Lux Lucerna


10 Significant Lamps

Ten lamps that chronicle the development of the lamp across two millennia



From the Early Bronze Age a ‘pinch’ starts to appear in the rim of some pottery bowls.  This rudimentary wick rest denotes the first vessels that can be identified with certainty as lamps.  Over the years the pinched wick rest slowly became more pronounced until the most prevalent and lasting form was achieved, namely, the saucer lamp with its long, tight wick rest and folded sides. 

These lamps spread throughout the Mediterranean
 world and were the dominant type during the first
 millennium BC

Early Saucer Lamp - Middle Bronze Age - wheel-turned-
Pale orange/buff fabric.
From Judaea.
L. 14.8 cm, W. 14.8 cm, H. 5.7 cm.



At first, lamps in Greece closely mirrored the Near Eastern saucer lamps.  However, sometime in the late seventh century BC a fundamental development in the lamp’s design took place that was to determine the basic shape of all future lamps.  This was the introduction of the enclosed  nozzle. 

By about the sixth century BC the classic form of the lamp
with its round bowl, incurving rim and enclosed nozzle had been

Greek lamp - late 4th century B.C. - wheel-turned -
Howland type 25A - from Athens.
Brown fabric with chocolate brown slip both inside and out.  No slip on base and ring around rim scratched clear of slip. 
L. 9 cm (exc. handle), W. 5.8 cm, H. 3.8 cm.



For as long as lamps were made upon the potter’s wheel their shape was always going to be restricted.  Then sometime in the third century BC, moulds were first used to make lamps.  This enabled elaborate decoration and sometimes bizarre shapes to be created.  Amongst the many forms that these lamps took, multi-nozzled lamps were very popular. 
Also popular were plastic lamps, i.e. lamps that take the
 likeness of some object either animate or inanimate.

The Hellenistic lamp remained in vogue from the third
century BC through to the first century AD.  Even after
this, they remained popular in certain areas, long after
the arrival of other forms of lamp

Hellenistic lamp - Second half of 1st century B.C. - mould-made -
From Italy.
Orange/buff fabric with black slip.  Vine tendril with leaf and grape motif.  Five punch marks within base ring.
L. 12.9 cm, W. 13.2 cm, H. 5.4 cm.



The transformation from wheel-turned to mould-made did not take place quickly.  Even when a lamp maker did begin to use moulds, this was no guarantee that the style of his lamps would also change.  At first, moulded lamps mimicked their wheel-turned counterparts and many early moulded lamps retain the heavy rounded look of wheel-turned lamps.  Sometimes it can be difficult to tell at a glance how such lamps have been made.  Some lamps had moulded bodies but nozzles and handles fashioned by hand.

Hellenistic lamp - late 3rd century B.C. - mould-made -
General shape of Howland type 34 but not wheel-made.
Pale fawn fabric with brick red slip over upper surface and splashed down undersides.  Seam visible between upper and lower moulded halves, including nozzle.
L. 14.4 cm, W. 10.6 cm, H.4.8cm.



At some point during the second half of the first century BC Italian lamp makers began to produce moulded lamps with upper surfaces that were almost entirely concave.  This discus, as it is commonly called, was intended to provide a better funnel for getting the oil into the reservoir.  Lamp makers quickly realized that the discus was also an ideal area for decorative detail.  Discus designs were at first modest, often only comprising a single device but soon they became very elaborate and included a wide repertoire of themes. 

The Roman Imperial discus lamp was to prove highly
popular and was to become widespread throughout
the Roman Empire. 

Roman Imperial Lamp - 1st century A.D. - mould-made -
Bailey type D(iii or v) - probably from Italy.
Fawn fabric with orange-red slip.  Discus motif of a maenad with tambourine facing right.  Elaborate leaf-like decoration upon raised triangular handle. Tip of lamp’s left nozzle restored.
L. 16.8 cm, W. 8.5 cm, H. 6.2 cm.



So named because it was produced in such vast numbers, the ubiquitous factory lamp seems to have been popular with the Roman military, especially in the provinces of Europe.   All factory lamps had in common a flat, steep-sided discus and two or three lugs upon the rim.  The later of the two distinct types also had a pronounced channel connecting the discus to the wick hole.  There were few concessions to artistic design,
masks of actors upon the discus being
the most frequently occurring motifs.

Cheap, mass-produced and comparing unfavourably
in looks to the contemporary decorative discus
lamp, this lamp was nonetheless supremely practical and
highly successful.

Factory Lamp - 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. - mould-made -
Bailey type N(iii) - probably from Fortis workshop at Modena, North Italy.
Orange fabric with dark orange-red slip.  Discus motif of the god Jupiter-Ammon.  Maker’s mark - FORTIS - upon base in relief.
L. 11.5 cm, W. 7.3 cm, H. 3.6 cm.



