The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Dead Sea Scrolls: “Qumran fortress” team responds to criticism (July 19th, 2007)

My July 17 piece on Dr. William Schniedewind and his student Robert Cargill’s purported discovery of evidence that Qumran was first inhabited by warriors, and then by religious monks, was written before I learned that Dr. Jim West questioned the originality of this fortress “finding” on his blog already on July 13 (I’m grateful to Brian Kennedy for pointing the West blog item out to me).

[Please note: I have discussed the ties connecting Schniedewind and Cargill (among other individuals involved in the preparation of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum) with several Christian fundamentalist “educational” institutions, in a separate Nowpublic piece: Christian fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego.]

Schniedewind and Cargill appear to have been rather upset at the implication that they were not the authors of what sensationalist news accounts have been presenting as their discovery — fearing, perhaps, that the public might find their attitude a bit arrogant and lose interest in their “virtual reality” film being shown at the San Diego museum. However that may be, instead of disavowing the news accounts or the museum’s involvement in their dissemination, Cargill almost immediately published a lengthy attempt to justify his and Schniedewind’s “research,” which readers can read in full on West’s blog. I quote the main portion of it here, putting some of its more noteworthy words in bold; I follow it below with a few words of commentary.

“No, the idea that Qumran was a fortress is not new. Several scholars (Golb, later Hirschfeld, and others) have suggested this in the past, and they should receive credit for this. Obviously, we accept this theory, that the site was originally constructed as a fortress… What is different about our research is that we conclude that the Dead Sea Scrolls do belong in the context of Qumran. Unlike professors Golb, Hirschfeld, Magen, and Peleg, we conclude that … some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (not all) were, in fact, produced by the residents there. (A large percentage of the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been the possessions of those who came to join the residents, who would have contributed their wealth to the community upon joining.) We … do not feel that …  the Dead Sea Scrolls should be ripped from the context of the equation… Those who came to Qumran may have yielded their personal wealth, but the community retained that wealth. Likewise, in addition to writing, the residents were engaged in self-sustaining activities, namely pottery making, but also agriculture… We disagree with the suggestion that the original residents were monks as well…. The theater presentation [at the San Diego museum, prepared by Schniedewind and Cargill] gives an overview of the original theory as well as critiques of the Qumran-Essene theory. The live docents mention (at least should be mentioning) by name many of the current researchers [compare “in the past” on line 1-2] working on Qumran.”

In response to all of which, one must ask:  Have Bible scholar Schniedewind and his student Robert Cargill done any excavations at Qumran to sustain their “conclusion” that a religious community lived and “retained wealth” there or that scribal activity took place there? Nowhere in Cargill’s statement can one find a frank admission of the fact that Israeli archaeologists Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, after ten years spent reexamining the site, were, like Yizhar Hirschfeld before them, unable to find any evidence at all of sectarian religious inhabitation or of scribes living and writing there.  In particular, they found no evidence that any of the rooms served as a  “scriptorium”–yet a room is identified as such in Schniedewind’s “virtual reality” film.  How did the 3-D computer program perform this feat?

In essence, Cargill’s statement amounts, not to a justification of any new “research” findings, but to a reassertion of the claim (or the “feeling,” to borrow his language) that it’s still possible to believe that a sectarian group occupied Qumran. All one has to do is use his imagination enough, and present the resulting speculation with an air of confidence — hence the self-assured quality of the statement. But where is the evidence to support any of this?

What is more, Cargill passes over in silence the accumulation of evidence that contradicts this feeling (e.g., the failure to find even a single scroll fragment within Qumran, and the general archaeological evidence that the site was merely a fortress, pottery factory and commercial entrepot; the Copper Scroll’s descriptions of valuables worth $20,000,000 and hidden, in at least nine cases along with “books” or “writings,” in areas near Jericho and Qumran that are a donkey’s ride from Jerusalem; etc.).

