Torleif Elgvin

Where the similarity ends. While the other incense altars have plain triangular ornaments jutting up between the long corner horns, the Schøyen altar is unique in having “crowstep” (stepped pyramid) ornaments instead. The crowstep decoration, originally a feature of Assyrian and Achaemenid architecture from the eight to the fifth century B.C.E., was later adopted by the Nabateans during the first century C.E. Crowstep ornaments are commonly found on the tomb facades at the Nabatean city of Petra, about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea (see photograph). Could Schøyen’s altar have been crafted by Nabateans? It’s possible, Elgvin says; but the circumstances of the altar’s discovery still point to a Jewish origin. If it was really found at Qumran, as its Bedouin finders claimed, the altar must have come from the most recent stage of the site’s occupation—the years immediately after the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which ended in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Pottery and other evidence suggests it was Jews who lived at Qumran after 68 C.E., when it was destroyed by the Romans. The Mishnah and other ancient sources suggest that incense was used in Jewish ritual during that period; so Jews living at Qumran may have burned incense on this altar to accompany their prayers.