The Essenes were a strict Jewish sect that produced the documents that proved to be the most famous and perhaps most important archaeological find of modern times, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). The DSS were discovered in the late 1940s in caves near the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. Among the DSS were at least partial copies of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther, an omission that is usually explained by the fact that the Essenes apparently did not observe the Festival of Purim, the origin of which is described by that fascinating book.
A more recent archaeological find has perhaps solved one of the scholarly debates surrounding the Essenes. Most scholars believe that the Essenes lived as a monastic community at Qumran and thus produced and left the scrolls there. Other scholars believe that the residents of Qumran were farmers or soldiers or potters and that the scrolls were written in Jerusalem and deposited at Qumran by Jewish refugees who were forced to flee the Roman destruction of the city in 70 CE.
Interestingly, the discovery of an ancient latrine may help to settle the debate. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the Essenes’ strict rules of purity included the requirement that they distance themselves from the community to use the bathroom, that they use a trench that was a foot deep, and that they bury the waste. Two scholars named Joe Zias and James Tabor reasoned that if they could find a latrine used by the Qumran community, they might have proof that one view of the community or the other was accurate. The latrine they found contained ancient human waste that had been buried; it was also a nine-minute walk from the community. Therefore, the likelihood that Qumran was in fact inhabited by the Essenes has been increased.
This study, which is being published in Revue de Qumran and which has been reported on by the Associated Press (where I read about it), set me to wondering how the archaeologists and anthropologists of 2000 years from now will evaluate our culture. What will they be digging up about us that will cause them to decide what kind of people lived in America in the early 21st century? If they can find evidence of how we treated each other, especially of how we treated those who were different than we were or those whom we did not understand, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of how we treated the earth that the Lord entrusted to us to exercise sovereignty over and stewardship of, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of whether we used religion as an instrument of conflict or of peace, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of whether we used technology for productive or destructive ends, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of whether we used our words, including the words we used in forums like this one, to do good or to do harm, how will they judge us?
It may seem strange or funny to learn that scholars are using a 2000 year old latrine to draw conclusions about an ancient culture. I can’t help but wonder, though, what future generations will conclude about us from the waste we are leaving behind.