The History of Shikhin

Spanning the lifetime of Jesus, the ancient village of Shikhin is perched on a low knoll in the lush hills and broad valleys of the “Tuscany of Israel”: the Lower Galilee. Travelers on the Roman highway that linked Acco/Ptolemais on the Mediterranean coast with Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee could turn south to the city of Sepphoris, which stood gleaming atop a hill. Just before reaching the city, they would cross the foot of Shikhin and could take the opportunity to refresh themselves before completing their journey.

“Tuscany of Israel”
Shikhin Valley

Sepphoris and Shikhin had similar beginnings as new settlements in the Persian period (late fifth – early fourth centuries BCE), and the population of both grew in the Late Hellenistic period (second – first centuries BCE). The fates of the two diverged, however, when some time in the early second century BCE, Ptolemy Lathyrus successfully attacked Shikhin on a Sabbath but was fended off by Sepphoris’ militia.

Gabinius, the Roman proconsul of Syria, located one of the Sanhedrins at Sepphoris in around 57 BCE, and Sepphoris would receive further prestige when Herod made it his northern headquarters in 39/38 BCE. Shikhin did not join the city in revolt at the death of Herod, and so the village was probably spared when the Romans destroyed Sepphoris in 4 BCE and sold its inhabitants into slavery.

Afterwards, Herod’s son Antipas made Sepphoris his capital city: “the ornament of all Galilee,” according to the historian Josephus. (Josephus called the village Shikhin “Asochis”). It was at Sepphoris that Rabbi Judah “the Prince” completed the compilation of the Mishnah in the first decade of the third century CE. That text would become the basis for Judaism’s two great Talmuds. The hill of Sepphoris supported continuous settlement up to the present day, while Shikhin’s population declined and eventually abandoned its hilltop in the fourth century CE.

Yet Shikhin managed to distinguish itself on its own terms. Its potters gained a reputation for throwing vessels that were not likely to burst in a fire. Consequently, throughout the Roman periods Shikhin probably became a supplier of storage jars, bowls, cooking pots, jugs, and oil lamps for many towns in the Galilee, Sepphoris and Gaulinitis (Golan Heights). Shikhin was ideally situated near the highway for distribution of its wares.

A cup waster produced at Shikhin.
Jug rim and handle produced at Shikhin.

Shikhin also became a center for the manufacture and distribution of oil ceramic lamps. Two were types that initially developed in or near Jerusalem: the wheel-made Herodian lamp with knife-pared nozzle and the mold-made Darom (“Southern”) lamp. A third type, the Northern Undecorated or Sepphorean Spatulate, probably developed in the Galilee. At Shikhin, the mold-made lamps were formed in molds carved into soft chalk limestone. Many molds were made from waste material left over from the carving of chalk cups.

The village also gained some wealthy and influential residents. The third-century Tosefta recounts a story of soldiers at Sepphoris rushing to put out a conflagration at the house of Joseph Ben Simai, a “government official” who lived at Shikhin. The story suggests a close connection between the populations of the two towns, since city officials thought it was important to protect the villagers – or at least this particular villager – from fire.

Despite that relationship, we ask if some of Shikhin’s merchants bypassed Sepphoris’ markets. In the Galilee, archaeologists are discovering some villages in which none of Sepphoris’ city coins have been found. Instead, surprisingly, they do find Jewish coins minted centuries earlier in the Hellenistic period. Shikhin’s coins show a similar pattern: in seven seasons of digging, we have recovered dozens of Hasmonean coins and only two city coins of Sepphoris.

Importance of Shikhin

Shikhin sat a scant mile from Sepphoris (a 20-minute walk), and over the same Roman highway that the city oversaw. Therefore, the site stands to teach us a great deal about Galilean village life. What we learn at Shikhin will have important implications for our understanding of the beginnings of Christianity and Formative Judaism, for this period in the Galilee formed the world of Jesus’ ministry and the Sages who compiled the Mishnah.

Our primary research question is about the pottery and lamp production at Shikhin and the workings of the local economy. Where did Shikhin distribute its pottery and lamps? After eight seasons of excavating, we can show that Shikhin’s potters were producing most known Galilean forms, including oil lamps, in great quantities.

The volume of waste sherds found suggests that Shikhin’s kilns were producing far more than needed by the villagers, in turn suggesting that pottery was one of the village’s exports. This question of which Galilean villages were manufacturing pottery, and to whom they were distributed, is important for understanding the Galilean economy.

Lamp manufacturing at Shikhin has been our biggest surprise. It had previously been speculated that these lamps were made near Nazareth, a mere 6 miles southeast of Shikhin. We now know that the village was a production center for two types of mold-made lamps in the late first through mid second century CE.

Mary Kate Thomas holding a whole and nearly complete lamp in 2015
A nearly complete lamp, 2015.
Complete and whole lamp waster, 2015.