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Terrakotten aus Beit Nattif. Eine Untersuchung zur religiösen Alltagspraxis im spätantiken Judäa

Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom
Bibliographical reference

Achim Lichtenberger, Terrakotten aus Beit Nattif. Eine Untersuchung zur religiösen Alltagspraxis im spätantiken Judäa. Contextualizing the Sacred 7. Turnhout: Brepols 2016. XII and 298 pages, two colour plates, 409 photos of the catalogue items and 38 figures. Reviewed by Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom.

Abstract

Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom reviews Terrakotten aus Beit Nattif. Eine Untersuchung zur religiösen Alltagspraxis im spätantiken Judäa, by Achim Lichtenberger. This appeared in the series Contextualizing the Sacred, 7, published by Brepols.

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  • 1 Baramki, D. 1936. “Two Roman Cisterns at Beit Nattif.” QDAP 5:3–10.
  • 2 Lichtenberger 2016, 277.

1This volume by Achim Lichtenberger (henceforth AL) is the first comprehensive monograph on the remarkable assemblage of clay figurines, produced locally in the Beit Nattif region. Situated to the southwest of Jerusalem at the fringe of the Judean Mountains Beit Nattif is identified with ancient Betholetepha, the headquarters of a Judean toparchy. The bulk of finds represents waste from two cisterns at Beit Nattif, discovered in 1917 and excavated by Dimitri Baramki in 1934.1 In addition, the study presents corresponding specimens from other excavations, as well as parallels in museums and collections acquired on the antiquities market. The book comprises an introduction, fourteen chapters, concluding comments and an English summary. The introduction addresses the two main hypotheses that were prevalent in the past and are still an aspect of current research on the Beit Nattif terracotta figurines. First, the iconography of nude female figures, horse-riders, and animals is part of the visual koine in a pagan cultural setting. Second, additional archaeological evidence, in particular locally manufactured lamps, and historical and epigraphical sources appear to document the existence of Jewish communities living with the pagan population in the Beit Nattif area during the third and fourth centuries CE. In view of these two general assessments it is the author’s primary target to set criteria for a more differentiated attribution of the finds beyond the stereotyped categories of pagan or Jewish, notwithstanding the strict rejection of pagan culture in the Rabbinical literature. In the author’s words, “the dichotomy of ‘pagan’ and ‘Jewish’” should be reevaluated on the basis of “an examination of the material culture of everyday life”.2

2Admittedly, a crucial parameter for determining the role of the figurines in the daily life of the local inhabitants is the difficulty in providing evidence for their ethno-religious affiliation. Archaeologists and historians agree that until the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 CE) the region was predominantly settled by Jews. To date, there is no unequivocal answer to the question whether the Roman victory resulted in the extensive annihilation and expulsion of the Jewish population, although the archaeological evidence from nearby Bet Guvrin-Eleutheropolis indicates a Roman urban centre with some Jewish dwellers during the second and third centuries CE. However, so far no Beit Nattif-style figurines came to light in the city and in the necropolises.

  • 3 Please note that the pagination also includes the English summary.

3In the first four chapters (1–15; 277–278)3 AL evaluates the evidence basis for defining the location and regional context, as well as the chronological, iconographic, and technical aspects and explores the likely ethno-religious affiliation of the customers of the oil lamps. The discussion in chapters one and two provides the reader with a factual and sound acquaintance of the present state of research, clearly illustrating the ambiguity in defining the ethnic and socio-economic conditions in the Beit Nattif region during the Late Roman period, resulting from the meagre archaeological and textual evidence. The third chapter addresses the matter of identifying the customers of the lamps with gladiators and Jewish symbols like the menorah, which altogether occur in small numbers. AL emphasizes that up to now it can neither be rejected nor proven that such lamps were manufactured for specific ethno-religious groups, respectively a pagan or Jewish clientele.

  • 4 Cohen-Weinberger, A. and Lichtenberger, A. 2016. “Late Roman Workshops of Beit Nattif Figurines: Pe (...)

4Chapter four provides information on the fabrics, the clay source, and the production techniques of the figurines and mentions the scarce remains of black and red paint applied after the firing process. By now, the results of the petrographic analyses have been published in full.4 They provide unequivocal evidence that the Beit Nattif area was the main production center for the figurines, either from a single workshop, or from several adjacent workshops. Apart from a single figurine, all other cistern specimens were produced from the locally exposed marl of the Taqiye Formation, widespread in Israel and the neighbouring countries. The same raw material was used for the three cistern lamps analysed. Beit Nattif-style figurines from a small number of other sites were most likely also products of the same workshops. Some figurines found in excavations in Jerusalem were made from the clay of the Moza Formation in the Jerusalem area. As its western exposures are about 5 km east of Beit Nattif these figurines could originate from a workshop close to these exposures.

