Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Vegetarian Essenes? Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

Twenty-eight spartan dwellings on the edge of the Ein Gedi oasis in southern Israel may have been the home of a community of Essenes, the Jewish sect thought by some to have collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. While no inscriptions have been found positively linking the site to the group, its proximity to the village of Ein Gedi a mile away is grounds for assuming that its inhabitants belonged to the same community, says Yitzhar Hirschfeld of Hebrew University, the site's excavator. Descriptions of the Essenes by ancient authors such as Pliny the Elder "fit the character of the site," he says. Another clue is the presence of a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath.

The Essenes are thought to have flourished between the second century B.C. and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. Ancient sources describe them as a tightly knit group of men, possibly celibate, who practiced communal ownership of property. "The people who lived here worked the fields of the oasis," says Hirschfeld, who suspects that the site was a permanent, rather than seasonal, settlement. The dwellings were built for one person only and measure six by nine feet. They appear to have been occupied twice, in the first and early second centuries A.D., and between the fourth and sixth centuries. Three larger buildings possibly had a communal use; one, likely a kitchen, had three stoves and a thick layer of ash on the floor.

While the site yielded a fairly rich collection of pottery vessels, glass sherds, and seven coins from the early Roman and Byzantine eras, it is most remarkable for its lack of animal bones. "Although we worked carefully, sifting everything, we didn't find any," says Hirschfeld, adding that the settlers might have been vegetarian. Although Josephus noted that the dietary restrictions of the Essenes were stringent, the nearby village appears not to have been bound by vegetarianism. "We've found 4,000 animal bones in the village of Ein Gedi," he notes. Judaism has historically advocated vegetarianism only occasionally for ascetic reasons or during periods of mourning. Excavations will continue in the winter of 2000.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America