Extraordinary Findings in Israel: Human Skulls and Oil Lamps in the Te’omim Cave Point to Necromancy

Recent archaeological findings in the Te’omim Cave shed light on religious practices dating back to the late second century CE, according to a study published in the Harvard Theological Review.1

The cave, believed to be dedicated to an underworld deity, has long intrigued researchers due to its deep pit, flowing spring, and association with fertility and healing. Unearthed artifacts, including ceramic oil lamps, coins, pottery, and ancient objects from various time periods, have uncovered a realm of mystery surrounding the cave’s purpose and its significance to ancient rituals.

Archaeologists, diligently exploring the intricate depths of the site, made a series of captivating and intriguing discoveries, unveiling a diverse assemblage of ancient objects carefully concealed within the archaeological layers. Among the remarkable findings were an Intermediate Bronze Age axe, two intricately crafted socketed spearheads, an exquisite Early Bronze Age juglet, and a collection of intriguing Late Roman oil lamps. The presence of these artifacts, spanning different time periods, evokes a profound sense of purposeful curation, suggesting that they were deliberately gathered and deposited together.

Of particular interest are the approximately 120 remarkably preserved oil lamps discovered within the cave. These lamps, originating from the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods, were deliberately concealed in hidden and inaccessible crevices. Archaeologists believe that these lamps had a purpose beyond providing light, suggesting a deeper meaning and a possible connection to mystical practices.

Human Skulls and Ceramic Oil Lamps Shed Light on Magical Rituals

A surprising revelation within the Te’omim Cave was the discovery of three human skulls in remote and hard-to-reach areas. While two of the skulls seemed to have been moved by rats, the third one was intentionally placed on top of four ceramic oil lamps. This deliberate arrangement suggests a purposeful act. These skulls, along with the lamps, probably had a role in a magical ritual that took place during the Late Roman period, offering insights into the complex beliefs and traditions of that time.

Through their extensive research, scholars embarked on a journey to contextualize these findings by immersing themselves in ancient literature and documents pertaining to magical practices. Their meticulous investigations revealed that these mystical rituals frequently centered around specific sites and the purposeful employment of particular artifacts. Notably, these practices entailed the incorporation of body parts from humans and animals to establish profound connections, as well as the transformation of ordinary household items into instruments with magical significance.

Late Roman Magical Rituals (Te'omim Cave)
Oil lamps and a human skull
Photo: B. Zissu (Te’omim Cave Archaeological Project)

The presence of over 100 ceramic oil lamps and multiple human skulls within the Te’omim Cave suggests that the central cultic ceremony involved the placement of oil lamps as offerings to pay homage to subterranean forces. This indicates that rituals were performed to awaken the deceased and gain glimpses of the future. However, the discovery of human skulls unveils another aspect of these ceremonies.

While the veneration of human skulls was predominantly observed in the British region of the Roman Empire, evidence from various sources indicates their utilization across the empire, including Palestine and its surrounding areas, in necromantic rituals and communication with the dead. Such ceremonies often took place in burial caves or caves believed to serve as gateways to the underworld.

Situated between the cities of Aelia Capitolina and Eleutheropolis, the Te’omim Cave finds itself in an area predominantly inhabited by non-Jewish residents during the Late Roman period. Although there are indications of limited Jewish participation in the observed cultic practices, it is likely that the majority of participants were non-Jewish inhabitants of the region. This hypothesis gains support from the fact that the Te’omim Cave is located near a substantial non-Jewish population that emerged after the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Human Skulls and Oil Lamps in Late Roman Magical Rituals

Human skulls were utilized in late Roman magical rituals as potent objects imbued with symbolic and supernatural power. These skulls were carefully selected and prepared, often by removing the lower jaw and cleaning the interior. The precise reasons for this selection process remain speculative, but it is evident that the use of human skulls held deep significance within the ritual framework.

The presence of human skulls within magical rituals can be traced back to a variety of contexts, including necromancy and divination. These rituals were aimed at establishing communication with the deceased and obtaining guidance or knowledge from the spirit realm. The skull, representing the physical vessel of the departed, served as a conduit for these otherworldly interactions.

In the realm of necromancy, the practice of communicating with and harnessing the powers of the dead, the human skull played a central role. It was believed that the skull contained the essence of the individual, retaining their wisdom, experiences, and connection to the spiritual plane. Through the careful selection and preparation of these skulls, practitioners sought to tap into this accumulated knowledge and supernatural energy. By invoking the presence of the deceased through the skull, practitioners believed they could gain insight, guidance, and even manipulate the forces of the afterlife.

Divination, another context in which human skulls were employed, involved seeking knowledge of the future or hidden truths through supernatural means. Within these rituals, the skull acted as a focal point for the diviner, enabling them to enter a heightened state of consciousness and establish a connection with the spirit realm. It was believed that the skull possessed the ability to reveal secrets and communicate messages from the beyond. Diviners would often interpret signs and omens, such as cracks on the skull, as messages from the spiritual entities they sought to commune with.

Aside from the use of human skulls, oil lamps were essential tools in late Roman magical rituals, providing both illumination and symbolic significance. These lamps were typically crafted from clay or bronze and were often adorned with intricate designs and inscriptions. The use of oil lamps within magical rites was closely tied to the concept of light as a transformative force and its association with spiritual illumination.

The flame of the oil lamp served as a metaphorical representation of divine or supernatural enlightenment, symbolizing the illumination of hidden knowledge, spiritual awakening, and the presence of higher powers. The act of kindling the lamp and invoking the forces of light was believed to dispel darkness, ignorance, and malevolent influences. In this way, the oil lamp became a conduit for spiritual energy, serving as a beacon to attract benevolent spirits and to protect against maleficent forces.

Furthermore, the decorative motifs and inscriptions adorning the oil lamps often carried symbolic significance. These designs could incorporate religious symbols, mythological figures, or magical sigils, each imbued with their own esoteric meanings. By incorporating these symbols into the oil lamps, practitioners sought to enhance their efficacy and establish a deeper connection with the spiritual forces they sought to invoke.

  1. Oil Lamps, Spearheads and Skulls: Possible Evidence of … in the Te’omim Cave, Judean Hills“, Eitan KLEIN & Boaz ZISSU, Harvard Theological Review, Cambridge University Press, July 4, 2023, 116(3), 399-421[]