Discovering Physical Evidence of Biblical Daily Life – Part2: Ancient Oil Lamps

Oil Lamps from Jesus’ Time

An entire typology for antique oil lamps has been made in archeology. Like today, objects could be made to reflect luxury and style for wealthier clients but also could be kept basic and very simple for poorer people. Therefore the quality and beauty of an object such as an oil lamp varied accordingly.

There are many different kinds of oil lamps but the more simple lamps are most often found in archeological digs, generally speaking. The most simple ceramic oil lamp of Jesus’ (Yeshua’s) time was traditionally made on a potter’s wheel. This type of oil lamp is often known as a “Herodian oil lamp” (from the Herodian period), but is referred to by scholars as “the scraped oil lamp”. The “nozzle” of the lamp (where the wick is inserted) was added manually to the small round body of the lamp after it was made on the potter’s wheel. The connection between the two pieces was smoothed over by scraping the clay with a knife; hence the name “scraped oil lamp”. Once the clay was dry, the potter would fire it in the oven. It would have been these kinds of lamps that Yeshua referred to in the parable of the ten virgins which you can read in Matthew 25.

The shape of the Herodian oil lamp is distinct and easy to remember. I found several once as I was digging in the City of David in Jerusalem. There is a specific place where, during the Second Temple period, people used to throw their broken glass, pottery and trash. It was actually an entire slope full of debris! What once was ‘one man’s trash’ is now ‘another’s treasure’! Israel is full of antiquities, right under your feet, and sometimes they are literally as plentiful as stones in a field.

The eastern slope of the City of David Hill in
Jerusalem, full of pottery debris (2013)

Strange as it may sound to be excited digging in the dirt and rubbish, this particular rubbish slope revealed ancient treasures. I saw for myself the physical evidence of daily life from 2000 years ago. I found dozens of Herodian lamps, and each time I did, I could not help but wonder who it had belonged to, maybe someone from the Bible, who knows… It was incredible! It is less common to find a Herodian oil lamp intact and in one piece today, they are usually broken or only the nozzle piece remains whole (see the second photograph below).

Picture3First type of Herodian oil Lamps

There are two main kinds of oil lamps from the time of Yeshua. The early first type (dated to the 1st half of the 1st century AD- life time of Yeshua) is simple and without any decoration (see the pictures above), with a carved/shaved nozzle shape and with an oval wick hole. The second, later type (dated to the 2nd half of the 1st century AD) have a shorter, less carved nozzle with a more rounded wick hole. This second type of lamp also sometimes had small decorative marks of patterns and dots impressed in the clay around the join between the body of the lamp and the nozzle (see photograph below). The second type of oil lamp is known as “aniconic” (without any figural representation on it) and is a typical Jewish artifact from Second Temple period. Some scholars see it as a “souvenir” token from Jerusalem and the surrounding area where it was manufactured, as finds of these specific lamps all over the country suggest it was common for Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem to take these back home with them after visiting Jerusalem.

Today, tourists to Israel can volunteer at digs that are related to this specific period in time or, at the sifting project of Emeq Tzurim, and there is a chance they can discover one for themselves! Why not visit Israel, visit Jerusalem, and see one of these beautiful pieces of Biblical history for yourself – either at a dig or in one of our Museums?

Nozzle of a decorated Herodian oil lamp (aniconic)

Aaron at a dig

aaronAaron Goel (the author) works at Sar-El Tours & Conferences and has a BA in Archeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He worked in the archeological domain for several years, both in excavations and research in the City of David Jerusalem excavations and for the Coin department of the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority).