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Photograph showing the bronze oil lamp unearthed in Jerusalem

Rare "Grotesque" Half-Lamp Discovered on Jerusalem’s Holiest Road


Archaeologists in Israel exploring in an ancient building have found rare coins and pottery. But standing sentinel at this dig is a unique lamp that dates back to the Second Temple period, the historic time between the two Jewish Revolts. Discovered during excavations in Jerusalem, the lamp has been described as a “unique bronze lucky half-lamp, with bulging eyes and a menacing grin.” The rare ancient artifact was discovered on Jerusalem’s “Pilgrimage Road” in a building dating to the period immediately after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

Unearthing a Lamp Under Jerusalem’s Holy Pilgrimage Road

In an article published in The Jerusalem Post, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday that the “lucky charm half-lamp” dating back to the end of the Second Temple period was unearthed in Jerusalem on the archaeological site known as Pilgrimage Road. Discovered during IAA excavations in the Walls-City of David National Park, the lamp features “a half-face with grotesque features,” and the archaeologists say it represents a unique finding in the city, “and possibly in the whole land of Israel.”

IAA archaeologist Ari Levy told The Jerusalem Post that the face depicted on the lamp “appears to similar to a theater mask, which was a common theme in Greco-Roman culture. He added that a separate head piece had been shaped like an acanthus leaf, which inspired many artistic motifs in the ancient world, including the Corinthian capitols.

The “Grotesque” bronze oil lamp was discovered during excavations of Jerusalem’s Pilgrimage Road

The “Grotesque” bronze oil lamp was discovered during excavations of Jerusalem’s Pilgrimage Road. (Kobi Rathi / City of David)

Redesigning the City of David for Defense

After Jerusalem became the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina in 136 AD, the building in which the lamp was discovered was abandoned as it lay on the old Pilgrimage Road along which ancient Jews walked to the Temple Mount three times a year to worship on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The archaeologists say that this famous historic street was built and inaugurated during the period of Governor Pontius Pilates around the year 30 AD and that it was used for about 40 years until the temple was destroyed in 70 AD.

The entire area surrounding the building on Pilgrimage Road in the City of David, where the bronze oil lamp was uncovered, was destroyed during the Great Jewish Revolt. However, the 2,000-year-old holy road goes all the way from the Shiloah Pool, where pilgrims ritually purified themselves, to the area adjacent to the Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch. Levy said that while this was an incredibly holy and revered walkway for the ancient Jews, the Romans used it as a platform upon which they erected a defensive structure for protecting access to the city’s water supply.

The Question is: Real Light? Or Spiritual Light?

While on a day-to-day basis lamps were designed to make sustained light, this one holds “very symbolic” overtones, the archaeologists explained. Having been ritually buried in the foundations of a building, it is assumed the artifact was believed to bring good luck to the structure and to the people who frequented it. Dr. Yuval Baruch of the IAA said in a press release that decorated bronze oil lamps were discovered throughout the Roman Empire, and were usually hung on “stylish candelabras.” However, what makes this lamp different is that it is “half of a lamp,” and “half a face.“ Only a few such lamps have ever been discovered in the world to date and it “is the first of its kind to be discovered in Jerusalem,” said Dr. Baruch.

The lamp is designed with just half a face and a flat back

The lamp is designed with just half a face and a flat back. (City of David)

What remains a mystery for now, however, is a good reason for “why” the bronze oil lamp discovered in Jerusalem was shaped with only half a face. On a practical level, it may have been designed to be attached to a wall with only one side visible, but the researchers are also considering that the lamp might have been cast like this “for much more spiritual and ritual” reasons. It cannot be regarded as a “purely” ritualistic item at this time since the lamp still contained a wick. However, it will soon be determined if the artifact was ever intended to be lit, or if it was, in its totality, a foundational deposit aimed at bringing good fortune to the building under which it was buried.

Top image: Photograph showing the bronze oil lamp unearthed in Jerusalem. Source: Eliyahu Yanai / City of David

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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