Ancient Oil Lamp Find Sheds Light on Middle Eastern History
Archaeologists from Israel’s Antiquities Authority have announced an intriguing new discovery. In the city of Beit Shemesh, just 22 kilometers (14 miles) west of Jerusalem in Israel, they unearthed a ceramic workshop that contained hundreds of unused and beautifully preserved ceramic lamps, along with the stone lamp molds used to make them. They also found a bountiful collection of terracotta (ceramic) figurines, which were decorated with images of animals, women, and men on horseback. The archaeologists were able to date the ancient oil lamps to the 4th century AD, when the area was under the political control of the Eastern Roman Empire (better known as the Byzantine Empire).
The stash of ancient clay oil lamps were found next to a buried water cistern, which led experts to believe this could be the location of the lost Beit Natiff lamps. (Israel Antiquities Authority)
Déjà vu: Discovering the Beit Nafiff Lamps All Over Again
The ancient clay lamps and associated cache were found next to a buried water cistern. This triggered an association in the minds of some of the archaeologists, since it seemed to coincide rather remarkably with another noteworthy archaeological discovery from the first half of the 20 th century.
In 1934, a Palestinian archaeologist with the British Mandate’s antiquities department excavated a buried water cistern in the same general region. That archaeologist, Dimitri Baramki, also uncovered a cornucopia of ancient oil lamps and other ceramic artifacts, which appeared to date to far distant times.
Baramki’s discoveries were known as the Beit Natiff lamps, named after a village that was once located in the area around Beit Shemesh. This find was considered quite important at the time, but due to unknown circumstances the location of the Beit Natiff cistern was lost, and its true whereabouts remained a mystery for nearly nine decades.
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But the mystery has now been solved. Comparing their newly unearthed site with photographs taken by Baramki of his find back in 1934, the Antiquities Authority archaeologists were able to confirm that the two sites were one and the same! For a few moments, the Antiquities Authority archaeologists believed they’d made a groundbreaking discovery. But what they’d actually found was the famous lost treasure of Dimitri Baramki, through sheer chance rather than clever archaeological detective work.
“The Beit Nattif oil-lamp cistern has been brought back to life!” exclaimed excavation directors Moran Balila, Nicolas Benenstein, and Omer Shalev according to the Times of Israel. “We are extremely excited, since this is not just an important archaeological discovery in its own right, but also tangible evidence of archaeological history.”
It seems that archaeologists have found the famous lost oil lamps found by back in 1934. (Tal Rogovenski / Hebrew University)
Why Are the Beith Shemesh Oil Lamps Important?
The Beit Shemesh oil lamps reveal important historical details about remote times, when Eastern Roman Empire authorities ruled Palestine with a relatively tolerant hand. The diverse designs and manufacturing styles used to make the lamps, their molds, and the figurines reveal a 4th century society that was a true melting pot: A place where Jews, Christians, and pagans intermingled culturally and socially and apparently maintained a peaceful co-existence.
The Jewish population in the area was lower than it had been in the past, as a consequence of the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule in the second century AD, and the reprisals that resulted from that uprising. Nevertheless, some of the oil lamps found at Beit Shemesh were decorated with distinctive Jewish symbols, including the iconic seven-branched menorah in two instances. This shows that at least some of the lamp makers were Jewish, and that they were willing to openly celebrate their culture.
The diverse designs visible on the ancient oil lamps reveal a society which was a true melting pot, where Jews, Christians and pagans coexisted peacefully. Israel Antiquities Authority
More Ancient Oil Lamps Found at Tiberias
The excavation of ancient oil lamps has been a major theme for Israeli archaeology in 2020. Last summer, a separate team of Hebrew University archaeologists found a smaller stockpile of unused, preserved ceramic oil lamps and stone lamp molds, plus an intact kiln, while performing excavations near Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The artifacts were dated to a somewhat later period than the Beit Shemesh, specifically the 11 th century AD. They were found buried beneath the rubble left behind by a series of earthquakes that devastated the region at that time, including one that virtually destroyed Tiberias in 1033.
Several of the artifacts recovered at Tiberias are now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They offer “a rare glimpse into the work processes in our area in ancient times,” Liza Lurie, the museum’s curator of Islamic art and archaeology, told The Times of Israel.
Whether any of the artifacts were made by Jewish craftsmen is unknown, but it is highly possible that some of them were. By the 11 th century, Islamic rule had come to Palestine to stay. While tensions ran high in some locations, Tiberias was known for its multiculturalism and tolerance of diverse faiths, which meant the Jewish people who lived there had at least some freedom to promote their culture and practice their faith.
Ancient Oil Lamps and the Festival of Lights
The new display at the Israel Museum was carefully timed to coincide with the onset of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which began on December 10 this year and continues through December 18. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights, as observers light candles or oil lamps each night in honor of the fearless Jewish rebels who recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the Second Temple in 164 BC.
Regardless of who made the oil lamps found in Tiberias, they would have matched the lamps used by Jewish citizens celebrating Hanukkah in the 11th century. Staff members at the Israel Museum were anxious to get them on display right away, even before some of them had been analyzed and cleaned, to take advantage of the public’s interest in one of Judaism’s most ancient and well-known religious traditions.
The archaeologists responsible for the discovery at Beit Shemesh have also made the connection to Hanukkah. “The festival of Hanukkah is a wonderful opportunity to tell the public about the recovery of these oil lamps, which was the main method of lighting in ancient times,” they explained when announcing their findings on December 14. Since Hanukkah has been observed in the Jewish world for more than 2,000 years, even in the fourth century people would have been lighting oil lamps and candles in remembrance of the legendary victory of the rebels at Jerusalem.
The past and the present are frequently separated by the thinnest of veils. For millennia the world has relied on the illuminating power of fire to light a safe path through the void, whether physical or spiritual. Those ancient traditions live on today, accessible to us through archaeological exploration and through ancient religious customs practiced by millions of the faithful all across the world.
Top image: Archaeologists have unearthed a ceramic workshop in the city of Beit Shemesh, containing hundreds of unused and beautifully preserved ceramic oil lamps, along with the stone lamp molds used to make them. Source: Ofrit Rosenberg / The Israel Museum Jerusalem
By Nathan Falde