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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:2, Spring 2020

Strata: Shedding Light on Judean Refugees

By James Riley Strange

Did the First Jewish Revolt, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., result in a flow of refugees out of Judea? After fleeing their villages during the war, some Judeans could have found living in the region intolerable.

Sociological studies show that people tend to become refugees when they decide that the local social system has failed to meet their fundamental needs. But having to learn a new language, civic systems (education, medicine, law, transportation, etc.), values, and traditions, as well as becoming a minority and not being able to find familiar or required foods are important factors that discourage people from abandoning all that is familiar. Resettlement is much easier when the relocated people find a culture compatible with their own.

Archaeologists studying Galilee normally do not have much cause to think about refugees arriving in the region following 70 C.E. This is because we have little archaeological evidence of the abandonment of Judean villages after the revolt. What information we do have suggests that if people did flee, most did not go far, and that they eventually rebuilt their homes when it was safe to do so. Additionally, Flavius Josephus, our best source for this war, says nothing about Judeans moving to Galilee. While some Judeans may have left when Vespasian commanded “all Jewish territory” in Judea be leased or sold, they didn’t leave in sufficient enough numbers to make an imprint in the archaeological record, and Josephus mentions only the Sicarii (an extremist zealot group), who fled to Egypt and Cyrene (War 6.10–11).

Even if we were to find evidence that people abandoned villages in the late first century C.E., never to return home, how would we detect their arrival in Galilee? Our problem is what Andrea Berlin calls a “household Judaism”: a shared material culture of Judeans, Galileans, and some villages in Gaulanitis (present-day Golan Heights and regions to the north and east) in the first century C.E. (up to c. 70 C.E. or shortly thereafter). Archaeology shows that people used the same technologies, created the same material culture, and butchered animals in the same way in Judea and Galilee. They likely also shared practices invisible in the archaeological record, such as modes of dress and grooming, foods, wooden objects, baskets, and fabrics. So even if Judeans did move into Galilee, their material culture would have blended into the backdrop of the new environment.

Yet some archaeological evidence from Galilee needs a plausible hypothesis to explain how it got there. That evidence is a type of lamp manufactured at the village of Shikhin from the late first century to the mid-second century C.E.

Shikhin is located in Lower Galilee, on a hilltop about a mile north of Sepphoris. Between 2012 and 2019, excavators found abundant evidence of ceramic production—thousands of wasters (vessels ruined in the manufacturing process) of pots and oil lamps.1 Neutron activation analysis of these wasters, soils from Shikhin, and pottery from other sites showed that Shikhin distributed a type of storage jar all over Galilee and to villages in western Gaulanitis. The many fragments of lamp molds, lamp wasters, and of a small potter’s kiln revealed that Shikhin’s lamp makers produced one well-known type of wheel-made lamp and two familiar types of mold-made lamps. For many years before excavations began at Shikhin, lamp expert Varda Sussman had speculated that a lamp workshop near Nazareth had produced all three types. It appears that Shikhin (around 6 miles northwest of Nazareth) housed the workshop (or one of the workshops).2

The wheel-made type is the Herodian knife-pared lamp, with its virtually plain exterior and spatulated nozzle. The two mold-made lamps are the Northern Undecorated (also called the Sepphorean Spatulate) lamp, which looks very similar to the Herodian lamp, and the Darom (Southern) lamp with decorated shoulders and bow- or axe-shaped nozzle flanked by wings. Both mold-made types seem to have developed from the Herodian type. All three have an almost perfectly round body and similar nozzles.3

Some Darom lamps reflect a Jewish background in their decorations: menorahs, lulavs (bundles of branches), and ethrogs (a citrus fruit), the latter two associated with Sukkot. Other decorations imply Jewish sensibilities: no human or divine images, no erotic scenes. The most common animals shown are birds and fish. In addition to simple geometric patterns, the most common decorations are clusters of grapes and grape leaves, dates, pomegranates, bay or laurel wreaths, vines or tendrils, lilies, and ears of grain, and sometimes farming implements, such as rakes and pitchforks. Earrings, vases or amphorae, and door keys also appear, albeit less commonly.

The Northern Undecorated lamp probably originated in Galilee, in the late first century C.E. The Herodian and the Darom types, on the other hand, most likely originated in Judea. So because they were also made in Shikhin, Galilee, their technology must have been brought there from the south. The most likely explanation for how Herodian lamps became popular in Galilee is that pilgrims who visited Jerusalem during Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks/Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles/Booths) brought back both lamps and lamp-making knowhow.

Like the Northern lamps, however, Darom lamps seem to have first appeared only after 70, when Jerusalem lay in ruins and pilgrimage ceased. Judean refugees then supply a plausible explanation for how this lamp and the technology migrated northward. Some Judean families found life in Judea unbearable, left their homes, and moved into Galilee and western Gaulanitis. Among these were artisans, including lamp makers. Their compatibility with the host culture eased their integration into economic, religious, kinship, and other social systems, and their skills lent them the potential to succeed.