Few sites in the ancient Near East are as mysterious–or as controversial–as Qumran, the settlement next to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Qumran was excavated from 1951 to 1956 by the French archaeologist Roland de Vaux, whose work is still the basis for any study of the site. However, de Vaux died in 1971 without publishing a final excavation report, and some of his findings are now being disputed.

According to de Vaux’s chronology, Qumran–nestled beneath cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea, 13 miles east of Jerusalem–began life as an Iron Age fortress. Abandoned and then reoccupied at the end of the second century B.C., it flourished until it was seized by Rome in 68 A.D. in the midst of the First Jewish War.

De Vaux believed that Qumran was home to a monastic community of Essenes who copied the Dead Sea Scrolls in a room within the ruins that he identified as a “scriptorium.” In recent years several alternative theories have emerged. Some scholars argue that Qumran an aristocratic villa, while others claim that it was a military fort or a large farm. Especially intriguing to archaeologists is Qumran’s cemetery, which contains the graves of 1,200 men, women, and children. It is that cemetery–particularly one impressive grave within it–that is the focus of the accompanying article.