A rare bronze oil lamp, in the shape of a grotesque face cut in half, was recently discovered in excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the City of David National Park.
IAA archaeologists Ari Levy and Dr. Yuval Baruch believe that the lamp, which was discovered in the foundations of a building built on the pilgrimage road, was intentionally deposited to bring good fortune to the building’s residents.
“The offering of this lamp may attest to the importance of the building, which may have been linked to the protection of the Siloam Pool, the city’s primary water source,” they explained. “Foundation offerings were prevalent in the ancient world, and were intended for luck, and to ensure the continued existence of the building and its occupants, and they were usually buried under the floors of buildings or foundations.”
The excavation was conducted by the IAA, in the Jerusalem Walls–City of David National Park and funded by the City of David Foundation, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jerusalem Development Authority.
The artifact is half of a lamp. It was poured into a sculpted mold that was shaped like half of a face of a bearded man with a grotesque appearance. The tip of the lamp is shaped like a crescent moon, and the handle is shaped like a bear’s breeches plant. The decoration that appears on the lamp is reminiscent of a common Roman artistic motif, similar to a theatrical mask.
According to the archaeologists, the lamp is the first of its kind with only half a face discovered in Israel. Researchers are debating the meaning of the design, which may have been simply a practical choice. The lamp may have been attached to a flat object or a wall, serving as a wall lamp. But the possibility that it was an object used in some sort of ceremonial ritual should not be ruled out.
Ari Levy, director of the excavations on behalf of the IAA, explained that “the building where the lamp was discovered was built directly on top of the Pilgrimage Road at the end of the Second Temple period. The construction of such a massive structure in the period after the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem demonstrates the importance of the area even after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is possible that the importance of the building, and the need to bless its activity with luck by burying a foundation deposit, was due to its proximity to the Siloam Pool, which was also used in the Roman period as the central source of water within the city.”
After the bronze lamp had been found, it was handed over for treatment and preservation in the metal laboratory of the IAA and put in the care of Ilia Reznitsky. During the treatment, another exciting discovery was made: inside the lamp was its wick, which was preserved, making it a very rare find. It was submitted for examination by Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic materials at the IAA. Relying on microscopic examination, Dr. Sukenik concluded that the wick was made of flax. Future stages of research will attempt to identify any oil residue left on the wick, which will help determine whether the lamp was used and if so, what oil was used to light it.
According to Dr. Baruch, “Decorated bronze oil lamps were discovered throughout the Roman Empire. For the most part, such oil lamps stood on stylish candelabras or were hung on a chain. Collections around the world contain thousands of these bronze lamps, many of which were made in intricate shapes, indicating the artistic freedom that Roman metal artists possessed. Meanwhile, this half of a lamp, and, in fact, half of a face, is the first of its kind to be discovered in Jerusalem.”