5Chapter five (17–184; 278–279) comprises the main part of the study: the typology and catalogue of 341 figurines, from the two Beit Nattif cisterns listed in seven thematic groups. Each catalogue entry includes detailed technical information and the iconographic description. The main types are female figurines and horsemen. The female figurines, generally depicted in frontal view, are categorized under women with symmetrically raised arms, the pudica-type (mostly standing within an aedicula) and the rectangular, gravida and kourotrophoi types. The male figurines are horsemen facing right and riders standing in front of their horses; figurines of riders on a bird and males holding a shield are rare. Occasional figurines of children are incomplete, with only heads preserved. In the faunal world the dove is the most common subject; other sporadic finds include cattle, dog, probably a camel, and a beast of prey. Under the heading “miscellaneous” AL describes fragments of the so-called mirror-plaques, of an armed male, reliefs, and a mask. He gives a concise account of the mirror-plaques and masks, categories known from a number of sites in the region, the former a feature of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, the latter of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The catalogue concludes with 62 unassigned fragments.

6Each figurine and each fragment is illustrated in 3D-scans with four different views. Such a precise documentation seems unnecessary in the case of small and tiny fragments (see Cat. Nos. 16–24, 235–282). All in all, the reviewer is not convinced that the digital processing is an advantage. The illustrations appear flat and lifeless, and the difference in quality to analog photos is obvious when comparing the heads of three similar female figures (see the 3D-scan of Cat. Nos. 63–64 and the analog photo of Cat. No. 386).

7Chapter VI (185; 279) comprises statistical evaluations, while chapter VII (187–194; 279–280) is a survey of the stylistic properties of Near Eastern terracotta figurines with similar features as the Beit Nattif-style figurines. The references to the comparanda from the Iron Age and the Hellenistic periods suggest the existence of a visual koine, apparently handed down through centuries among different ethno-religious populations. However, no continuity in such a long time-span can be plausibly demonstrated, and in view of technical and stylistic differences the assumption of an existent tradition is highly speculative.

  • 5 See note 4.

8Chapter VIII (195–249; 280) lists excavated finds of Beit Nattif-style figurines from sites in Judea, northern Israel, and Transjordan, as well as specimens in museums and collections in Israel and the world acquired on the antiquities market. With the exception of two locations in Jerusalem, the artifacts unearthed in excavations are mostly fragmentary singletons. Among the forty-four figurines in museums and collections, twenty-six are intact or nearly complete, permitting a definite attribution of many fragments. In most cases, AL convincingly establishes the attribution to the Beit Nattif workshop(s) and notes fabric differences and stylistic variations on others. For information on the workshops (Chapter IX, 251–253; 280–281) the reader is now referred to the detailed presentation and discussion of the results of the petrographic analyses.5

  • 6 For the function and significance of Roman masks see Rose, H. 2006. Die römischen Terrakottamasken (...)
  • 7 Rosenthal-Heginbottom, R. 2014. “Lamps, Table and Kitchen Ware from Areas J and N.” In Geva, H. Jew (...)
  • 8 Lichtenberger 2016, 194.

9In the remaining five chapters AL deals with the complex matters of context and interpretation. Chapter X (255; 281) is a summary of the few recorded domestic and sepulchral contexts, and as most of the finds originate from a workshop context the information on consumption and function is negligible. Although the female figurines and the horsemen feature divine iconographic traits, their characteristics do not permit the attribution to specific deities. In the case of the standing male holding a shield, (Cat. No. 397) the gesture of the left hand might be of apotropaic significance. Several of the female figurines are provided with two lateral holes for suspension (see Cat. Nos. 1–2, 375, 409); at the same time, they had flat resting-surfaces, enabling an upright position. AL compares the feature of the two holes to the single suspension hole at the top of the mirror-plaques (see Figs. 27, 29); their apotropaic or magical function is widely accepted by scholars. Such a role is also attributed to the popular Roman terracotta masks (see. Cat. No. 320) prevalent in many provinces of the empire.6 Though rare in the Levant, masks were manufactured in workshops at Jerusalem and Gerasa and are often associated with the Roman military.7 AL asserts a Roman influence in the dress of the Beit Nattif horseman, who wears a tunic like many soldiers in the Late Roman period.8

