Lighting the Way

The ancient oil lamp, best described as ‘antiquities’ lightbulb’, give us a unique insight into daily life within the ancient world. They document not only sociological occurrences, but the development of the world’s religions, they aid in the dating of archaeological excavations and provide an in-depth insight into private life. Since the earliest of times, society has constructed a simple means of sharing and distributing light; the shallow earthenware dish with a simple wick. Artistic heights were reached during the Roman Imperial Period when scenes from mythology, religion, daily inanimate objects and sociological events were all used to decorate oil lamps.

Holy Land Single Pinched Terracotta Oil Lamp

The First Oil Lamps

The first oil lamps appeared in the Near East during the Third Millennium. A simple invention comprised of a square, shallow bowl and pinched at each corner. They provided space for four wicks. These early lamps were handmade, as opposed to wheel-made. The invention of the fast-wheel in the late Third Millennium signalled a change to the style of lamp produced. A saucer shape was now used with a single pinched wick-point.

This style prevailed and would continue to be used for 2000 years. There were slight variations to this simple design, for example, the addition of another spout and the alteration of the bowl shape. The next major change in style occurred with the progression to a closed vessel. The sides of the bowl were pinched together, to produce three evenly spaced closed spouts. The saucer lamp was no more and the natural development of this type is easy to see. As a shape it was impractical. The shallow bowl would have led to easy spilling of the fuel and the open container would attract both moths and rodents to it.

Greek Oil Lamps

The closed lamp form was developed by Greek craftsmen in the 6th century BC, as the rim encroaches over, until a single small orifice is the only opening. Lamps prior to the Hellenistic period remained functional, with little decoration and wheel-made. The turning point occurs in the 2nd century BC. The black-slip used previously is replaced by grey-metallic glazes and decorative ornamentation is seen. Greek lamps develop from the rounded, utilitarian Attic black-glazed ware to a longer nozzle, mould-made greyware, the shoulders decorated with a range of motifs. The development of the Hellenistic lamps gracefully show a progression to the Roman Imperial lamps that abound.

Greek Terracotta Oil Lamp
greek terracotta oil lamp handle 1

Roman Imperial Lamps

The earliest Roman lamps date to the 3rd century BC and are simple in their form and nature. They show a close affinity to the Greek oil lamps, a clear development evident. With the invention of mould-made lamps, the increase in ornamentation, so that this became the focal point, occurs in the 2nd – 1st centuries BC. This transition leads to the Imperial Roman lamps we are used to seeing. The first Imperial lamps are characterised by a circular body, the discus a prominent feature and the nozzle angular. Volutes decorate the sides and they appear handleless. There is a clear progression from the Hellenistic oil lamps to the Italian type. Whilst this type of voluted lamp was first made in Italy, its use soon spread across the Roman nature, with workshops found in the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa. The general features of the lamp vary little over time. The main change in style is the addition of a handle from the late 1st century AD. From the end of the 1st century, right up until the 4th century there is a marked change in the style of lamp favoured. Known as Loeschcke type VIII, they feature a circular body and a short, rounded nozzle. The rounded nozzle later developed into a heart-shaped nozzle. This form existed with and without handles. The large circular body allowed potters to decorate their lamps extensively, with detailed narratives taking form in terracotta. Discuses became works of art and a number of themes were popular, from heroes of mythology, to scenes from daily life and vocations to the gods.

The Byzantine Empire

roman oil lamp with christ monogram

The progression from Roman Imperial oil lamps to the terra sigillata of Byzantine oil lamps is markedly different and is caused largely by three factors. The shape of the discus changes, becoming oval in comparison to the previous rounded shape. The nozzle is elongated, abandoning its short heart-shaped variety and the channel becomes wider. The discus and shoulders are still a feature and were widely decorated. Originally manufactured in North Africa, their popularity spread and they were both exported and imitated across the Empire. With the spread of Christianity and its ratification as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christian themes were the focus of decoration. Figures of saints, narratives from the Old and New Testament and Christograms all feature.

Near Eastern Lamps

Lamps from the Near East during the Byzantine Empire are marked by regional variations. Like the terra sigillata variety the majority of the lamps feature a more oval discus and elongated channel. Handle variations differed by region, becoming a defining feature of the type. It is common to see handles in a variety of shapes and sizes, from short pyramid lug handles, to broad, ribbed varieties or even ornamented types, with stylised anthropomorphic figures. Decoration occurred on both the discus and the shoulders but unlike previous lamps of the Greek and Roman periods, the political landscape is directly reflected in the iconography depicted. The rising religious factions of the time; Christian, Jewish and Islamic mirror the motifs used. Each sect had their own popular attributes; the menorah for the Jews for example, the palm branch and inscriptions praising Jesus Christ for the Christians and Arabic phrases for the Islamic lamps.

Early Islamic Terracotta Oil Lamp with Animals
Byzantine Christian Oil Lamp

This concise blog merely touches the surface in the catalogue and study of antiquities oil lamps. Classification of lamp styles, such as Loeschcke type VIII, follows the study and division of lamps by famous lychnologists. Lychnology is the subsequent study of artificial light, from antiquity to modern times. With such studies we can carefully date and locate oil lamp production, seeing the trends in their production. The classification of lamps is usually defined by various attributes but within these groups, variation and artistic license occurs. Lamps with ornate handles or a multitude of nozzles allowed people to express their originiality and artistic flair. Plastic lamps, figurines made from moulds that acted as a lamp, also achieved the same result. Unique shapes, from erotic phalluses, to performing monkeys and grotesque masks, were all produced and highly popular in the 1st-2nd centuries.

Terracotta was the most commonly used material for oil lamps, but other mediums were used. Examples exist of lamps formed in bronze, glass, silver and gold. The latter materials were most likely ornamental or votive, the fragility of the material making it hard to use as an everyday object. Silver and gold examples were also melted down in antiquity, the precious metals highly values. Bronze examples were far more popular and were most likely the inspiration for terracotta lamps, with alterations made for societies demands. The dating of bronze lamps is more problematic than terracotta lamps due to the longevity of the material. Bronze lamps existed from the 8th century BC to the 7th century AD, showing the immense popularity and function of such lamps.

The humble oil lamp, lighting the way for antiquities’ societies, documents not only artisitic trends but religious and sociological. As a relatively inexpensive item, that was needed within the home, they offer a unique insight into how everyday society functioned, from the lower classes to the elite.

Roman Bronze Oil Lamp
roman terracotta ‘plastic’ lamp monkey
roman terracotta multi-nozzle oil lamp

Ancient Oil Lamps

At Ancient & Oriental, we stock a wide range of artefacts from most ancient cultures and time periods, including ancient oil lamps. If you’re looking to buy authentic antiquities from the UK’s leading dealer, with our own certification and authenticity guaranteed, please look around our online shop or call +44 (0)20 8364 4565 if you’d like us to source a specific item.

By Anastasia,

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