealed several kilns, many pottery shards and other evidence possibly supporting an extensive ceramics industry at the site. The similarity in style of pottery found in the ruins there 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.
But that argument may be undermined by research reported by Dr. Rachel Bar Nathan of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Examining pottery styles in the region, she found the same types of ceramics prevalent in Jericho and elsewhere. Qumran may not have been such an isolated community, she concluded, but appeared to have had many commercial ties throughout the region.
The regional approach is one of the new elements in Qumran studies, involving scientists, sociologists and scholars of ancient economics. Dr. Zangenberg said this "will teach us that even `religious sites' — if Qumran was anything like that — had their economic, their social structure and natural environment that determined the range of options" that influenced the community's character and operation.
One of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Essene hypothesis has been Dr. Norman Golb, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago. In the 1980's, he was struck by the multiplicity of Jewish religious interpretations and practices recorded in the scrolls. This did not seem to him to be the work of a single sect like the Essenes.
Instead, Dr. Golb argued that the scrolls were written by a variety of Jewish religious thinkers and were hurriedly moved from Jerusalem libraries when the city fell to the Roman army in A.D. 70. Refugees hid them in the caves near Qumran for safekeeping.
In that case, the scrolls would have had nothing to do directly with Qumran itself, which Dr. Golb contends was a military fortress.
His is no longer the voice in the wilderness it once was. Many at the conference were open to the possibility that the scrolls were not the work of the Essenes, though no one presented solid evidence that Qumran had been a military base throughout its occupation.
But Dr. Golb was not invited to the conference. "Others don't want to acknowledge that mine is the best hypothesis," he said in a telephone interview.
So contentious is the entire subject of Qumran, Dr. Galor said, that some scholars who were invited agreed to attend only if some others of opposing schools of thought were excluded.
After the conference, Dr. Galor said that this was only "the starting point of a true scholarly discussion" on Qumran, and it may take another decade before it is clear where current research and excavations are leading. Even that may be too soon, she said, to resolve the issue of whether the Essenes lived there and wrote the scrolls.
With hope but no certainty, Dr. Galor mused, "Maybe, at the
next international conference devoted to the archaeology of Qumran,
one will be able to detect the beginnings of a consensus."