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Sunday, April 5, 2020

Oil Lamps: Bringing Light To The Ancient World

Cross post from my blog "Antiquities Exhibits." The first manufactured red pottery oil lamps appeared during the Chalcolithic Age (4500-3300 BCE. These were of the round bowl type. These evolved into wheel-made lamps during the Bronze Age (3200-1200 BCE). These lamps were essentially a shallow bowl with slight pinches on four sides for the wick and featured little or no decoration. In the Iron Age (1200-560 BCE) lamp rims became wider and flatter with a deeper and higher spout and shapes began to vary. Lamps also became more closed to avoid spilling.

During the early Roman period, molds were used to produce lamps in large scale factories. The lamp was produced in two parts, the upper part with the spout and the lower part with the fuel chamber. Most were round with nozzles of different forms (volute, semi-volute, U shaped), with a closed body and with a central disk decorated with reliefs and its filling hole. However, more simple factory-made lamps, known as Firmalampen, made in factories in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE featured a channeled nozzle, plain discus, and 2 or 3 bumps on the shoulder, and were exported to the provinces.

 By the early imperial period, lamps sported spiral, scroll-like ornaments (volutes) extending from their nozzles, a wide discus, a narrow shoulder and no handle, elaborate imagery and artistic finishing, as well as a wide range of patterns of decoration. A regional lamp in the shape of a frog was exclusively produced in Egypt between c. 100 and 300 CE. The frog (Heqet) is an Egyptian fertility symbol. By the late Roman period , lamps known as the high imperial type with multiple nozzles began to appear. However, lamps produced for the masses were characterized by wider shoulders, but with a smaller discus and fewer decorations. The lamps still had handles but featured short plain nozzles with less overall artistic finishing. By the Byzantine period, slipper-shaped, highly decorated oil lanterns became more widely used and the use of multiple-nozzles continued.

Roman bronze oil lamp 1st - 2nd century BCE photographed at the British Museum in London.

Bronze lamp in the shape of a Nubian head in the collections of the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli in Naples, Italy photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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