10In chapters XI (257–259; 281) and XII (261–262; 281) AL addresses the crucial question of interpreting the motifs of naked female, rider, and dove, drawing in chapter XII on their iconographic precursors from the Iron Age attested in Judea and Samaria, and considered to exemplify popular devotion to a private cult. In the reviewer’s opinion, the available evidence is too meagre to arrive at the conclusion that the Late Roman Beit Nattif-style figurines are derivatives of an Iron Age tradition. Likewise, it is virtually impossible to clarify ethno-religious connotations and functions. Nevertheless, AL rightly emphasizes that the Beit Nattif coroplasts temporarily produced objects of daily life for a local clientele and that these objects adhere to ancient, fairly continuous, cultural traditions prevalent in diverse Near Eastern societies, independent of western Roman paradigms (on tradition and innovation see also chapter XIV, 273–274; 282).

  • 9 Lichtenberger 2016, 282.

11The discussion about the likely consumers of the Beit Nattif-style figurines (Chapter XIII, 263–272; 281–282) is a substantial contribution towards an understanding of ethno-religious identity in the late antique times. Drawing on the evidence from material culture and historical and literary sources AL opts for a Jewish clientele, yet admitting that “it cannot be concluded with certainty from the Jewish oil lamps that the entire repertoire of the workshop was intended for Jewish customers.”9 He further points out that even when rejecting the attribution to a Jewish clientele there is a definite interaction between preferences and practices of pagan and Jewish consumers. In short concluding remarks (275; 282–283) AL repeats his perception with regard to the Jewish clientele for the figurines and lamps manufactured in the Beit Nattif area and elucidates the political and cultural upheaval caused by the outcome of the Bar- Kokhba Revolt, resulting in the integration of the Jewish population into a “milieu of cultural pluralism”. The monograph’s final section is an English summary (277–283).

  • 10 Lichtenberger 2016, 198–199, 210.
  • 11 Lichtenberger 2016, 11; Magness, J. 2008. “The Oil Lamps from the South Cemetery.” In The Necropoli (...)

12The author is to be praised for his meticulous analysis of the Beit Nattif-type figurines, presented in this comprehensive monograph. The publication in German is a heavy drawback for scholars residing in the Near East who rarely are sufficiently versed in the German language to follow the discussion, and unfortunately the English summary is merely a slight compensation. All in all, AL successfully demonstrates the complexity of the archaeological, historical, and literary evidence, preventing an unambiguous classification and interpretation of the clay figurines and lamps. However, AL chooses to build a model founded on the conclusion that neither the iconography nor the evidence from domestic and sepulchral contexts excludes a Jewish clientele. With it, an essential question remains unanswered. What do we regard as satisfactory markers for the definition of the customers’ ethno-religious identity in the Beit Nattif production? To date, researchers concentrated on interpreting the iconography of figurines and lamps. The figurine repertoire of naked females, horse-riders, and animals suggests a pagan clientele, while the depiction of the Jewish menorah on lamps is minimal in the Beit Nattif production. Consequently, the iconography cannot be used as a diagnostic marker. Instead, it is the contextual evidence that should be considered first and foremost, as AL acknowledges in the discussion of two assemblages of figurines unearthed in Jerusalem and of the female figurine found at Kefar Othnay- Legio-Maximianopolis.10 These finds derive from habitation contexts. Besides the lamps from the Beit Nattif cisterns, the necropolis of Bet Guvrin-Eleutheropolis provides evidence for lamps with Jewish motifs.11

  • 12 Storchan, B. 2017. “Bet Shemesh, Ramat Bet Shemesh, Khirbet Shumeila. Preliminary Report.” Excavati (...)
  • 13 Magness 2008, Figs. 5.7:3; 5.9:1.
  • 14 Rosenthal-Heginbottom, R. 1996. “A Jewish Lamp Depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac.” In Joseph Aviram (...)

