A workshop for making oil lamps dating to the first and second century C.E. has been found in the ancient village of Shikhin, in the Lower Galilee – which appears to have been operated by a Judean rebel who fled the Romans, and set up a new life in the Galilee.
The ancient Jewish village of Shikhin, also known as Asochis, is mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud as a village of potters. Now, an excavation conducted by professor James Riley Strange from Samford University and Mordechai Aviam from Kinneret Colleges Institute for Galilean Archaeology has uncovered part of the house and workshop of an oil lamp maker – who does not seem to have been precisely a local.
The simple life
The house was typically simple, with packed earthen floors and, probably, mud plaster on the walls, but it held a unique surprise. In what seems to have been a courtyard, the team discovered what was apparently a special kiln for firing oil lamps and other small vessels. It even had two complete, identical oil lamps and a small bowl still inside.
Of course, kilns have been discovered all over Israel, including from prehistoric times. All had been used to fire jugs, storage jars, cooking pots and other large vessels, and typically measured more than 15 feet in diameter. (Glassmaking kilns from the Roman era have also been found elsewhere in Israel.)
The kiln in the Shikhin potter’s house, the first of its kind found in Israel, is a titch, measuring less than three feet in diameter. Its internal shelf was supported by a central pillar made of stone and brick and was pierced with holes to allow the heat from the fire below to bake the fragile vessels.
Near the kiln, the archaeologists found eleven bronze coins in a small pot. The latest coin, dating to the middle of the second century C.E. helps date the period of oil lamp manufacturing at Shikhin, and leads the excavators to suggest that the potter’s house and the rest of the village was abandoned about that time.
Judean refugee entrepreneur
Oil lamps were ubiquitous in homes and buildings of the ancient world. Fueled with olive oil and lit using wicks that drew up the oil to feed the flame, the lamps were often set on clay, wood, or metal lampstands to provide indoor light, or were placed in wall niches or on shelves, or even suspended from the ceiling by means of a cord.
In the Roman period, potters typically made lamps using stone molds, one to shape the upper part of the lamp and one to shape the base. The upper part was usually decorated. The stone molds were probably pressed together with the wet clay inside them, creating a seal at the seam to keep in the oil. Then they would be trimmed and smoothed when "leather hard", Strange told Haaretz.
The lamps found in Shikhin lampmaker's dwelling featured clusters of grapes, pomegranates, rosettes, tendrils, and leaves. Vases and amphorae with the same signature decorations were also found.
Four years ago, a Shikhin team discovered a fragment of an oil lamp decorated with a seven-branched menorah with palm fronds on either side in the same room to the west.
"These lamps are common in the Galilee," and date to some time after 70 C.E., Strange wrote to Haaretz. "There has been scholarly speculation that a northern workshop near Nazareth also began making them, and now we know that Shikhin’s workshop is that shop, or one of them," he added.
The lamps share the same design and decoration as lamps known from the southern region of Judea after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the Second Jewish Revolt (135 C.E.). With the discovery of the kiln and molds, it is now clear that Judean-type oil lamps were also manufactured in Galilee.
The excavators have a theory how the Judean design ended up in the Jewish village of Shinkhin.
“He could have been a refuge from Jerusalem who had to flee north after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. To integrate into the social system in the village, he set up his own business, introducing the Judean-style lamp mold carving,” Strange speculates.
A profitable business
The archaeologists also found a hoard of coins, which date from the 2nd century B.C.E. to the 2nd century C.E.
" We can’t directly link the coins and the lamp workshop," Strange says.
"That the workshop was successful is attested by the thousands of lamp fragments and nearly 30 fragments of lamp molds at Shikhin, many of which were carved into soft chalk stone that was waste material from the manufacture of stone vessels, which were used to maintain purity. The other testament to its success is that we now know that Shikhin distributed its lamps to other villages in the Lower Galilee."
If a Judean refugee he was, the lampmaker may not have chosen Shikhin by chance. Well before he arrived in town, it was evidently thriving. The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus describes in his work Jewish Antiquities how Ptolemy attacked Asochis, the Greek rendering of Shikhin, and carried off its inhabitants as captives.
Ptolemy fell upon Asochis, a city in the Galilee, and took it by force on the Sabbath day, and there he took ten thousand slaves, and a great deal of spoils (13.337).
Although, Josephus likely exaggerated the numbers of captives, the account verifies that in the late second century B.C. E. Shikhin was probably a prosperous village in the Galilee, where a century and a half later, a refugee from the Roman battalions might have found sanctuary, for a time.