A Rare Bronze Oil Lamp Shaped Like Half a Face

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The First Discovery of its Kind in Jerusalem and One of the Few in the World: A “Lucky” Bronze Oil Lamp Meant For Good Fortune Was Uncovered During Excavations of the City of David’s Pilgrimage Road.

A rare bronze oil lamp, shaped like a grotesque face that is cut in half, was recently discovered buried within the foundations of a building dating to the Roman period, subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE (late 1st-early 2nd century CE).

This excavation was conducted under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority 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.

Photo Credit: Asaf Peri

This special bronze lamp was deliberately buried in the foundations of the building and, in the opinion of the site’s archaeologists, was used as a foundation deposit (a ritual burial of an offering in the foundations of a building). “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,” explained Dr. Yuval Baruch and Ari Levy, archaeologists on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

This lamp may have been used as a ritual offering in order to bring good fortune to those inhabiting the building, which was found built on top of the Pilgrimage Road. According to archaeologist Ari Levy, Director of Excavations in the area, "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 that 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 the fact that it guarded the Siloam Pool, which was also used in the Roman period as the central and only source of water within the city.

The oil lamp was discovered in the foundations of the building, buried to bring good luck. Photo Credit: Koby Harati

It is actually 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 the Acanthus plant. The decoration that appears on the lamp is reminiscent of a common Roman artistic motif, similar to a theatrical mask.

According to archaeologists, "This lamp is a very unique find, and as far as we know, the first of its kind discovered in Israel. The uniqueness of the current object is that it is only half a face." Researchers are debating what this means. It may have been simply a practical matter. The lamp would slot into a flat-walled object or niche in the wall to serve as a wall lamp, but the possibility that it was an object used in some sort of ceremonial ritual should not be ruled out.

According to Dr. Yuval Baruch of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “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 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."

Half the lamp was unearthed. "We hope to find the other half." Photo Credit: Eliyahu Yanai

After the bronze lamp was found, it was handed over for treatment and preservation in the metal laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority and put in the care of Ilia Reznitsky.

During the treatment, another exciting discovery was made - inside the lamp cavity was a lampwick, which is not typically preserved. The wick, which is a very rare find, was submitted for examination by Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic materials at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Upon examination under a microscope, Dr. Sukenik identified that it was a wick made of flax. Later on in the study, the researchers would like to find out if there is any oil residue left on the wick, and from there learn if the lamp was used, and if so, what oil they used to light it.

For additional finds in the City of David >>

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