Qumran (in Arabic: Khirbet Qumran; its ancient name is unknown) is located on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, several kilometers south of Jericho. In a cave in the Judean Desert cliffs south of Qumran, Bedouins in 1947 found the first Dead Sea scrolls. Following this discovery, Qumran was excavated by the Dominican Father R. de Vaux in the years 1951-56. A complex of buildings, extending over an area of 100 x 80 m. was uncovered, dating to the Second Temple period.
The location of the site and its plan, the scrolls found in the vicinity and the simple ceramic vessels of the inhabitants, bear witness in de Vaux's view, to a settlement of the Essene sect. We also know of the presence of the Essenes in the Judean Desert and near the Dead Sea from the writings of Pliny the Elder. (Naturalis Historia V, 17)
The view of Qumran as an Essene center is opposed by those who propose that the site was a villa, an inn or a fortress. These views are not supported by archeological evidence, and most scholars accept de Vaux's interpretation. Recently, an ostracon (a potsherd with writing) with several lines of Hebrew script, was found at Qumran. It is a contract in which a man named Honi bestows his possessions, including a building, an olive and a fig orchard, to a group called yahad (Hebrew, together). If this reading is correct, it provides evidence for identifying the sect that inhabited Qumran, and the name by which members of the group designated themselves. The term occurs in other manuscripts of the Essenes.
At the end of the First Temple period (8th-7th centuries BCE), a first settlement was established at the site. Sparse remains of a small, fortified farmhouse or Judahite fort were found. The site was identified by some as Secacah, or the City of Salt, two of the six cities in the desert territory of Judah. (Joshua 15:61-62)
Settlement at Qumran was renewed at the end of the 2nd century BCE, probably during the reign of the Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus I, when the existing structure was restored and enlarged. Then, at the beginning of the 1st century BCE, during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, renewed building determined the plan of the site until its destruction. An aqueduct was built from a cliff above Wadi Qumran several hundred meters east of the site. Winter floodwaters were collected behind a dam at the foot of the cliff and from there flowed in the aqueduct to Qumran and filled the numerous cisterns and mikva'ot (ritual baths) there. The supply of water was essential to a permanent settlement at Qumran, where summer temperatures in this desert region are extremely high.
The plan of Qumran is unique, not at all similar to other contemporary settlements, with its many large halls, undoubtedly serving public functions, and the relatively small number of living quarters. The main entrance to the settlement was in the north, at the foot of a watchtower. The walls of the buildings were made of stones gathered at the foot of the cliff and plastered with thick, white-gray plaster. The windows and doorposts were built of well-trimmed stones and the roofs, as was common in that period, were constructed of wooden beams, straw and plaster.
The main structure at Qumran had several rooms, some obviously two stories high, arranged around a central courtyard. In the northwestern corner was a square watchtower with particularly thick walls that rose above the rest of the settlement. The tower served as a lookout and warning post and protected the settlement against raids by desert tribes. A room with benches built along its walls served as a meeting-place for the members of the community and probably as a place for Torah (Bible) study. Additional building complexes, south and east of the main building contained long halls, rooms and ritual baths. One of the large halls was for meetings and served as a refectory. In a storage room and a kitchen next to it, neat piles of hundreds of pottery vessels and a large number of small food bowls were found. A workshop, in which pottery vessels for use of the community were produced, was discovered in the southeastern part of the site. The workshop included a basin for preparing the clay, a potters wheel made of stone and two round kilns for firing.