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An Ancient Jewish Lamp Workshop in the Galilee Bible and archaeology news Robin Ngo • 07/08/2015
Ceramic oil lamps discovered this summer at Shikhin suggest the ancient Jewish village once had a lamp workshop. Photo: Courtesy Shikhin Excavation Project.
This summer, excavations conducted in an ancient Jewish village near Nazareth in Israel have uncovered the remains of an oil lamp workshop in operation during the late first–early second centuries C.E. Led by director James Riley Strange of Samford University and associate director Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College, the Shikhin Excavation Project just completed its fourth season of excavation at the ancient Jewish village. Working amid the remains of a building north of the village’s synagogue, an archaeological team found about a dozen nearly intact ceramic oil lamps. The lamps were poorly made and composed of low-quality clay, suggesting, according to the excavators, that they had been manufactured by apprentices of the workshop.
The discovery of the lamp workshop at Shikhin is important for a number of reasons, dig director James Riley Strange told Bible History Daily.
“First, it demonstrates that lamp production in Galilee was not confined to cities,” Strange said. “That hypothesis was proposed a few years ago.”
The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.
Furthermore, the finds confirm that there were two main types of mold-made lamps being made near Nazareth, as was hypothesized previously. The lamps from Shikhin are estimated to have been made between 70 and 135 C.E.—between the end of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome and the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. “One type of lamp is a relatively plain lamp that resembles the well-known Herodian lamp with a ‘spatulated’ or ‘knife-pared’ nozzle,” explained Strange. “It was made in two molds, one for the bottom half of the lamp and another for the top half—both halves also molding the nozzle, which was pared after the two halves were joined.”
The nozzle and a portion of the body of a Herodian lamp from Shikhin. Photo: Courtesy Shikhin Excavation Project.
“The second kind of lamp is called a ‘Darom’ or ‘southern’ lamp,” Strange continued. “It was originally made in the Daroma region of Israel, south and west of Jerusalem. Most famously, lamps of this type were found in hideaway caves near the Dead Sea.”
A “Darom” lamp from Shikhin. Photo: Courtesy Shikhin Excavation Project.
The lamp workshop may also provide insights into the lamp makers themselves.
“It may tell us something about the migration of Jewish lamp makers north into the Galilee from Jerusalem and Judea after 70, and perhaps again after 135, bringing their artisan traditions with them and distributing their wares in the Galilee,” said Strange.
Pottery heap at Shikhin. Photo: Courtesy Shikhin Excavation Project.
The hilltop village of Shikhin, located in the Lower Galilee, was called Asochis by Jewish historian Josephus. Occupied from the Late Hellenistic to Late Roman periods (second century B.C.E. through fourth century C.E.), Shikhin was closely tied to nearby Sepphoris, the largest city of Roman Galilee.
Lamp fragment found at Shikhin bearing images of the lulav and seven-branched menorah. Photo: Courtesy Shikhin Excavation Project.
Excavations at Shikhin have revealed the remains of an ancient synagogue, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and stone vessels typical of Jewish villages in the region, thus confirming the Jewish identity of Shikhin. More than simply having a lamp workshop, furthermore, Shikhin appears to have been a Roman pottery production center, as indicated by the sheer quantity of pottery production waste and cast-offs discovered at the site–far more vessels than needed by the villagers. It’s likely that Shikhin supplied many towns in the Galilee with bowls, storage jars, cooking pots, oil lamps and other ceramic vessels. Read more about the lamp workshop at Shikhin in a Samford University press release.
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