Despite the dominance of the Roman Imperial lamp, in some areas locally popular designs were produced that looked back to the Hellenistic style.  Such neo-Hellenistic lamps were particularly prevalent in Egypt and the Levant, two areas that sustained a lamp-producing industry that ran in parallel to the otherwise dominant manufacturing
output of the Roman Imperial lamp producers. 
Even so, production was much more limited and
these neo-Hellenistic lamps never achieved the
widespread popularity of their third to first century
BC predecessors

Neo-Hellenistic Lamp - 3rd to 4th centuries A.D. - mould-made -
Adler type BN.3 - from Judaea, possibly Beit-Natif.
Pale buff fabric with traces of dark red slip.  Quatrefoil knot pattern with dots upon nozzle and crescent pattern around rim.
L. 7.5 cm, W. 5.2 cm, H. 3 cm.



By the fourth century AD the influence of the Roman Imperial lamp had waned.  New styles began to appear, frequently unique to their countries of manufacture.  One very distinctive type to emerge from the Roman province of Africa was the red slipware lamp.  Made from a distinctive red clay and sometimes quite large, these lamps came to be characterized by the applied motifs that decorated a channel running round the flat rim..

The African red slipware lamp was widely exported, finding
that it could fill the gap left by the Roman Imperial lamp. 
It was also copied in many of the provinces of the
Empire.  It had a very long history and production may not
have ended until the Arabic invasion of Africa in the seventh
century AD

Late Imperial Lamp - 5th to 6th centuries A.D. - mould-made -
Hayes type II red slipware lamp - from Africa.
Dark orange fabric with applied motif of well-dressed figure upon discus and applied motifs of diamonds and flowers within rim panels.
L. 14 cm, W. 8.8 cm, H. 5.2 cm.




Pottery lamps, however decorative, were always the poor relations to lamps made from bronze.  Bronze lamps were more durable, more expensive and therefore more desirable.  Not surprisingly, pottery lamps frequently sought to mimic them.  This mimicry took many forms.  Often pottery lamps were fired to a dark, nearly black finish that approximated metalwork but other subtle stylistic devices were also used.  For example, the bound rod handles of metal lamps were replicated in clay.  Other frequently
occurring elements were the inclusion of mock
suspension hooks and the rivets that would have held
the two halves of a metal lamp together. 

Many of these stylistic conventions had very long lives,
some up to hundreds of years, so that eventually their
original purpose was probably forgotten by the lamp
makers of later days

2nd-1st century B.C. - mould-made -
Howland type 40A - from Cnidus.
Dark grey fabric with applied twin leaf motifs and ‘bound rod’ handle.
L. 8.5 cm, W. 5.2 cm, H. 4.5 cm.
Old label on base - CNIDUS.Lamp c.150-75 B.C. G.12. Arthur.



From the 4th century AD onwards the Late Imperial lamps of the Near East were influenced by Persian and Arabic geometric styles.  As the boundaries of the eastern Empire shifted back and forth, the distinctions became increasingly blurred.  Thus, when much of the East and Africa was conquered by the Muslims, the design and decoration of lamps initially altered very little.  Typically, Islamic lamps shunned the discus in favour of complex and overwhelming geometric motifs upon the lamp body.  The lamp assumed a pointed profile and high handles were common. 

Eventually, glazes became popular instead of decoration
and the lamps started to assume a more upright and at
times jug-like nature.  Many became more open, like the
saucer lamps of pre-history.  Lamps of this type were
being produced in the East well into the Middle Ages

Islamic Lamp - 12th to 13th centuries A.D. - mould-made -
Adler type IS.3 - from Israel.
Buff fabric with raised geometric pattern of lines and curves over upper body.
L.13 cm, W. 7.5 cm, H. 5 cm.


Greek lamp with open reservoir - 6th century B.C.

Hellenistic ‘Ephesus’ lamp - early 2nd-1st centuries B.C.

Saucer lamp - second half of 1st millennium B.C.

Roman Imperial lamp with ‘ears’, i.e. mock suspension hooks - second half 1st-early 2nd centuries A.D.

Roman mid-Imperial lamp from Africa - late 2nd-3rd centuries A.D.

Early type factory lamp (Bailey type N (i) - last third 1st century A.D.

Neo-Hellenistic lamp from Israel - 1st-mid 2nd centuries A.D.

Islamic lamp from the Levant -
6th-8th centuries A.D

Aswan relief ware lamp from Egypt - second half 5th century A.D.


If you have enjoyed this very brief survey of the lamp's history, you might like to find out more by ordering a copy of Lighting the Ancient World.  Copies can be obtained from



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