Archive storage in the Judean Wilderness and in the Regional Context

Written by Michael Moore

February 26, 2017

Archives are not to be confused with libraries!

The Archives of the Judean Wilderness in the Context of the Roman World


Archive storage

The documents from Murrabba’at were not found by archaeologists in situ. Legal documents, letters and lists, whether written on papyrus or potsherds, irrespective of date and location, came to the museum with no contextual data attached to the finds other than potential cave numbers (deduced by the archaeologists later).

However, most of the documents from Nahal Hever were in fact extracted from the caves in controlled excavations by Yigael Yadin and his team. The Babatha archive was contained within a leather pouch. The Bar Kochba letters were concealed separately within a waterskin. The En Gedi archive was found alone and separate. (Also the Biblical scrolls were found in a separate location in the cave, apparently separate from the documentary and archival material.) These are archives which were taken from their original storage containers from homes or community archives and transported in lighter leather pouches. Fabric pouches may also have been used to transport other collections of documents but have not survived.

Most archives from Egypt were not obtained by controlled excavations. Happily, archives were found during the excavations of Deir el-Medineh in Egypt stored in two sealed jars. Private archival documents, including deeds, marriage licenses, promissory notes, receipts and private letters are not normally stored on library shelves where access is intentionally more open. Not today, nor in antiquity. Archives are intentionally sequestered with their access sealed or limited to those who are privileged to do so. They are often sealed in jars or safes secured in a room, a cave or buried in a floor. In the most secure conditions, the archive jars are tied and sealed and the documents inside are also individually sealed with five or seven seal impressions and/or signatures.


The fact that archival documents are not common among the libraries of Qumran may have several explanations. The best explanation is that private documents, not likely a target for thieves, were kept close to the individual refugee. The expensive institutional libraries, susceptible to robbery, were stored safely with the hope that the fleeing community that hid them will one day return to retrieve them.

In the case of the Bar Kokhba caves of Nahal Hever and W. Murabba’at a different story has been told. The various caves were inhabited by families of refugees from the districts under various commanders who were assigned to each cave. After a period of time, the Romans built seige camps above the caves and eventually captured or killed the refugees. If the refugees were able to escape they would likely have carried their archives with them.


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