This is a story that has it all: an ancient controversy, modern sleuths with hi-tech tools, and of course, toilets and intestinal parasites.
While we don’t expect the next Da Vinci Code, we were nonetheless intrigued to learn the Dead Sea Scrolls contained all kinds of information, including where the authors pooped:
Following directions found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeologists have discovered the latrines used by the sect that produced the scrolls, discovering that efforts to achieve ritual purity inadvertently exposed members to intestinal parasites that shortened their lifespan.
The discovery of the unique toilet area provides further evidence linking the scrolls to Qumran — an association that recently has been called into question by a small but vociferous group of archaeologists who have argued that the settlement was a pottery factory, a country villa or a Roman fortress, but not a monastery.
…Because the location of the latrine was specified in two of the most important scrolls found at the site, its discovery provides strong evidence associating the settlement with the scrolls, said archaeologist James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the co-authors of a paper appearing in the international journal Revue de Qumran.
Some manuscripts are copies of books of the Old Testament, while others are related to more mundane aspects of life…The Essenes are one of the few ancient groups whose toiletry practices were documented.
The Essenes are also believed to have first popularized the phrase, “don’t poop where you eat.” However, by directing their people to traverse a muddy walk to defecate in a dark, dirty latrine, the Essenes may have condemned themselves to an early grave:
Two of the Dead Sea Scrolls note that the latrines should be situated northwest of the settlement, at a distance of 1,000 to 3,000 cubits — about 450 to 1,350 yards — and out of sight of the settlement.
Tabor and Joe Zias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on ancient latrines, went to the site and took samples.
Zias sent samples to anthropologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, who found preserved eggs and other remnants of roundworms, tapeworms and pinworms, all human intestinal parasites.
Samples from the surrounding areas contained no parasites. Had the waste been dumped on the surface, as is the practice of Bedouins in the area, the parasites quickly would have been killed by sunlight. Buried, they could persist for a year or longer, infecting anyone who walked through the soil.
…“The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever studied in over 30 years,” Zias said. Fewer than 6 percent of the men buried there survived to age 40, he said. In contrast, cemeteries from the same period excavated at Jericho show that half the males lived beyond age 40.
We’ll be thinking of this next time we’re on the can. And while we’re always sure to flush, this week we think we’ll leave the lights on. Just to be safe.
More from the Orion Center on Dead Sea Scrolls…