Small oil lamp wick from 1,500 years ago found in ancient desert town

A unique lamp wick dating to the Byzantine period has been uncovered, according to the Antiquities Authority on Monday, the final day of Hanukkah.

Small oil lamp wick from 1,500 years ago found in Shivta, December 10th, 2018. (photo credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Small oil lamp wick from 1,500 years ago found in Shivta, December 10th, 2018.
A unique lamp wick dating back to the Byzantine period has been uncovered, the Antiquities Authority said on Monday, the last day of Hanukkah.
Few lamp wicks have survived 1,500 years after their last use and usually disintegrate over time. The find at the ancient Negev Desert town of Shivta is significant for archaeologists, who can then understand the wick’s composition.
The wick was examined under a research project on Byzantine settlements in the Negev that has been conducted by the University of Haifa since 2015 and spearheaded by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Yotam Tepper. Tepper identified unpublished finds from a previous excavation of the Negev site, when the American Colt expedition came to Shivta in the 1930s. Harris Dunscombe Colt carried out expeditions and excavations at various ancient sites in the Levant, and while his teams often uncovered numerous findings, they were rarely published.
The Antiquities Authority’s laboratories examined the wick, which was found in its holder. A small copper tube held the fibers that an authority archaeologist, Dr. Naama Sukenik, confirmed were made of linen. The material was commonly used for textiles and clothing, as well as oil lamp wicks.
“It seems that this rare find was preserved thanks to the dry climate of the Negev,” Sukenik said as part of the authority’s statement on the find.
Oil lamps were regularly used in daily life, lighting up homes and public buildings. The lamps were often made of pottery or glass. And while lamps are frequently found during archaeological excavations, finding wicks is not as easy. Because of the organic material of the linen, the fibers tend to disintegrate quickly.
“The Mishnah, tractate Shabbat, discusses what materials may and may not be used as wicks to light Shabbat lamps,” Sukenik said. “There too, linen is mentioned as a high-quality material for wicks, because it burns long and beautifully. The Mishnah mentions other wicks, which were made of lesser quality materials and were therefore prohibited for use in Shabbat lamps. Among these were fibers made from the plant called Sodom’s apple, which to this day grows in the Dead Sea area.”
While Shivta’s inhabitants were most likely Christian, the tractate’s description of materials indicates what would have been commonly used, perhaps even during the Byzantine period.
The findings indicate that Shivta’s population used linen wicks, despite the fact that flax does not grow in the Negev. This would mean the wicks, or at the very least the linen itself, was imported from elsewhere, or from farther north. The wick’s linen was not the same high quality as the linen that would be ideally used for garments.
Sukenik said the wick likely accommodated a type of glass lamp that was typical of the Byzantine period, and was shaped as a glass cup or bowl which was filled with oil to provide light.
 “Despite the tiny size of the wick from Shivta – only a few centimeters long – it sheds light on one of the most essential and common objects of antiquity, which has almost disappeared from the world, but survived at Shivta,” Sukenik said.
The wick, along with other objects recovered from the Colt expedition at Shivta, will be on display at the Hecht Museum in Haifa beginning January 24.
Earlier this year, a  painting of what archaeologists believe to be is a depiction of the face of a younger Jesus was discovered in a northern church at Shivta.
The discovery of the painting, along with the wick’s analysis, are part of Bar-Oz and Tepper’s work, which is called “Crisis on the Margins of the Byzantine Empire,” a bio-archaeological-based project in the Negev.
The town of Shivta, also known as Subeita, is part of a series of Negev settlements which flourished economically and socially during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Originally believed to be stopping points for caravanserai of the Nabateans along the incense trade routes, the settlements were taken over by the Roman Empire in 106 CE, when the empire annexed the territory from the Nabatean Kingdom.
After the Romans took over the region, the stopping points were transformed into wealthy towns that contained numerous churches for its inhabitants and travelers, marking the highest point of settlement in the Negev until modern-day Israel.