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Israeli archeologists discover one of Israel’s largest ceramic oil-lamp workshops

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Find solves 86-year-old archeological mystery; small number of ancient ceramic oil lamps decorated with distinctively Jewish symbols such as the shofar, incense burner and seven-branched menorah


Just in time to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah, Israeli archeologists have discovered one of the largest ceramic oil-lamp workshops in Israel.

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the workshop was found during excavations in Beit Shemesh, located just west of Jerusalem.

Among the items discovered inside the ancient find were hundreds of ceramic oil lamps, two bearing symbols of the menorah and stone lamp molds for their production were found along with terracotta figurines, which were date back to about 1,600 to 1,700 years ago.

The lamps, which were used for lighting in ancient times, left archaeologists aghast not just because of the quantity found or that they were in good condition, but because this find solves an 86-year-old archaeological mystery.

“In 1934, archaeologist Dimitri Baramki, an inspector on behalf of the Department of Antiquities during the British Mandate, discovered a water cistern in the region of Beit Shemesh,” the IAA explained in a statement. “On excavating the cistern, he was surprised to uncover an ancient ‘treasure’ — a huge quantity of intact oil lamps bearing animal and plant motifs and geometric designs.” 

Above Image: Finds from the Beit Nattif excavation. (Photo Credit: Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority.)

The lamps, the IAA said, date back to the Late Roman period, around the third to fourth century CE. At the time they were named as the ‘Beit Nattif lamps’ after the name of the nearby village.

“Together with the lamps, Baramki recovered stone lamp molds and a wide variety of pottery figurines depicting animals, horse-riders, women, and birds,” the IAA added. 

They stressed that after the 1934 discovery, “the location of the cistern was lost and has remained a mystery, despite all efforts to re-locate it.”

Commenting on the amazing find, archaeologists and excavation directors Moran Balila, Itai Aviv, Nicolas Benenstein and Omer Shalev said they were in awe.

“The Beit Nattif oil-lamp cistern has been brought back to life!” they said. “We are extremely excited since this is not just an important archaeological discovery in its own right, but also tangible evidence of archaeological history.”

Explaining how this all happened, the archeologists said they examining an area on the edge of the ancient remains of Khirbet Beit Nattif as part of the Beit Shemesh development program.

“We uncovered a water cistern that looked initially like many others in the region. But to our surprise, excavation beside the cistern began unearthing massive quantities of oil lamps, stone lamp molds and figurine fragments.” the team said. “When the archaeologists entered the cistern, which was still intact, they were amazed to find that they recognized it from photos appearing in Baramki’s excavation publication.” 

They stressed that this cistern also “contained items left behind by Baramki himself, including leather baskets used to extract soil and an empty metal box. “

Discussing the markings and symbols on the lamps, Benyamin Storchan who is an IAA expert on the Beit Nattif lamps, said that “the figurines and the motifs on the lamps from the Beit Nattif region tell the story of the Judean Hills in the period following the Bar Kokhba Revolt.” 

“From the writings of Josephus, we know that during the Second Temple period, Beit Nattif was a regional administrative center,” meaning that it was one of the ten principal cities under Hasmonean rule. 

An ancient oil lamp with its production mold. (Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority).

“After the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and Roman takeover of the region, the local Jewish population of the Judean Hills was greatly diminished and in turn, the region was settled by pagans,” Storchan said, pointing out that the many figurines, which were unearthed at the site attest to this. 

“At the same time, a small number of the ceramic oil lamps [found] are decorated with distinctively Jewish symbols such as the shofar, incense burner and seven-branched menorah,” he highlighted. “The fragments tell us that Jewish life continued to exist in the Judean Hills, well after the rebellion’s failure. Obviously, the oil-lamp workshop produced these lamps in response to continued demand in the region.” 

According to Storchan, during this time period, Christianity also began to emerge and some of the Beit Nattif oil-lamps carry fish motifs, which is one of the symbols of Christianity. 

“The sheer variety of lamps and figurines, therefore, proves that the local population featured a mix of pagans, Christians and Jews,” he said.

Concluding, the team of IAA archeologists said that “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 [the Hanukiah] in ancient times.” 

In light of the importance of this find and its location, the IAA and the Ministry of Construction and Housing plan to preserve the site and incorporate it in a large park that will be opened to the public.

*Featured Image: The ancient ‘Beit Nattif’ oil lamps. (Photo: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

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