The famous Beit Nattif oil-lamp cistern is once again seeing the light of day! One of the largest ceramic oil-lamp workshops in Israel has been discovered during excavations in Beit Shemesh. Hundreds of pottery oil lamps, two bearing symbols of the menorah, were found together with stone lamp molds and numerous figurines which were made about 1600–1700 years ago.
The discovery of the lamps, used for lighting in ancient times, surprised the archaeologists not only because of their quantity and quality but also because it solved an archaeological mystery. In 1934, archaeologist Dimitri Baramki, an inspector on behalf of the Department of Antiquities during the British Mandate, discovered a water cistern in the region of Beit Shemesh. On excavating the cistern, he was surprised to uncover an ancient ‘treasure’ — a huge quantity of intact oil lamps bearing animal and plant motifs and geometric designs. The lamps are dated to the Late Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE) and became known as ‘Beit Nattif lamps’ after the name of the nearby village and have become an archaeological hallmark. After the British Mandate-era discovery, the location of the cistern was lost and has remained a mystery, despite all efforts to re-locate it.
Israel antiquities authority excavation directors Moran Balila, Itai Aviv, Nicolas Benenstein, and Omer Shalev share that near the edge of Beit Nattif they were amazed to find what looked familiar from photos published in Baramki’s report. Benyamin Storchan of the Israel Antiquities Authority, an expert on the Beit Nattif lamps explains “From the writings of Josephus, we know that Bet Nattif during the Second Temple period functioned as an administrative center — one of the ten such cities in Judea under Hasmonean rule. After the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and Roman takeover of the region, the local Jewish population of the Judean Hills was greatly diminished and in turn, the region was settled by pagans. The many figurines unearthed at the site attest to this. At the same time, a small number of the ceramic oil lamps area decorated with distinctively Jewish symbols such as the shofar, incense burner and seven branched menorah. The fragment tells us that Jewish life continued to exist in the Judean Hills, well after the rebellion’s failure."
"The festival of Hanukkah is a wonderful opportunity to tell the public about the recovery of these oil lamps, which were the main means of lighting in ancient times,” the archaeologists say. In light of the importance of the find and its location, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Ministry of Construction and Housing plan to preserve the site and incorporate it in a large park that will be open to the public. Photo credit: Yoli Schwartz, Assaf Peretz, and Moran Balila, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Text: Israel Antiquities Authority