Clearly worried by the implication that he was involved in improper conduct, Cargill states that docents at the museum are or (as he carefully phrases it) “should be… mentioning by name many of the current researchers working on Qumran.” Assuming that Cargill is referring to Hirschfeld, Magen, Peleg and the others, isn’t this still a bit beside the point? Cargill does not assert that the docents are providing any information on the research conclusions of these major archaeologists, or that the “virtual reality” film treats those conclusions in an appropriately neutral manner, rather than being designed to convince the public that Schniedewind’s speculations are correct. The UCLA press release being sent out and (apparently) relied on by journalists to write sensationalist articles about Schniedewind’s “finding of new evidence” contains no information on the archaeological findings of Hirschfeld, Magen and Peleg, and is therefore highly misleading. See the UCLA Newsroom Press Release (interested readers may wish to print out the release for their files and return to the UCLA site during the next few weeks to see if Schniedewind has them revise it to cover his tracks).

[On November 16, 2007, I replaced a few sentences that concluded the original version of this piece with the following:]

November 16 update: the full scope of the distortions contained in Mr. Cargill’s “virtual reality” film (based, as I have said, on the views of his professor Dr. Schnedewind and being shown at the museum) has now been exposed in a critique of the film by University of Chicago historian Norman Golb.

One example (see the bottom of p. 2 of the linked article) will suffice to demonstrate the mendacious quality of the information and arguments employed by Mr. Cargill: in an attempt to buttress the claim (currently, as I have said, rejected by major archaeologists) that the rubble found in one of the rooms at Qumran contained the remains of a scriptorium, the film points out that a single writing stylus and a few (i.e., three or possibly four) inkwells were found in that rubble and asserts that such a large number of inkwells has been found nowhere else in Israel. This assertion, it turns out, is simply false: five inkwells were found in 2003, “together on a floor in area B” at Shu’afat, a site from the Second Temple period just a few kilometers from Jerusalem. As Golb points out, no one has suggested that the inkwells found at Shu’afat belonged to a scriptorium. Inkwells have been found in many archaeological sites in Israel and Jordan; writing equipment was obviously needed for military and commercial correspondence, but the film doesn’t explain this to the public.

In reading Dr. Golb’s article, it should be borne in mind that Mr. Cargill’s work was inappropriately funded with $100,000 that the museum obtained from Stephen Spielberg’s Holocaust fund. Why was a project of such importance entrusted to a graduate student with a ministerial degree from an institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ, rather than the group of seasoned Israeli archaeologists who, in 2006, published their detailed account of ten years spent re-examining Qumran?

Was it fair to deny the San Diego public the opportunity to hear from those archaeologists, and instead expose 450,000 people to the speculative reasonings of a young man who hasn’t even completed a doctoral dissertation? Was Stephen Spielberg fully aware of the manner in which the exhibitors intended to use his money?

Especially damaging is the revelation (see pp. 6-7 of Golb’s article) that in providing a list of “reasons” to mention a particular Israeli scholar in connection with the “theory” that Qumran was a fortress, the film’s author implicitly attributed the creation of that “theory” to the wrong scholar; indicated that mentioning the name “will shield us from criticism”; and asserted in writing: “There’s a third reason, but I never write it down.” Are we to conclude that the museum suggested that a written record of certain reasons not be kept? Or was that policy arrived at independently by the UCLA team? A fine comment on academic ethics and museum exhibits today!

So it seems that the UCLA team members have some explaining to do.  Who knows if they will come out from their “virtual reality” hiding-place and properly acknowledge all the evidence that appears to demonstrate the emptiness of their position. In order to avoid “public confusion,” one can only hope that they will address some of the ethical and scientific concerns that have now emerged. 

1 Comment »

  1. […] Dead Sea Scrolls: “Qumran fortress” team responds to criticism (July 19th, 2007) […]

    Pingback by “What a mess, huh?” « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — December 17, 2007 @ 7:17 am | Reply

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