In an excavation area of Qumran called “Locus 51, ” Roland de Vaux, the Dominican Catholic priest who led the excavations at Qumran between 1951 and 1956, identified a feature that he interpreted as a toilet. It was located in the eastern part of one of the main buildings. While scholars today generally agree that the feature is indeed a toilet, there are differences of opinion as to how its presence should be interpreted.

The installation identified by de Vaux (and published in English by Jean-Baptiste Humbert and Alain Chambon of the École Biblique) consists of a terracotta pipe set into a bottomless receptacle made of unbaked clay that was surrounded with coarse dirt.1 This construction is consistent with similar toilet installations that existed elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.2 In the absence of public “luxury” latrines, which were used primarily by the ancient Romans and were constantly flushed with a stream of water running through canals built especially for this purpose, many private and public buildings had toilet installations such as this one. A seat made of wood or stone was built over a cesspit that contained the waste. In some cases, the cesspit was not dug directly underneath the toilet but rather connected to it by a pipe, through which water could be poured in order to flush away the sewage. These types of toilets were already present in the Levant and Egypt during the Late Bronze Age.

A soil analysis of the dirt beneath the Qumran feature would help scholars further support de Vaux’s interpretation that this was a latrine facility, but it is unknown if soil samples were taken by de Vaux during his excavations. If they were, it appears unlikely that they would have been saved or made available for analysis. Based on the construction of the feature and the context in which it was found, however, it is widely accepted that de Vaux’s interpretation is correct.

Does the existence of an indoor toilet support or undermine the assertion that Qumran was inhabited by Essenes? Experts fall on both sides of the debate. The difference of opinion is based largely on scholars’ divergent interpretations of the sectarian community described in ancient texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the writings of Josephus. Some contend that the existence of such a feature is inconsistent with contemporary descriptions of the strict Essene sanitary practices, which included digging a pit in a remote spot to relieve oneself. Others assert that the presence of a toilet does not necessarily conflict with an Essene settlement. Perhaps future archaeological excavations and ancient texts as yet to be discovered will help scholars definitively determine who inhabited Qumran, but for the moment the debate continues.—S.Y.