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Site may have been important due to proximity to Siloam Pool

2,000-year-old oil lamp shaped like a grotesque face found in City of David

Archaeologists say the bronze item, unusual because it is only half of a lamp, was put in foundation of Roman-era building on Jerusalem’s famed Pilgrimage Road for good fortune

A bronze oil lamp discovered in the foundations of a Roman-Era building in Jerusalem's City of David Pilgrimage Road, May 2021. (Koby Harati/City of David)
A bronze oil lamp discovered in the foundations of a Roman-Era building in Jerusalem's City of David Pilgrimage Road, May 2021. (Koby Harati/City of David)

Archaeologists have discovered a rare oil lamp, shaped like a grotesque face cut in half, at the foundation of a building erected in Jerusalem’s City of David shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago.

It is the first finding of its kind in Israel, and one of just a few worldwide.

Israel Antiquities Authority researchers said in a statement Wednesday that they believe the bronze lamp was used as a foundation deposit — a ritual burial of an offering — to bring good fortune to the Roman Period building’s residents. It is estimated to be from the late 1st century or the early 2nd century CE.

The finding, in the City of David’s Pilgrimage Road, also included the lamp’s wick, which was unusually well-preserved.

The Pilgrimage Road was used by Jewish pilgrims 2,000 years ago when they visited Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount.

“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,” said Dr. Yuval Baruch and Ari Levy, according to the IAA statement.

“This lamp is a very unique find, and as far as we know, the first of its kind discovered in Israel,” they were quoted as saying. “The uniqueness of the current object is that it is only half a face.”

The reason for that could have been practical, the statement said — the lamp may have been attached to a flat object or wall, serving as a wall lamp — but the explanation emphasized in the statement was that the main use of the object was ceremonial.

“Foundation deposits (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 archaeologists said.

A Roman-Era building in Jerusalem’s City of David Pilgrimage Road where an oil lamp was discovered in the foundations, May 2021. (Koby Harati/City of David)

According to the statement, the lamp 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 an acanthus plant. The decoration that appears on the lamp is reminiscent of a common Roman artistic motif, similar to a theatrical mask.

The excavation was conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Jerusalem Walls-City of David National Park and funded by the City of David Foundation, the Tourism Ministry, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

A bronze oil lamp discovered in the foundations of a Roman-Era building in Jerusalem’s City of David Pilgrimage Road, May 2021. (Koby Harati/City of David)

After the lamp was sent to an IAA laboratory, researchers found its wick, which was unusually well-preserved. The wick, which is a very rare find, was submitted for examination by Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic materials at the IAA. Upon microscopic examination, she identified the wick as being made of flax. Future research will try and 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.

“The building where the lamp was discovered was built directly on top of the Pilgrimage Road at the end of the Second Temple period,” said Ari Levy, director of the IAA excavations. “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,” he said.

“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,” said Baruch. “Meanwhile, this half of a lamp, and in fact half a face, which was discovered in the City of David, is a very rare object, with only a few discovered in the whole world, and is the first of its kind to be discovered in Jerusalem.”

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