An extremely rare 1,500-year-old flax wick was discovered during a recent examination of mothballed artifacts unearthed in the 1930s in the Negev town of Shivta.
The minute wick, which was preserved in arid conditions inside a bronze copper tube used for lighting a glass Byzantine-period lamp, is one of only a few discovered in the world, according to Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Microscopic analysis by Sukenik showed that the wick was made of linen, a cloth derived from flax. Sukenik said that only two other examples of flax wicks were discovered inside similar tubes in Israel and they are very rare finds around the world.
“They are very small and deteriorate quickly underground. Furthermore, it could be that most were burnt — that was their purpose, after all,” said Sukenik.
Flax was cultivated in the Levant for thousands of years and people in the region were very familiar with its uses, she said. The earliest examples of flax garments and thread were discovered in Nahal Hever, and date from some 10,000 years ago, she said.
“Although we today prefer to wear linen in summer, it is impossible to know from archaeological artifacts when they were worn. We do know that the cloth was used for underclothes, bandages, socks, and functional items. It was used less for fancy clothes, as it is hard to dye,” she said.
“It is very reasonable that ancient peoples used flax for wicks, as it was very common in Israel until beginning of Islam, and very common in the fabric industry,” said Sukenik.
She said that the fibers in this wick are very rough, however, which could indicate that the “lesser quality” material was used for wicks and the good stuff for wearable cloth. “It’s very nice to see the maximal efficient usage of the materials,” she noted.
In addition to mentions in the Bible, the famed Gezer inscription, circa 100 BCE, also speaks to the cultivation of flax. Sukenik noted that flax’s use as a wick is attested in Mishnah Shabbat, Chapter 2, which is read as part of the Friday night liturgy by Jews around the world. The mishnah deals with what material is acceptable for lighting lamps on Shabbat, and combed flax (versus uncombed flax) is deemed worthy.
The mishnah, which came slightly before the Byzantine-era wick, is “a mirror for the reality of the living people. Here we have a text that is saying what is good for wicks, and flax is found there. It doesn’t smoke or stink, it gives off good light,” she said. Flax wasn’t cultivated in the Negev and the cloth was likely brought from farther north in the country through trade, said Sukenik.
Sukenik told The Times of Israel that this particular wick was discovered in a Byzantine, most likely Christian, context, and may have been used for lighting a public building, including a church. Earlier this year, a rare painting of what archaeologists believe to be the face of Jesus was discovered in one of the churches at the site.
“The rare wick examined belongs to a type of glass lamp typical of the Byzantine period – a kind of glass cup or bowl that was filled with oil and provided ample light, even after dark,” Sukenik said in an IAA press release.
Revisiting an already uncovered past
Sukenik was asked to examine the wick and its metal holder about a year ago as Haifa University archaeologists Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Yotam Tepper pulled out unpublished artifacts from previous expeditions in a continuation of a multi-year interdisciplinary research project called the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shivta.
The wick was originally discovered in excavations in the 1930s conducted by American archaeologist Harris Dunscombe Colt. In a 1973 obituary for the eccentric Colt, a British colleague wrote he was attracted to “the Wilderness of Zin,” but did not fully publish his finds.
The new examination — and publication — of the wick is part of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology team’s 360-approach to solving the riddle behind “the collapse of a complex society in an environmentally marginal region 1,500 years ago.”
Located in the heart of Israel’s Negev Desert, Shivta was settled in the early Roman period. The village reached its peak during Byzantine times (5th–6th centuries CE). It was eventually abandoned soon after its cultural transition and transformation in the Early Islamic period (mid-7th–mid-8th centuries CE), only to be rediscovered by Holy Land archaeologists in the 19th century, writes the research team in a recent report, “Probing the Byzantine/Early Islamic Transition in the Negev: The Renewed Shivta Excavations, 2015–2016.”
Additional finds from the 1930s Colt Expedition, alongside the wick, will be on display at the Hecht Museum in Haifa from January 24, 2019.
“Despite the tiny size of the wick from Shivta – only a few centimeters long – it sheds light on one of the most essential and common objects of antiquity, which has almost disappeared from the world, but survived at Shivta,” said Sukenik.
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