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'The Beit Nattif cistern has been brought back to life'

Ancient oil lamp haul found near Beit Shemesh digs up solution to modern mystery

Site of workshop from 1,600-1,700 years ago, in 1 of the 10 principal cities under Hasmonean rule, was discovered and documented in 1930s by a researcher, then lost again until now

  • Oil lamps found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh. (Itai Aviv/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Oil lamps found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh. (Itai Aviv/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Oil lamps found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Oil lamps found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Lamp fragment with menorah symbol found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh (Moran Balila, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Lamp fragment with menorah symbol found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh (Moran Balila, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • A figurine found at the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh being washed. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    A figurine found at the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh being washed. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Excavation director Itai Aviv with a 1600-year-old human figurine found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh (Yoli Schwartz/
Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavation director Itai Aviv with a 1600-year-old human figurine found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

Archaeologists said Monday that they have unearthed one of the largest oil lamp workshops discovered in Israel, dating back 1,600-1,700 years, in a discovery that also solves a more modern mystery: the lost location of a cistern with ancient artifacts that was found by a researcher more than 85 years ago.

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the workshop, in the city of Beit Shemesh — unearthed ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood — contained hundreds of ancient ceramic oil lamps, two of which bore the Jewish symbol of the menorah, as well as stone molds for the production of lamps,  and terracotta figurines.

“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,” said the archaeologists behind the find, which was made with the help of teenagers and pre-military academy students from around the country.

But another thing that fascinated the archaeologists was the similarity between the site they discovered and photos published in the 1930s by archaeologist Dimitri Baramki, which led them to solve a decades-long mystery.

Beit Harel pre-military program students washing finds at the Beit Nattif archaeological excavation. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

In 1934, Baramki, an inspector on behalf of the Department of Antiquities during the British Mandate, discovered a water cistern in the region of Beit Shemesh in central Israel west of Jerusalem, the IAA statement said. Upon excavating the cistern, he uncovered a huge quantity of intact oil lamps bearing animal and plant motifs and geometric designs.

The lamps, dated to the Late Roman period (third or fourth century CE), became known as the “Beit Nattif lamps” after the name of the nearby village and have become an archaeological hallmark. Baramki also said he had 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 remained a mystery despite all efforts to locate it — until now.

The researchers recognized the new site from photos appearing in Baramki’s excavation publication. It even contained items left behind by Baramki himself, including leather baskets used to extract soil and an empty metal box.

A figurine found at the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh being washed. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“The Beit Nattif oil-lamp cistern has been brought back to life,” said a statement attributed to excavation directors Moran Balila, Itai Aviv, Nicolas Benenstein and Omer Shalev. “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 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,” said Benyamin Storchan of the Israel Antiquities Authority, an expert on the Beit Nattif lamps.

“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,” he said, adding that figurines unearthed at the discovered site indicate that in the following centuries many pagans moved to the area.

Oil lamps found at the the Beit Nattif excavation in Beit Shemesh. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“At the same time, a small number of the ceramic oil lamps area are decorated with distinctively Jewish symbols such as the shofar, incense burner and seven-branched menorah,” Storchan added. “The fragment tells us that Jewish life continued to exist in the Judean Hills, well after the rebellion’s failure.

“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 proves, therefore, that the local population featured a mix of pagans, Christians and Jews.”

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