Lost Workshop Making Pagan Figurines in Roman Palestine Rediscovered in Central Israel

Nude female and other figurines found in the workshop centuries after Jews had eschewed polytheism indicate that the Romans repeopled the region after the failed Jewish revolt with pagans from northern Syria

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Beit Nattif-style lamp with large opening, leaving room for decoration only on the sides
Beit Nattif-style lamp with large opening, leaving room for decoration only on the sidesCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s so frustrating to make a momentous discovery only to forget where it was. Now the misery of losing a huge, ancient pottery workshop in Beit Shemesh is over. In the course of building a new neighborhood in the city, west of Jerusalem, alarge pottery workshop originally unearthed in 1934 has been rediscovered, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed on Monday.

Asked how a ceramics workshop from antiquity could be lost after having once been found, Benyamin Storchan of the antiquities authority explains that when it was discovered by archaeologist Dimitri Baramki, an inspector with the Department of Antiquities during the British Mandate, GPS was not a thing and neither apparently was meticulous record-keeping. The city of Beit Shemesh didn’t exist at the time, nor did accurate maps of rural Palestine.

There was, however, an Arab village known as Beit Nattif, where the residents found an ancient cistern. An agreement was struck between the owner of the land and the British antiquities authority. Baramki arrived to excavate it and discovered it was stuffed with what was apparently the waste from a vast ceramic workshop – unfinished or flawed oil lamps and figurines, mostly broken. Come Israel’s independence in 1948, the village was abandoned and the memory of the mysterious cistern turned vague.

Now the site has been rediscovered by serendipity: exploratory digging happened is going on exactly where it was. Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of lamps of the so-called Beit Nattif style (more on that below); the stone molds used to make the lamps; and a richness of terracotta pagan figurines.

Most of the latter depict naked women holding their breasts or genitals; a horse and rider; and birds and other animals. The whole lot dates to the late Roman period, about 1,700 to 1,600 years ago.

The rediscovered cistern, first unearthed by Baramki in 1934Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Finds from the Beit Nattif excavationCredit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Asked what exactly they had found – an industrial garbage dump or a workshop – Storchan tells Haaretz that Baramki, and subsequently the Israel Antiquities Authority, unearthed the cistern, which probably dated to the Second Temple period and had been “repurposed” in the Late Roman period as a trash collection site for the workshop, which has also, been rediscovered now, by expanding the dig beyond the cistern.

A pagan migration

So, 86 years ago, Baramki recovered from the cistern stone lamp molds and a variety of pottery figurines of animals, horse-riders, women and birds. They represent an iconography that goes back to the Iron Age – in other words, artisans had been making similar figurines of animals, etcetera for thousands of years.

During the Iron Age, over here the First Temple period, such figurines were common household items throughout the southern Levant.

But by the Second Temple period, in the area known today as Israel, these items had largely vanished, locally at least.

Excavation director Itai Aviv with a 1600-year-old human figurineCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The Second Temple period Jews were upholding anti-imagery laws,” Storchan says. Which begs the question of who was making pagan figurines in Beit Shemesh hundreds of years later, during the Late Roman period, and why.

Storchan suspects the reinstatement of figurine art has to do with the ill-fated Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome, which led the severely peeved Romans to kick out the Jews (though not all) – including, probably, those from latter-day Beit Shemesh, which was smack in the center of Bar Kokhba rebel territory. Nature and Rome abhor a vacuum and the former locales of the Jews of Palestine were largely resettled by foreigners, possibly migrating from northern Syria – where pagan worship, and employment of figurines, had been continuous, Storchan suggests.

“Northern Syria was not affected by the discontinuity of the Jewish laws,” the archaeologist points out. “This could have been an administrative placement. We see these figurines as representative of a cultural exchange: Jews out, pagans in.”

Or the makers/users of the figurines could have been Roman veterans who retired to the lush lands of central Israel. Or they could have been all the above.

However, some Jews did remain in ancient Palestine, which brings us back to the unique oil lamps.

Fragment of a lamp with a menorahCredit: Moran Balila
Beit Nattif oil lampsCredit: Itai Aviv, Israel Antiquities Authority

Almost all those found in the cistern are aniconic, featuring only geometric patterns. Some have Roman images, such as a gladiatorial contest. Moreover, two of those found recently at that same site, and a few more found earlier by Baramki, feature definitive Jewish motifs: a temple-style menorah flanked by shofars and incense shovels; or the Four Species.

The images are much the same as those found in the mosaics, door frames and column capitals of synagogues, of the late Roman period in the Galilee and Golan, Storchan explains. Yet other lamps feature early Christian iconography, notably the fish motif.

“The sheer variety of lamps and figurines therefore proves that the local population featured a mix of pagans, Christians and Jews,” the antiquities authority states.

Asked what distinguishes the Beit Nattif oil lamps from all other lamps, Storchan waxes expansive. It begs clarifying that Beit Nattif lamps aren’t confined to the cistern and its immediate surroundings but were found in the general area of the Judean foothills, including Jerusalem, Hebron and even as far as Ashkelon on the coast.

“Beit Nattif” is a stylistic development in the shape of oil lamps that popped up and vanished within a short period of time. These artifacts are usually pear-shaped and the “filling hole” is relatively large. Roman lamps tended to be shaped like a discus, with a small opening.

Lamp with its production moldCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Thus, lamps in the Beit Nattif style have no room for iconography except on their sides, while Roman ones with their bitty openings could and did sport images on top.

Another unique characteristic is the limestone molds used in producing the lamps. Elsewhere in the Roman world the molds were made of other stone or from clay. Also, local oil lamps are often depicted with their nozzle part biased upward – meaning the holder is supposed to hold the lamp with nozzle up if the holder wishes to see the design; elsewhere in the Roman sphere, art shows lamps with a nozzle-down perspective, Storchan explains.

Does the rediscovery of this huge ceramic workshop for making lamps and figurines shed any light on a very knotty conundrum – what purpose the figurines might have served? It does not.

“Clearly they’re more than decoration,” Storchan says, explaining that the naked women are not just another pretty face; the horse and rider are not mantelpiece ornamentation. Given that these types of figurines were made over thousands of years, until vanishing at some point after the Roman period, they likely did have some role to play in household religion – including in Jewish homes of the First Temple period, when people clearly did not shrink from adoring a pantheon alongside Yahweh, according to the archaeological evidence. Figurines also appear in burials, Storchan points out.

But the fact is that the later the manufacture, the less we find in a “user’s” context as opposed to a “manufacturing” context – so we don’t know who was buying them or what they were being bought for. For all we know the cistern at Beit Shemesh contained not only the detritus of the industry, lamps and figurines that went wrong, but merchandise discarded after the frustrated manufacturer couldn’t sell the things any more.

The excavation at Khirbet Beit Nattif is being directed by Moran Balila, Itai Aviv, Nicolas Benenstein and Omer Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority. They note that when excavating the cistern – which at first glance looked like any other Roman-era cistern – they also found stuff left behind by Baramki over eight decades ago, including his dig basket. How do they know it’s his? Because he photographed the site and what they found nearby is clearly identifiable as the mysterious cistern he had uncovered, only to subsequently be lost to posterity. Until now.

The site of the digCredit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

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