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Tuesday, 27 August, 2002, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Debate rages over biblical mystery
A recently found cave at the West Bank archaeological site of Qumran, near the Dead Sea
Excavations have been taking place for two years
An archaeological site in southern Israel is at the centre of an ongoing debate over whether it could be the last resting place of biblical prophet John the Baptist.

The BBC's Ari Ben Goldberg examines both sides of the argument.

The ancients called the Dead Sea, with its great sulphur deposits, "Hayam Hamasriach" - the Stinking Sea.

These days, it is hard to distinguish the smell of sulphur from the rotten stench of claims, counter-claims and accusations emanating from the nearby site of Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found half a century ago.

For the past two years, almost $1m of equipment has been deployed alongside dozens of researchers and volunteers in Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, 13 kilometres east of Jerusalem.

Despite claims that among other things the bones of John the Baptist - or Jesus' brother James the Just - have been found, only one thing is clear - nothing has been proven for certain.

Archaeological mystery

The only thing that can be said with certainty is what many people already know - the world of biblical archaeology is a complete mystery to outsiders.

The latest controversy revolves around what is called "T (Tomb) 1000", a seemingly ordinary clump of dirt located just outside the perimeter of Qumran's ancient cemetery.

Most scholars believe the Qumranites to have been Essenes - a Jewish sect which broke away from the Jerusalem establishment and thrived between the 2nd Century BC and the 2nd Century AD.

I personally would not make the assertion that this is John the Baptist

Professor Richard Freund

The Essenes followed a mystical interpretation of the ancient scriptures, and were especially strict about laws of ritual purity.

They are believed to have been the authors and compilers of the Dead Sea scrolls.

The apocalyptic themes and mysticism in the scrolls along with their date from the time of Jesus suggests the Essenes may have been a link between Judaism and Christianity.

For years archaeologists ignored T-1000. They believed to be just a mound of earth outside the cemetery.

But this summer, scientists subjected the area to a survey using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).

Tomb excavated

Professor Harry Jol, a geomorphologist from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, found that there were unnatural disturbances below the surface and recommended an excavation.

Based on things like burial orientation, I can usually tell whether a skeleton's a modern Bedouin or ancient Jew

Joe Zias, Hebrew University

At least one scholar believes they have found the grave of the leader of the Qumran sect, whom the Dead Sea scrolls call the "Teacher of Righteousness".

"We have an unprecedented structure in the middle of 1,212 other graves," said Professor Richard Freund, coordinator of the Qumran digs in 2001 and 2002.

"Since it's the biggest structure around, and since we know it's from the 1st Century, it's not a big leap to assume it's the tomb of the Qumranites' leader," he added.

As for the suggestion that the remains are those of John the Baptist, Mr Freund said that some scholars have identified John as an active leader of the Essenes.

But he cautioned that evidence that the site is John the Baptist's grave is circumstantial.

One of Israel's most distinguished archaeologists, Magen Broshi, says there is no evidence to backup Professor Freund's claims regarding the grave site's age.

"It's much more likely that the skeleton we found is from a recent Bedouin grave," said Mr Broshi, who spent 30 years as curator of the Dead Sea scrolls in the Israel Museum.

Differing views

Richard Freund says he is saddened by Magen Broshi's remarks, and claims that Mr Broshi made a similar statement last year when his team found two female skeletons buried in the same tomb.

"Carbon dating later confirmed they were 2,000-year-old women," he says.

Excavations near Qumran, Israel
Qumran is at the centre of an archaeological mystery

So who to believe?

"They're both misguided," says Joe Zias, a paleopathologist from the Science and Archaeology programme at Hebrew University.

"If they had allowed me - as an anthropologist - to actually visit the site and see the skeletons, we'd know for sure within minutes what century they belong to," says Mr Zias.

"Based on things like burial orientation or the condition of the subject's teeth, I can usually eyeball a skeleton and tell whether it's a modern Bedouin or ancient Jew," he adds.

So where is the skeleton at this very moment? And why can't somebody test it and let the world know if there has been a significant find at Qumran?

Tests continue

Mr Freund and Mr Broshi say the skeleton has been reburied in the area according to the directives of Israeli religious authorities. But researchers have managed to hang on to the teeth and send them to labs for testing.

The University of Arizona is currently conducting Carbon-14 dating tests on some of the teeth, and the Hebrew University is DNA testing others.

So will the mystery of Tomb 1000 will be solved when researchers publish their findings?

On this, everybody agrees. No way, they say. There are too many people involved with different agendas, research grants and personalities.

Whether he is a 2,000-year-old Jewish ascetic or a Bedouin from a few centuries ago, the identity of the man uncovered in T-1000 may forever remain a mystery, buried in the murky world of biblical archaeology.

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08 Jan 00 | Middle East
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