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ARCHEOLOGY: QUESTIONS IN QUMRAN

Yuval Peleg and Itzhak Magen are not revolutionaries. They work for the establishment--both respected archeologists have offices at the Israel Antiquities Authority. And, lest you have visions of Indy Jones, they've spent the last 10 years quietly excavating at Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1947. But in the past month Peleg and Magen have set off what can only be called an academic revolution.

The scrolls, which contain the oldest known version of the Old Testament, are the work of ascetic Jews called Essenes, who were poor by choice. Archeologists have always assumed they lived at Qumran, a site revered by Jews and Christians alike. The problem is that whoever lived at Qumran wasn't poor. Peleg and Magen have dug up jewelry, perfume bottles, combs and other trinkets that aren't consistent with the Essenes' way of life. That may mean the scrolls weren't written in Qumran at all--which makes the barren plateau suddenly look a lot less holy.

Norman Golb, a University of Chicago professor who first argued in 1994 that the scrolls could have been written elsewhere, says Jews from Jerusalem, 20 miles away, probably hid them at Qumran so Roman legions wouldn't find them. But many researchers still believe some of the scrolls were written there, and an American team, financed by evangelical Christians, is trying to prove it. The team has found the remains of mules raised by the Qumran people; it hopes the bones' DNA will match the DNA from the leather used to make the scrolls. Randall Price, the team leader, says the results will be ready within the month.