Archaeologists Find 'Grotesque' Oil Lamp as a Foundation Deposit in Jerusalem

The bronze oil lamp was found in the wall of a building dating to almost 2,000 years ago, situated on the old pilgrimage route into the city

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The rare grotesque mask that served as a foundation deposit in a Jerusalemite building
The rare grotesque mask that served as a foundation deposit in a Jerusalemite buildingCredit: Koby Harati, City of David
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

An unusual bronze oil lamp shaped like a grotesque, cut-in-half face has been discovered in an unusual place: under the foundations of a massive building in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday.

The lamp was made of bronze, not pottery as was more common, and had been manufactured using a sculpted mold. It is grotesque, featuring a goaty male half-face complete with (half a) satyr’s beard and a horned forehead. The lamp’s tip is shaped like a crescent moon. And the whole enchilada was placed inside a wall of the building, which had been erected smack on what had been the pilgrimage road to Jerusalem.

The motif is not unknown: it looks like the happy-sad theatrical masks of the Classic sphere. A few other such are known from around the Classic world, but only one other lamp like it has ever been found in an archaeological context – and that was in Budapest, IAA archaeologist Ari Levy, director of the excavation, told Haaretz.

Levy and Dr. Yuval Baruch of the IAA date the building to the transition period between the two great Jewish rebellions against their Roman overlords. In short, it was built after Jerusalem’s destruction by the peeved Romans in 70 C.E., and before the Romans rebuilt Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina.

In this time of transition, the city had shrunk, the pilgrims’ road was no longer in use and, Levy explains, the massive edifice had apparently been built to protect the road to the city’s key water supply: the pool of Siloam, which lay beyond the walls.

Later, other buildings would also be erected on the former pilgrimage road, but during the transition period, this was apparently the only one, Levy says.

The building on the Pilgrimage Road in the City of David, where the bronze oil lamp was uncovered. Credit: Koby Harati, City of David
The oil lamp's sizeCredit: Koby Harati, City of David

And it was enormous: “We haven’t exposed it all, only about 40 meters [about 130 feet] of its length – and there’s a lot more,” he says. No, it wasn’t a fort but served as a connection between the city and Siloam, which remained the principal source of water to Jerusalem throughout the Roman period as well.

So if foundational deposits are intended, generally speaking, to protect the household members, in this case the grotesque Roman lamp may have been protecting shriveled Jerusalem’s water supply.

No demons please

In prehistoric times, when humankind began to settle down and build homes in the Levant, sometimes they would bury their dead inside the home, under the floor (or, sometimes, would instead cremate them).

Home burial has been documented time and again; perhaps this was a precursor to a habit that would become practically the norm – in fact, to this day. Some latter-day researchers think the living thought the spirits of the dead would protect them and the household. Some suspect the role of the decreased was to repel evil spirits.

Whether or not inspired by a similar muse, ancient peoples commonly made use of foundation deposits when building homes, public buildings and even Temple Mount itself, Baruch tells Haaretz. Usually, the deposits – in or under walls or the floor – were material objects, from divine figurines to coins and such like.

Archaeologist Ari Levy of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the lamp he foundCredit: Koby Harati, City of David

In some cultures, a human being was interred in the foundations; when Canaanite Gezer was first excavated over a century ago, one discovery was suspected to be exactly that. “It is probable that the victim was a sacrifice offered to the deity, but we have also reason to assume that it was intended to serve as a guardian spirit who would protect the city from all harm,” P. Carus suggested in 1909.

Rather less horrifyingly, another foundation deposit found in Canaanite Gezer a century later, reported in 2016, was a cache of gold and silver divine figurines dated to 3,600 years ago. The objects were found inside a clay pot within the foundations of a building.

“Foundation deposits in general go back to the dim reaches of antiquity,” Levy says. “It was accepted in construction in general, to bring luck and symbolic defense of the building – and to cast fear and awe on attackers. Its significance was highly symbolic, not functional,” he helpfully adds. Indeed, one is pressed to think why a lamp or coin in the floor would ward off evildoers, but there it is.

He adds that the elaborate decoration of the particular lamp in question shores up the argument of its symbolic importance. Sure, households could have nice stuff too, but this grotesque bronze lamp is unique not only in Jerusalem but in Israel. This indicates that its utility – despite having a flax wick inside – was ritualistic, not used to light the way from the well to the bedroom at night.

Half of a grotesque faceCredit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

That said, the lamp was theoretically functional and did have that wick. Molecular analysis will be able to tell if it was ever used for the usual purpose of lamps, the archaeologists say.

Lest ye assume this was a “pagan” predilection, Jews widely made use of foundation deposits too, Levy and Baruch explain – for instance, when building synagogues: “We find foundation deposits inside the walls or under the floor – a range of objects including lamps, but without human forms; coins and so on,” Levy says.

He qualifies that synagogues only took on the form we know now, for actual worship, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Before that, “synagogues” were like hostels for pilgrims, where the mitzvot were taught and Torah was read, but they weren’t a place for worship per se. “And in all these there were foundation deposits,” Levy notes.

Baruch suggests that instead of viewing foundation deposits as ancient Jews embracing pagan rituals and beliefs, the practice should be seen as a prevailing cultural norm that our ancestors embraced.

The oil lamp was discovered in a foundation wall of the buildingCredit: Koby Harati, City of David

“Pagan? It’s a popular belief,” Baruch tells Haaretz. “I wouldn’t categorize it as pagan or not pagan – that’s a theological matter. In monotheism there is room for popular belief too.”

Indeed – in 1884, archaeologists dug to the foundations in the southeast and southwest corners of Temple Mount, and what did they find 20 meters beneath the surface? Marks that are now interpreted as the letters kof het, standing for kurban hekdesh, or holy sacrifice: a twist on the foundation deposit, possibly, Baruch explains.

“It’s all part of a huge process to protect the house, starting at the stage of construction. A ritual was probably involved when laying the foundational deposit,” Baruch adds.

And lest ye think this was an artifact of ancient superstition, Baruch tells the story of a pre-army job he did in construction, in 1981. “My friend Itzik and I were working in Mevasseret Zion,” he says, referring to a town outside Jerusalem. “When they built the foundations, the workers threw money inside.”

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