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Ancient ceramic oil-lamp workshop unearthed in Israel

Workers for the Israel Antiquities Authority clean an ancient oil lamp workshop discovered in Beit Shemesh, Israel, on December 14, 2020. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 14 (UPI) -- An ancient ceramic oil-lamp workshop, one of the largest of its kind, has been unearthed in Beit Shemesh, a city located west of Jerusalem in Israel.

Several Islamic-era artifacts from the workshop, including lamp molds, a kiln and several well-preserved, unused oil lamps -- all dated between the 7th and 11th centuries AD -- were put on displace at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem this week.

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In addition to yielding astonishing ceramic artifacts, the discovery has helped to solve a decades-old mystery.

The oil-lamp workshop was actually first discovered in 1934 by archaeologist Dimitri Baramki, an inspector with the Department of Antiquities during the British Mandate.

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The initial excavation yielded a treasure trove of unfinished oil lamps and ceramic figurines, but the Palestine dig site was abandoned and its location lost shortly after Israel's founding in 1948.

Archaeologists rediscovered the dig site while surveying the ancient settlement in perpetration for the establishment of a new neighborhood by Israel's Construction and Housing Ministry. The workshop was found beneath ornate stone pillars collapsed by a series of 11th century earthquakes.

The artifacts were found buried next to a large cistern, which archaeologists estimate was once positioned at the center of a lush courtyard.

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"The debris was excavated and seems to be impressive testimony to the earthquake of 1033 in which Tiberias was destroyed," Oren Gutfeld, the head of the Israel Archaeological Services, told The Times of Israel.

The lamps and figurines excavated at the site highlight the complicated history of the Beit Nattif region, which was home to both Arab and Jewish communities, but became the domain of pagans and Roman rule following the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

"From the writings of Josephus, we know that during the Second Temple period, Beit Nattif was a regional administrative center -- one of the ten principal cities under Hasmonean rule," Benyamin Storchan of the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a press release.

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"After the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and Roman takeover of the region, the local Jewish population of the Judean Hills was greatly diminished and in turn, the region was settled by pagans. The many figurines unearthed at the site attest to this," said Storchan, and expert on the Beit Nattif lamps.

In addition to the pagan symbols that adorn many of the lamps, researchers found artifacts bearing the symbols of Jewish faith, including one lamp with a menorah, as well as lamps etched with the Islamic word for God, "Allah."

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"During this period, Christianity also began to emerge and some of the Beit Nattif oil-lamps carry fish motifs, one of the symbols of Christianity," Storchan said. "The sheer variety of lamps and figurines therefore proves that the local population featured a mix of pagans, Christians and Jews."

Because the Israel Antiquities Authority was anxious to showcase the site's artifacts ahead of Hanukkah celebrations, the lamps and figurines have yet to be closely examined and documented by archaeologists.

Officials plan to preserve the dig site and develop a park where artifacts and information about the historic site can be shared with the public.

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