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Wednesday 5 October 2011

Oil Lamps- Lighting Antiquity

Lighting has always been important throughout the history of mankind. A long time ago our ancestors began finding ways to "illuminate their lives" - and one way they did this was with elaborate oil lamps.

The oil lamp is an old invention, the earliest date from between 15,000 to 12,000 BC. They have been found in Egypt, dating to around 4,000 BC. The Eygyptians used them not only to illuminate their houses, but also in death rituals and other religious ceremonies as a means of purification.

Historical records reveal that in ancient Greece a famous large oil lamp called Callimachos (Καλλίμαχος in Greek) “The golden lamp” was kept in Acropolis and burned daily with only one refill of oil per year. Adopted by the Romans, oil lamps spread across the Roman Empire and this is how they came to Europe. In Roman Britain lamp usage is strongly linked to military sites and large urban centres.

Pottery oil lamp - BATRM1985.324.2
A lamp has an oil chamber to contain the fuel, a filling-hole to introduce the oil, a nozzle and a wick-hole to hold the wick (the most frequently used wick-material was probably linen as it was quite soft and fibrous). In order to create a lamp, the ancient craftsman needed to construct an “archetype” of fired clay which would exhibit the shape and all the details both decorative and functional. When the “archetype” was finished it was fired ready for the mould to be taken. Wet plaster was poured around, and when it had hardened, registration hollows were cut out.

The decoration could vary…deities, myths and legends, scenes from everyday life, animals, chariot racing etc. The maker was free to play with the design and create new patterns but would often place his or the workshop’s name on the underside of the lamp (this has proved to be very helpful for archaeologists when trying to identify the date or place of a lamp’s production).

Metal oil lamp - BATRM1986.22.2
So, next time you visit a museum and you come across these small objects, look closer at the patterns, try to identify their different parts, and think about how important they were to our ancestors.

I found a very interesting museum in Portugal dedicated to oil lamps. For more information: http://en.lifecooler.com/lifecooleren/oil-lamp-museum-museums-382661-1.html

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