A rare bronze, good-luck Roman-era oil lamp was recently discovered during a dig in Jerusalem, in what appears to be the first known finding of this kind in Israel.
The lamp is shaped like a grotesque face cut in half and meant to provide good fortune. It was discovered during archeological works conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in the City of David in the Old City of Jerusalem.
IAA archaeologists Ari Levy and Dr. Yuval Baruch believe the lamp, which was discovered in the foundations of a structure built on a pilgrimage road leading up to 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 Siloach Pool, the city’s primary water source,” said the IAA.
The lamp is believed to have been deliberately buried in the foundations of the building - dating back to the Roman Period - following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE, to bring good fortune to the building’s residents.
According to the archeologists, the lamp was a foundation deposit, a ritual burial of an offering in the foundations of a building.
“Foundation deposits 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,” said one of the archeologists.
The artifact, half of a lamp, was poured into a sculpted mold that was shaped like half of a face of a bearded man. 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.
“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.”
Levy said the building where the lamp was discovered was built directly on top of the Pilgrimage Road right after the Second Temple period had ended.
“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 Siloach Pool, which was also used in the Roman period as the central source of water within the city,” he offered.
The bronze lamp was handed over for treatment and preservation in the IAA’s metal laboratory. During the treatment, another exciting discovery was made – the lamp’s wick, which was unusually 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, Sukenik identified that it was a wick made of flax. Future stages of 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.
Baruch said that “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,” he said.