2,300-Year-Old Olive Oil Lamp Unearthed in the West Bank

The lamp was discovered by chance and in very good condition in an archeological excavation area at Mount Gerizim, near Nablus.
Photo: Netanel Elimelech for Nature and Parks Authority
May. 10, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

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A clay olive oil lamp dat­ing back at least 2,300 years has been found among the ruins of an exca­va­tion site in the West Bank.

The lamp was recov­ered intact close to a Samaritan stone bath found at Mount Gerizim National Park, a loca­tion of inter­est for arche­ol­o­gists.

According to the Jerusalem Post, local experts were sur­prised by the find­ing, which report­edly hap­pened by chance while work­ers were hand-clean­ing the site.

See Also:Olive Oil Production Continues at Historic Home of Emperor Hadrian

It is great to find some­thing even after all those years of exca­va­tion,” said Netanel Elimelech, direc­tor of the park.

We found a lot of clay sherds lying around, but to find some­thing com­plete with signs of its use is pretty nice,” he added. You can still see the black marks of burn­ing from when the lamp was used. It throws you back [in time].”

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Mount Gerizim is viewed as a sacred loca­tion by the Samaritans. This small reli­gious com­mu­nity still inhab­its a vil­lage there, where the house of their high priest is also located.

Their tra­di­tion dates back to the 8th cen­tury BCE, and arche­ol­o­gists have found the remains of an ancient city with its walls, tem­ples and res­i­den­tial areas there.

Previously, researchers had also found traces of an olive press at the site, which is located just south of Nablus, a promi­nent cen­ter of olive oil soap pro­duc­tion.

Local experts believe that the Samaritans used the lamp for purifi­ca­tion pur­poses. Olive oil has been used for lamps through­out the Mediterranean basin for cen­turies. In addi­tion, olive oil for fuel­ing indoor light­ing devices has often been asso­ci­ated with reli­gious rit­u­als.

For exam­ple, archae­ol­o­gists in south­ern Italy are inves­ti­gat­ing the con­nec­tion between the so-called white olive trees” of the Leucocarpa cul­ti­var and the ancient tra­di­tion that saw the Leucocarpa olive oil used for indoor light­ing in local churches.

According to the Liberty Biblical Museum, olive oil lamp tech­nol­ogy and shape evolved through the Bronze Age, a period of human his­tory stretch­ing approx­i­mately from 3300 to 1200 BCE.

See Also:North Africans Ate Olives 100,000 Years Ago, Evidence Suggests

The early lamps were mostly a bowl filled with olive oil with a wick laid on the side of the rim and then devel­oped by the Middle Bronze Age to the form of a pinched bowl and then in the Late Bronze-Iron Ages to the form of a saucer with a pinched part to hold the wick (whether sin­gle or mul­ti­ple).”

Olive oil lamps were com­monly made of clay, but bronze increas­ingly was used over time and, later, brown glass.

Still, anthro­pol­o­gists at the Milwaukee Public Museum found that olive oil lamps began to show signs of exper­i­men­ta­tion with changes in over­all body shape and the addi­tion of mul­ti­ple noz­zles, a han­dle and clay slips, a coat­ing that was applied to the out­side of clay lamps dur­ing pro­duc­tion in an effort to pre­vent oil from seep­ing through the porous clay,” in ear­lier ages.

These tech­no­log­i­cal advances have been accred­ited to the Greeks, whose lamps were exported all over the Mediterranean between the sixth and fourth cen­turies BCE due to their high qual­ity of crafts­man­ship,” the researchers added.

Olive oil has been at the full dis­posal of many civ­i­liza­tions. Studies have shown that the first cul­ti­va­tions of olive trees date back as much as 3,500 years ago, but wild olive trees grew through­out the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean way before, often rep­re­sent­ing a source of fuel for human set­tle­ments.

According to a recent study on olive oil his­tory pub­lished by the Turkish researchers at Balikesir University, the major­ity of trees and shrubs that con­sti­tute the flora of the Mediterranean basin appeared in the qua­ter­nary (the last 200 mil­lion-year period).”

It is very nat­ural for wild olive trees to exist in Anatolia for the last 50,000 years,” they added. Wild olive groves are com­mon along the coasts of the Aegean and the Mediterranean regions. Studies under­taken on the pollen and fos­sils have shown that wild olives exist in Anatolia for tens of thou­sands of years.”



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