Porcupine Finds 1,400-year Old Oil Lamp in Israel

Only to have its treasure taken by archaeology cops.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
The Byzantine-era lamp found by a porcupine at Horbat Siv.
The Byzantine-era lamp found by a porcupine at Horbat Siv.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

This could only happen in Israel: a porcupine digging a burrow unearthed a perfect 1,400-year old oil lamp – only to have its prize seized by "archaeology cops" on a routine patrol to frustrate robbers.

Specifically, Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors were on their routine rounds to thwart thievery from archaeological sites, which is about as common as the artifacts themselves in the Middle East. During their visit to Horbat Siv, a site from the late Roman-Byzantine period in the Sharon area, central Israel, they noticed a remarkably well-preserved lamp lying on the rim of a porcupine burrow. The lamp had burn marks, indicating that it had once been in use

When burrowing, porcupines throw discarded dirt – and pesky ancient treasures in its way – surfaceward.

It bears noting that as rodents go, porcupines are large, weighing up to 15 kilograms, and they need big burrows that can easily stretch more than 15 meters.

The upshot, explains Ira Horowitz of the anti-theft unit at the IAA, is that "porcupine archaeology" isn't as rare as one might assume. Nor is rodent disruption of the archaeological record: Researchers have long lamented the way gophers mess up the archaeological record in North America, not least by mixing up the soil layers.

This is an Israeli porcupine, if not the one that found the lamp. Being nocturnal, it has proved difficult to get a good picture of that one. This one lives in an abandoned army base.Credit: Gil Eliahu

So, when finding archaeological remains in porcupine dirt piles in Israel, all the human archaeologists can do is try to collect the artifacts by the order in which they are found – an artifact at the top of the pile would have been the most recently found, by the porcupine that is; now all the archaeologists have to do is see what historical layer the rodent had most recently been digging through. It's elementary, if not entirely reliable.

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