13In Jerusalem the two assemblages came to light in the area south of the Temple Mount (seven fragmentary figurines) and in the fills of a large mansion in the Tyropoeon valley, destroyed during the 383 CE earthquake (more than fifty figurine fragments). The contextual evidence does not indicate Jewish dwellers, and in the reviewer’s opinion it is inadmissible to draw on external evidence from the Byzantine period while arguing about the existence of a Jewish community or Jewish inhabitants in Aelia Capitolina. Similarly, the figurine from Kefar Othnay cannot be attributed to a Jewish owner, though in all cases the possibility cannot be entirely discounted. New evidence for lamps manufactured in the Beit Nattif area was found in 2014, when a workshop was excavated at Khirbet Shumeila situated about a kilometer to the northwest of Beit Nattif.12 Altogether, more than 600 lamps and fifteen lime-stone molds were recorded, among them less than 1 % were decorated with a menorah. Based on the discovery of more than 150 coins, the workshop dates from the 4th century CE; there were no coins after 383 CE. Hence, it is documented that some Beit Nattif lamps were manufactured for Jewish buyers, and others were produced for pagan and Christian buyers.13 In view of the contextual evidence derived from the recent excavations the reviewer no longer concurs with her statement of twenty years ago that “the depiction of the menorah and the location of Beit Nattif suggest a Jewish workshop.”14

  • 15 Lichtenberger 2016, 282–283.

14To sum: the reviewer challenges the author’s conclusion, albeit expressed with great caution, that on the basis of iconography, archaeological, and literary evidence the Beit Nattif-style terracotta figurines were manufactured for a Jewish target group. At present, there is no answer to the question whether the workshops’ output can be assigned to “otherwise elusive and invisible population groups in the third and fourth centuries CE, who lived in a region that was mainly Jewish before the Bar Cochba War.”15 Nevertheless, with his thorough and stimulating study the author documented a significant category of material culture and stipulated further research.

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Endnote

1 Baramki, D. 1936. “Two Roman Cisterns at Beit Nattif.” QDAP 5:3–10.

2 Lichtenberger 2016, 277.

3 Please note that the pagination also includes the English summary.

4 Cohen-Weinberger, A. and Lichtenberger, A. 2016. “Late Roman Workshops of Beit Nattif Figurines: Petrography, Typology, and Style.” BASOR 376:151–168; available at http://www.jstor.,org/stable/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.376.0151

The article is particularly important as it presents the analysis of finds from the Givati Parking Lot excavations, the largest assemblage discovered outside of Beit Nattif. AL was permitted to study the material without including it in the catalogue (for a short evaluation see pp. 198–199).

5 See note 4.

6 For the function and significance of Roman masks see Rose, H. 2006. Die römischen Terrakottamasken in den Nordwestprovinzen. Herkunft – Herstellung – Verbreitung – Funktion. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 64–71.

7 Rosenthal-Heginbottom, R. 2014. “Lamps, Table and Kitchen Ware from Areas J and N.” In Geva, H. Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem, Conducted by Nahman Avigad, 1969–1982. Vol. VI: Areas J,N,Z and Other Studies. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 192.

8 Lichtenberger 2016, 194.

9 Lichtenberger 2016, 282.

10 Lichtenberger 2016, 198–199, 210.

11 Lichtenberger 2016, 11; Magness, J. 2008. “The Oil Lamps from the South Cemetery.” In The Necropolis of Bet Guvrin-Eleutheropolis, edited by G. Avni, U. Dahari, A. Kloner, 129–130. IAA Reports 36. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.

12 Storchan, B. 2017. “Bet Shemesh, Ramat Bet Shemesh, Khirbet Shumeila. Preliminary Report.” Excavations and Surveys in Israel 129. URL: http://www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.aspx?id=25229&mag_id=125 (accessed December 2017). Storchan, B. 2017. “The Discovery of an Additional Beit Nattif Lamp Workshop.” In Studies on the Land of Judea. Proceedings of the 1st Annual Conference in Memory of Dr. David Ami, edited by Z. Zelinger, and N. Frankel, 71–79. Kefar Ezion: Ezion.

13 Magness 2008, Figs. 5.7:3; 5.9:1.

14 Rosenthal-Heginbottom, R. 1996. “A Jewish Lamp Depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac.” In Joseph Aviram Volume. Eretz Israel 25:54*.

15 Lichtenberger 2016, 282–283.

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References

Electronic reference

Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, « Terrakotten aus Beit Nattif. Eine Untersuchung zur religiösen Alltagspraxis im spätantiken Judäa », Les Carnets de l’ACoSt [Online], 17 | 2018, Online since 10 April 2018, connection on 16 October 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/acost/1150

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About the author

Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom

Independent researcher, Germany
renate34@gmx.de

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les Carnets de l'ACoSt est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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