Lux Lucerna


The Importance of Lamps 

Fragile and in almost constant use, oil lamps were, like all household pottery, easily broken and therefore fairly short-lived. Archaeologists can come upon their discarded remains in almost every excavated level of the ancient Mediterranean world. However, unlike other household pottery, the style of lamps usually changed markedly over time, so that different types can easily be distinguished and dated. This in turn enables other artefacts to be dated when found in the same context as oil lamps. It is for this reason that much of the available literature on lamps concentrates upon cataloguing similarities and differences across large collections in an attempt to establish a chronological progression of lamp styles. Some might say that the principal importance of pottery lamps is their function as a dating tool for other more rare and valuable discoveries.

Yet this would be a narrow view; for pottery lamps are important artefacts in their own right. Though they are such mundane objects, they can tell us a surprising amount about the ancient world. The decorative scenes on Roman Imperial lamps, for example, give a detailed and often accurate picture of ancient life with their images of work, leisure and religion. They also provide tantalizing visual evidence of sculpture or architecture that is known to us from written sources but is otherwise no longer in existence. The workmanship of the lamps during different periods reveals the waxing and waning of the lamp as a work of art, and perhaps is even indicative of the importance placed upon the decorative arts as a whole. The extent and relationships of commercial networks can also be deduced from the dispersal of lamps around the Mediterranean world and its periphery. Indeed, for much of its history the lamp was, in its way, a benchmark of civilization itself, for it was the product of the urbanised and wealthy Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire. Beyond the boundaries of that Empire the scarcity of fuel and the traditions of more nomadic populations meant that the lamp frequently gave way to less sophisticated forms of lighting.

 So, while understanding the development of lamps is a fascinating study in its own right, their importance also extends to the information they provide on the many other aspects of ancient life.


Personification of Africa.  2nd century AD

The Christian Chi-Rho monogram.
5th - 6th centuries AD

To the archaeologist the main purpose of lamps may be as a dating tool for other more valuable artefacts.  This is to do lamps a disservice; as well as being objects of beauty in their own right, their importance also lies in what they can reveal about the ancient world.

The following extract  is taken from Lighting the Ancient World...




Mythological sphinx.
1st century AD

Chariot racing
1st century AD




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