It started in 2006 at Apollonia-Arsuf, a picturesque archaeological site excavated jointly by Brown University and Tel Aviv University that sits on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea about 14 miles north of Tel Aviv. That summer, I served as an area supervisor, overseeing a trench whose finds dated to the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Like all sites in Israel and the Near East, Apollonia was rich in ceramic finds. Because pottery vessels generally are not used for very long, yet their discarded fragments survive for centuries, ceramics are the most widely used tool for dating archaeological layers.a Oil lamps made from clay are especially valuable because their unique shape makes them readily identifiable. Even a tiny fragment will often suffice to establish a lamp’s typology and age.
The excavation’s directors, Katharina Galor, Israel Roll and Oren Tal, asked if I would study the lamps in closer detail in order to help clarify the area’s chronology. Every afternoon during the last week of the excavation, after the day’s work was done and most of the team had already left the site for the beach, I sat in a small makeshift office—my clothes still encrusted with dirt from the morning’s excavations—studying the lamps and taking notes. My investigation into the lamps continued when I returned to the U.S., where I scoured the library for archaeological publications that would help identify our specimens. As I learned more about lamps, I became particularly interested in what they could tell us about religion in late antiquity, the crucial formative age of Judaism and Christianity.
In the first centuries C.E., artisans increasingly used molds—instead of the potter’s wheel—to make lamps, a technique that allowed them to cast elaborate decorations into relief on the clay. These included floral and geometric patterns, as well as Christian symbols such as the cross and Jewish symbols such as the etrog, shofar and the menorah (plural, menorot)—the seven-branched golden candelabrum that stood in the Temple before being carried away by the Romans with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Over the next seven centuries, the menorah would appear repeatedly on many forms of oil lamps. This was part of wider artistic and religious phenomena, in which the menorah emerged as the most significant Jewish motif in late antiquity.
I would like to suggest that the contexts and forms in which menorot were depicted—which varied from mosaic floors in synagogues to the supporting capitals and lintels of public buildings—added their own unique nuances to the symbol’s meanings. On ceramic lamps, in particular, it is significant that menorot were molded into objects that shared an important function—both the menorah and lamps were repositories of light. Moreover, the menorah’s central branch often aligns with the wick hole of the oil lamp—by lighting the ceramic lamp, one simultaneously lights the menorah.b
The act of embedding one lamp on another was self-referential, creating a “clay menorah” that was portable and could be brought into one’s home, thereby domesticating one of the Jerusalem Temple’s most important vessels. No longer stagnant and under the purview of the priests, these “clay menorot” were accessible, mass-produced and circulated freely throughout the country’s marketplaces. In fact, at the site of Beit Nattif near Hebron, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a pottery factory that had produced both lamps with crosses and lamps with menorot, a clear instance of the mass production and commercialization of religious identity.
Those living in the first centuries C.E. would have been well aware of the significance that the menorah plays in the Hebrew Bible. As “the lamp of God” (1 Samuel 3:3), the menorah signifies God’s presence and light. Light, moreover, was associated in Biblical literature with creation, goodness, truth, happiness and prosperity. The inscription of menorot onto ceramic lamps reduplicated and intensified an effort 072to make light more concrete and its meanings more tangible and intelligible. Like other forms of material culture, these objects could embody one’s connection with God, constituting an important form of religious expression.
Much of what we know about Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity is drawn from literary sources, while archaeology is often relegated to the background—tasked to fill in the lacunae of the texts. But because words alone cannot express everything that is meaningful, it is also useful to promote material culture to the foreground in the study of religion.
As I have illustrated above, material culture—and all of its unique qualities—can be fruitfully understood as a primary form of ancient religious expression.
It started in 2006 at Apollonia-Arsuf, a picturesque archaeological site excavated jointly by Brown University and Tel Aviv University that sits on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea about 14 miles north of Tel Aviv. That summer, I served as an area supervisor, overseeing a trench whose finds dated to the Roman and Byzantine periods. Like all sites in Israel and the Near East, Apollonia was rich in ceramic finds. Because pottery vessels generally are not used for very long, yet their discarded fragments survive for centuries, ceramics are the most widely used tool for dating archaeological layers.a Oil […]
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