Bones Of Contention

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LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

On the clifftops above the Dead Sea, Ron Dubay sifted the dust through a small sieve and found two tiny fragments of bone. Then he heard his partner Dennis Walker shout, "Whoa! We got something here." Walker's trowel held three vertebrae. Fighting their excitement, the researchers from California State University at Long Beach carefully dusted away for two days, finding skull fragments and the brittle, broken remains of at least one human body. Last week their conclusions about the find started an archaeological battle.

Qumran, where Dubay and Walker found the bones, was home to an ascetic sect of Jews, the Essenes, roughly contemporary with Jesus. In the cliffside caves, in the first century A.D., the sect members buried their sacred texts in sealed jars to save them from the Roman army. Those documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were discovered in 1947, and are the oldest existing scripture in Hebrew. But the lives of the Qumran people remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.

Dubay and Walker believe their find is important because, alone among the 1,200 simple graves at Qumran, the tomb was inside a purpose-built structure. That may mean that the bones belonged to an important person, perhaps even the "Teacher of Righteousness" mentioned in the scrolls. Other researchers have speculated that the teacher may have been one of the Maccabean kings of Judea, the apostle James, John the Baptist, perhaps even Jesus.

Israeli experts, however, say the bones aren't important. Yossi Nagal, the Israel Antiquity Authority's head of anthropology, examined the find, and says it's the remains of two Bedouin women buried about 200 years ago. The Cal State team "got overexcited," says Hanan Eshel, a leader of the Qumran dig and an archaeologist at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. More important than the bones, says Eshel, is a zinc coffin also found nearby by Dubay and Walker. Zinc has never before been found in burial artifacts from the Essenes' time. That signals an important, probably wealthy person was transported from far away, sealed inside the zinc to keep the corpse from smelling during transport. Qumran, then, must have been significant to more than just the ascetics on the cliffs.

The Cal State team doesn't buy the idea that the bones are only 200 years old. They point out that Roman-era pottery shards were found above the bones. People on the dig say Israeli researchers tend to oppose findings that, if precisely dated to the Christian era, might contradict the conventional view that the Teacher lived in the second century B.C. They also believe that the Israelis played down the find so as not to anger the rabbinical authorities who forbid digging up Jewish graves. For now, the arguments will have to stay on paper. To keep on the right side of the rabbis, the Israeli archaeologists say they have already reburied the bones.