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Oil lamps from the Jewish Holy Land around the time of Jesus

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

The ancient Holy Land was rich in oil lamps from Bronze Age and Classical to Byzantine and Islamic periods with many influences from adjacent regions and peoples such as Egyptian, Nabatean and Samaritan. Of particular interest to some collectors are the lamp types that were from around the time of Jesus and were specifically manufactured and used by Jewish populations. While this period is known as the Early Roman period in Palestine, these lamps are distinct from Roman types, which are not covered here.

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Herodian lamps

Circa late 1st century BCE to end of 1st century CE (although exact dating of these types is still being refined by scholars following more recent excavations).

Named after the period of Herod the Great, King of Judea 72 to 4 BCE, these lamps were common throughout Israel where Jews lived and were used mainly by the Jewish population.

Key features of Herodian lamps

  • Simple but elegant, wheel-made, rounded with flat base.

  • Fan-like spatulated nozzle made separately and attached; sides of join smoothed with a knife - 'knife-pared'.

  • Wick hole pierced leaving inner ragged edge.

  • Mostly terracotta colour, sometimes grey

  • Only sometimes decorated; those that are decorated usually have simple small circles, dots or lines.

  • Scholars dispute whether they can be sub-categorised chronologically or stylistically.

Jerusalem lamps

Circa end 1st century BCE to mid 1st century CE (Herodian-shaped types)

Found mostly in Judea, the evidence is that these lamps were manufactured around Jerusalem, hence the name.

Key features of Jerusalem lamps

  • Distinctive black colour, having been burned without oxygen.

  • Well-made, of good quality.

Above are three examples of early (Herodian-shaped) Jerusalem lamps.

Daroma & Jerash lamps

Circa 1st century to 2nd half of 2nd century CE.

Daroma - made in several places across Israel including northern sites, but originally named Daroma from Aramaic for 'South' referred to in rabbinic sources as southern Judea. Decoration motifs were limited in accordance with Jewish law at the time evidencing that they were manufactured and used by the Jewish population.

Jerash - very similar to Daroma, a large group of this type was found in Jerash/Gerasa.

The First Jewish Revolt 66 to 70 CE, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the seige of Masada 73 to 74 CE resulted in dispersal and diaspora of Jewish populations along with changes to Jewish law around use of symbols in art (Ackerman, AS, 1982).

The "Darom", style gets its name from the lowland and desert region of Daroma in Judea. They were found predominantly in caves in the Judean desert and date between the two Jewish wars (70-135 CE). Apparently displaced skilled stoneworkers, who retreated to this region after the first Jewish revolt, began making these lamps in stone molds.

The Jewish lamps know as the lamps of the 'South' were decorated with symbols and designs connected with the Temple cult and its festivals ... Most other decorations were limited to floral and geometric designs, in obedience to the laws of the Pentateuch and Mishnah ...

Sussman, Varda, Early Jewish Iconoclasm on Pottery Lamps, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1973), p 46

Key features of Daroma & Jerash lamps

  • Usually winged, often with two volutes.

  • Mould-made; always with a handle; base usually a low ring; large filling hole.

  • Certain details such as handles can vary between different areas of manufacture.

  • Usually decorated on nozzle and shoulders, with small circles at sides of wick hole.

  • Variety of decorations with main motif on the nozzle: geometric, floral, agricultural/craft tools, jewellery and Jewish symbols as per legal restrictions discussed above. (Differ from Roman lamps of the time that had decoration on a large dicsus.)

  • Jerash made of fine clay, thick sides, long curved shoulders; favourite nozzle decoration a single leaf - grape vine or fig.

Illustration of typical Daroma lamp characteristics top and base.


References and further information:

oil lamps from the time of Jesus

Ackerman Andrew S et al, Israel in Antiquity, The Jewish Museum New York, 1982

ISBN 10: 0873340159 / ISBN 13: 9780873340151

Adler, Noam, Oil Lamps of the the Holy Land from the Adler collection, Old City Press, Israel, 2004

ISBN 10: 9655551660 / ISBN 13: 978-9655551662

Loffreda, Stanslao, Holy Land Pottery at the Time of Jesus, Early Roman Period 63 BC - 70 AD, Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem, 2003

ISBN 10: 9655160548 / ISBN 13: 9789655160543

Rosenthal, Renate et al, Ancient Lamps in the Scholoessinger Collections, QEDEM

Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology 8, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1978

Sussman, Varda, Early Jewish Iconoclasm on Pottery Lamps, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1973), pp. 46-47 (4 pages)


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