Samford Excavation in Israel Reveals Ancient Jewish Lamp Workshop

Posted by Sean Flynt on 2015-06-25

Archaeologists from Samford University and Kinneret College have discovered a workshop for making ceramic oil lamps in the ancient Jewish village of Shikhin, Israel. Samford professor James Riley Strange directs the collaborative Shikhin Excavation Project. Professor Mordechai Aviam, Director of Kinneret College’s Institute for Galilean Archaeology, is associate director of the project.

Shikhin lies within the Zippori National Park just north of the ancient Jewish city of Sepphoris. The village was mentioned a few times in the Tosefta and the Talmud as a community of potters that produced mainly storage jars during the Roman period of 37 BCE to 363 CE. The manufacture of lamps at Shikhin apparently took place during the late first century and the second century CE. There is only one other known site of lamp production–at the site of Beit Natif–dating to the Late Roman period in Israel. 

To make the lamps, potters pressed soft clay into molds, one for the top and another for the bottom. After the clay dried, they joined the two parts and fired the whole lamp in a kiln as a single piece. Two upper parts of molds found at Shikhin are decorated with pomegranates and one shows a leafy branch. In 2013, a volunteer found a small fragment of an oil lamp decorated with a seven-branched menorah, adding to the evidence that Shikhin was a Jewish village.

In May and June this fourth year of scientific excavations at Shikhin, a team of students and other volunteers uncovered part of the village’s lamp workshop. They recovered more than ten lamps, most nearly intact, from the collapsed wall of one room. The lamps have unexpectedly rough surfaces and were made of low quality clay. All were poorly molded, poorly joined and poorly trimmed, yet were fired. One explanation for this is that the lamps were made by trainees, possibly family members who apprenticed in the profession.

The Shikhin team has also turned up stone vessels typically found in Roman period Jewish villages in Palestine (stone cannot become ritually impure,) at least one miqveh, a bathtub for rendering people and objects ritually pure, hundreds of fragments of oil lamps and a fragments of stone lamp molds. Shikhin has revealed more complete lamp molds (20) than any other single archaeological site in Israel.

Previous dig seasons have provided overwhelming evidence for the production of pottery, including storage jars, cooking ware and table ware, confirming the conclusions of researchers in the 1980s.

In coming seasons Strange and Aviam plan to continue to expose the Shikhin lamp workshop as well as a synagogue, whose poorly preserved remains they have been uncovering since 2013.

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