Archaeologists Uncover Rare 1,500-Year-Old Linen Lamp Wick

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Isaiah 58:8 (The Israel Bible™)

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently announced the uncovering of a rare and unique archaeological artifact; a lamp wick dating back 1,500 years to the Byzantine period. Although small in size, the find is significant as it is one of the few such items to have survived from antiquity.

The wick was examined for the first time in the framework of a comprehensive research project on Byzantine settlements in the Negev, conducted by the University of Haifa and led by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Yotam Tepper. The latter, located finds as yet unpublished from the excavation of the American Colt expedition to the Negev site of Shivta, conducted in the 1930s.

According to Dr. Naama Sukenik – an expert in the identification of dyes in archaeological textiles – suggested that the arid conditions in the Negev Desert helped preserve the wick. She noted that it was highly usual to find a wick from ancient times because they are made from organic fibers, which normally disintegrate quickly. “Oil lamps played a key role in daily life in antiquity, illuminating homes and public buildings after sunset. Lamps made of pottery or glass are often found in archaeological excavations, but to find a wick from ancient times is rare,” she added.

The wick was found in its holder – a small copper tube in which it was inserted when it was lit. Microscopic examination by Dr. Sukenik showed that the wick was made of linen, which comes from the flax plant and is known for its use in textiles and clothing as well as for wicks in oil lamps.

The Byzantine-period flax wick and its copper casing. (Credit: Clara Amit/IAA)

Sukenik referenced the Jewish sources in which the appropriate materials that wicks can be made from are discussed, particularly with regard to lighting Sabbath lamps. “…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 Sabbath lamps. Among these were fibers made from the plant called Sodom’s apple, which to this day grows in the Dead Sea area. It seems that the inhabitants of Shivta also chose to light their public buildings with linen wicks. Because flax doesn’t grow in the Negev it probably came from farther north in the country through commerce,” Dr. Sukenik added.

Despite its tiny size, the wick helps to shed light on “one of the most essential and common objects of antiquity.”