“I love lamp”: The Functionality of the Humble Terracotta Oil Lamp

How ancient oil lamps functioned on a practical level can be easy to overlook. Artificial light has been around for a long time and today requires little effort on our part to produce – thanks to electricity. However, when the ability to produce and control artificial light first began it must have felt like quite an accomplishment. Around the ancient Mediterranean, various tools were used for producing artificial light for when the sun had set. The most popular portable tool, surpassing torches, was the oil lamp. Lamp sherds have been found in many excavation sites and can be useful for dating purposes. Those that are decorated have been studied for their symbolic and decorative functions, especially within religious contexts. To showcase the humble oil lamp, I’ve brought in examples from our Fuller collection. The three lamps in our collection offer a glimpse of lamp variation found around the Mediterranean.

The requirements of an oil lamp are pretty minimal – a container for fuel, the fuel itself, a wick to burn and feed fuel to a flame, and a continuous air supply. The very first lamps may have been made with any kind of non-flammable material which could hold fuel – a rock with an impression in it, a shell, etc. Eventually following the advent of pottery for eating and storage, oil lamps were made fashioned out of clay and fired. They became a cheap and practical form of illumination and were used by every level of society. That being said, distribution among archaeological sites differs, including sites that contain little to no lamp remains at all. Out of the many fragments that have been found, it is clear that lamps came in many sizes and a range of shapes.

A couple years ago, two archaeologists decided to take part in some experimental archaeology. Ameera Elrasheedy and Daniel Schindler decided to investigate the functionality of lamps. They chose two common wheel-made types from a site that they were working on, Tel Kedesh. For the experiment they started by having a potter make an open lamp (a “saucer” lamp) and a closed lamp. A closed lamp is named as such because it has a specific hole for pouring in fuel, and lacks the saucer-like shape of an open lamp.


Phoenician double spouted open lamp (700-600 B.C.E), George Fuller collection.

Next they looked at fuel and wicks, which depended upon availability. Around the Mediterranean this was most likely olive oil. Wicks could have been made out of any material that was fibrous such as oakum (poor quality flax), linen, papyrus, mullein, and castor plant fibres. Elrasheedy and Schindler chose oakum to keep to the region and they also experimented with sheep and goat wool. However, these last two would not stay lit, even when dipped in oil, and let off an odour most foul! After sticking with flax (which is also mentioned by Pliny in his Natural Histories to be a good choice for a wick), they tested spun and unspun fibres in varying sizes.

The testers wished to know how easily the wick would light; what type of flame each wick would produce; what the burn time was (using one ounce of fuel); and what the amount of light emitted by each lamp using the best wick. They found that a 10 mm in diameter wick produced the largest flame and a spun wick burned longer than an unspun one, making it more efficient. After testing the 10mm spun wick out on both lamps, Elrasheedy and Schindler found the closed lamp to be the most useful. The closed nozzle allowed the flame to not travel down the wick, thereby using up less oil which could let the spun wick burn for 70 minutes, which is 5 minutes longer than in an open lamp.


Late Hellenistic or Herodian Lamp (c. 1st century CE), George Fuller collection.

Lest you think that once you lit a lamp that was all that needed to be done, the two testers noticed that the wick needed to be adjusted as it got shorter. The open lamp required the most attention in this regard. Overall, it is easy to see why closed lamps ended up supplanting open lamps. Despite requiring more skill and time to make, they were much more efficient. Depending on the model they also allowed for decoration on top. Lamp decoration started in the Hellenistic period and really came into its own during the Roman and Byzantine periods. In Palestine, after the rule of Herod, a type known as the Herodian lamp became popular in and around Jerusalem which reverted back to very little or no decoration, such as the one in our collection. Once the Second Jewish Revolt ended, round Roman lamps came into the region, to catch up with the rest of the Roman empire. Our collection contains two such lamps from North Africa. These round lamps allowed for a lot more decorative variation and depicted geometric patterns, animals, plants, and figures such as Fortuna and Helios.


Roman lamp, North Africa (3rd century C.E.), George Fuller collection.

So what did these lamps allow one to accomplish? Despite their relatively common occurrence, it doesn’t seem that lamps were very useful as a primary light source as they don’t create blanket illumination within a given space. Although lamps with more than one spout for multiple flames do exist (such as our Carthaginian lamp) that could give off more light, it is far-fetched to say this would have made an exceptional difference. They do seem to be good at supportive roles and for tasks like reading and writing. Tasks such as weaving, on the other hand, may have benefited from a greater light source. Lamps were useful for lighting bigger sources of light such as a candelabra. They were good at creating “atmosphere” and as a way to show off wall paintings and other household decoration. Small wall niches may attest to this. And of course, they could be simply used for getting around in the dark, hence their portability. When the sun has gone to bed, the ability to see a wall before you walk into it is a beautiful thing indeed.

For more information see:

Elrasheedy, A. & D. Schindler (2015). Illuminating the Past: Exploring the Function of Ancient Lamps. Near Eastern Archaeology 78. 36-42.

Gardner, G. E. (2014). City of Lights: The Lamps of Roman and Byzantine Jerusalem. Near Eastern Archaeology 77. 284-290.

Sussman, Varda (2007). Oil-Lamps in the Holy Land: Saucer lamps : From the Beginning to the Hellenistic Period: Collections of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Vol. 1598. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Zhuravlev, D. ed. (2002). Fire, Light and Light Equipment in the Graeco-Roman World. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1019. Oxford: The Basingstoke Press.


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