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Beit Nattif lamps unearthed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in an excavation in Beit Shemesh. Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority

Discovery of oil lamp factory sheds ‘light’ on ancient Israel

Another major archaeological discovery has been announced in Israel. This week, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced one of the largest ancient ceramic oil-lamp workshops in Israel has been discovered in excavations before construction of a new neighborhood.

Hundreds of ceramic oil lamps including two bearing symbols of the menorah of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, were found in the excavation.

The announcement came on the fourth day of the just-ended Hanukka holiday, which celebrates the miracle in the ancient Jewish Temple when the oil lamp Menorah only had enough fuel for one day, but burned for eight days.

At the dig site in Beit Shemesh, the, hundreds of ceramic oil lamps, two of which bear symbols of the menorah, and stone lamp molds for their production were found along with terracotta figurines which were made about 1600–1700 years ago.

The large-scale archaeological excavations are being carried out prior to the establishment of a new neighborhood by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and as is normal in Israel, the archaeologists dig first in order to see what ancient artifacts lie beneath the earth before the apartment buildings go up.

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ceramic oil-lamp workshops

The discovery of the lamps, used for lighting in ancient times, surprised the archaeologists not only because of their quantity and quality but also because it solved an archaeological mystery connected with them:

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. 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.

The lamps are dated to the Late Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE) and became known as “Beit Nattif lamps” after the name of the nearby village and have become an archaeological hallmark. Together with the lamps, Baramki recovered stone lamp molds and a wide variety of pottery figurines depicting animals, horse-riders, women, and birds.

After the British Mandate-era discovery, the location of the cistern was lost and has remained a mystery, despite all efforts to re-locate it, but with the new construction, the search was resumed.

“We uncovered a water cistern that looked, at first sight, 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,” said excavation directors Moran Balila, Itai Aviv, Nicolas Benenstein and Omer Shalev.


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. The cistern also contained items left behind by Baramki himself, including leather baskets used to extract soil and an empty metal box.

“We are extremely excited, since this is not just an important archaeological discovery in its own right, but also tangible evidence of archaeological history,” the archaeologists said.

“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 Kokhva Revolt,” explained Benyamin Storchan, the IAA’s lamp expert. “From the writings of Josephus, we know that in during the Second Temple period, Beit Nattif was a regional administrative center — one of the ten principal cities under Hasmonean rule.”

“After the failure of the Bar Kokhva 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. “The many figurines unearthed at the site attest to this. At the same time, a small number of the ceramic oil lamps area decorated with distinctively Jewish symbols such as the shofar, incense burner and seven-branched menorah.

“The fragment tells 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 a continued demand in the region. During this period, Christianity also began to emerge and some of the Beit Nattif oil lamps carry fish motifs, 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,” Storchan explained.

“The festival of Chanukah 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,” the archaeologists said. In light of the importance of the find and its location, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Ministry of Construction and Housing plan to preserve the site and incorporate it into a large park that will be open to the public.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel | used with permission