This Grotesquely Shaped Lamp Brought Luck to Jerusalem’s Ancient Residents

The 2,000-year-old artifact, which resembles a face cut in half, was buried in the foundations of a Roman building

lamp
The oddly shaped oil lamp is the first of its kind found in Jerusalem. Koby Harati / City of David

During the late first century A.D., residents of Jerusalem buried a small bronze oil lamp shaped like half of a grotesque face in the foundations of a Roman building. As Yori Yalon reports for Israel Hayom, the light—recently unearthed by archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)—was probably left at the site as a good luck charm.

The lamp is the only one of its kind found in Jerusalem and just one of a few known to exist in the world, writes Michael Bachner for the Times of Israel. It was made using a mold and follows a common Roman motif similar to a theater mask. Researchers say that the item’s half-face shape may have been a deliberate choice designed to allow users to attach it to a wall or flat object. Alternatively, the lamp may have had a ceremonial use.

Per a statement, the tip of the lamp is shaped like a crescent moon, while the handle is shaped like an Acanthus, a type of flowering plant used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a common ornamental motif.

The archaeologists also discovered the lamp’s unusually well-preserved flax wick. They plan to conduct further analysis to determine whether the lamp was ever used and, if so, with what kind of oil.

This Grotesquely Shaped Lamp Brought Luck to Jerusalem's Ancient Residents
The item's shape may have enabled users to attach it to a wall or flat object. Koby Harati / City of David

Dated to shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 A.D., the building where the lamp was found stood on a site known as Pilgrimage Road. The Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Tercatin reports that ancient Jews took this path to reach the Temple Mount during Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot festivals.

“The street was built during the period of Governor Pontius Pilates,” Ari Levy, an archaeologist with the IAA, tells the Post. “It was inaugurated around the year 30 [A.D.] and it was used for about 40 years until the Temple was destroyed in 70 [A.D.]”

Levy says the location remained important to the Romans even after Jews were largely driven from the area at the time of the temple’s destruction.

“It is possible that the importance of the building, and the need to bless its activity with luck by burying a foundation deposit, was due to its proximity to the Siloam Pool, which was also used in the Roman period as the central source of water within the city,” the archaeologist adds in the statement.

While the specific shape of the lamp is unusual, bronze oil lamps are a common Roman artifact.

“Collections around the world contain thousands of these bronze lamps, many of which were made in intricate shapes, indicating the artistic freedom that Roman metal artists possessed,” says IAA archaeologist Yuval Baruch in the statement.

Per the Milwaukee Public Museum, people in the Roman Empire used oil lamps to illuminate nighttime sporting events, including gladiator shows. The objects also appeared in temples and shrines, where they served both practical and ritual purposes. Lamps were sometimes buried with the dead to light their way into the afterlife. Today, few bronze lamps from ancient times survive, as people melted them down for their valuable metal over the centuries.

The Post reports that the archaeologists discovered the lamp, as well as coins and pottery, while conducting excavations at the Jerusalem Walls-City of David National Park. The Romans abandoned the building where the lamp was found—and the surrounding area—when they founded the colony of Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem in 135 A.D.