RomQ Reference Collection of Ancient Lamps

Catalogue Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Introduction | Collection | Policy


Basic lighting in ancient times was provided by fires and torches, and candles gave a more refined form from at least as early as the Roman period. But the lamp was by far the most sophisticated means of lighting and had become ubiquitous in most of the Mediterranean world by the end of the first millennium BC.

A lamp consists essentially of a vessel to contain the fuel and a place where the wick can burn. That simple requirement evolved from an elementary open bowl where the wick rested on the rim to highly efficient devices in which both the fuel reservoir and nozzle were enclosed and decorated. Olive oil appears to have been the most popular fuel for lamps in the Mediterranean, although other types of oil were also used. Wicks required a capillary ability and could be made from materials such as linen, papyrus and other fibrous matter.

Ancient lamps varied according to how, where and when they were produced and the market they were intended for. They could be ornate or plain, and were fashioned from several materials, ranging from gold for the very rich to silver, bronze, iron, lead, stone, glass and clay. Pottery lamps are by far the commonest survivals and it is by no means unusual for several hundred to emerge in a single excavation. Occasionally, even thousands are found in one location (over 4,000 at Corinth alone). The earliest clay lamps were modelled by hand or thrown on a wheel; they were also being made in moulds by the third century BC and this innovation became the dominant method of manufacture for the next thousand years. While pottery lamps could attain the highest standards in art and design, reaching perhaps their zenith in the Italian lamps of the first century AD and the Greek lamps of a century or two later, they were largely cheap and mass-produced, and many were clearly regarded as disposable commodities, the "throw-away" products of their day. Those lamps made of bronze and related alloys tend to be comparatively rare, partly because they were more expensive than their pottery counterparts at the time (an example at Pompeii was found inside the owner's strongbox) and also because the intrinsic value of their metal resulted in most being melted down in later periods.

Decoration on wheelmade pottery lamps was necessarily limited but the artistic potential introduced by the use of moulds was gradually exploited. Not satisfied with mere surface designs, imaginative makers occasionally formed nearly the whole lamp into a fanciful plastic shape; human or animal heads, sandalled feet and pine-cones were popular. With the adoption of a large discus, or concave upper surface, as a standard feature of pottery lamps towards the end of the first century BC, a new and ideal area for display was presented. Raised decoration here was not restricted to simple abstract or vegetal motifs but could depict fairly detailed scenes, including gladiatorial combat, circus races, mythological episodes, theatrical themes, deities, animals, objects, townscapes, daily life and erotic images.

Another advantage of mould production was the ability to reproduce inscriptions in quantity. The base of a lamp was quite often utilised to display the name or mark of its maker, serving as a form of trademark and advertisement, and other inscriptions, typically of a religious nature on later examples, occasionally appeared elsewhere. The benefits of mass manufacture, however, did not always stint diversity or the development of practical aspects. Many lamps incorporated a handle, sometimes heavily ornamented, for ease of carrying; a few had two or more nozzles, adjacent to each other or at opposite ends, to increase the amount of light supplied; and some were provided with pierced lugs so that they could be suspended by chains.

The lamp making industry operated on a large scale in some areas and the output was very often intended at least as much for export as for home consumption. A few places in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Asia Minor, were major exporters during Hellenistic times and the trend for international trade continued under Roman rule, although dominance had shifted westwards by the first century AD, when enormous quantities of the newly fashionable Italian lamps with large discuses and voluted nozzles were being shipped throughout the empire. The so-called "factory lamp", a plain but supremely functional design invented in northern Italy during the Flavian period, was another style which became highly successful and it was very much intended to appeal to a mass market far beyond its centre of manufacture; the products of Modena-based makers such as Fortis, Strobilus and Communis spread across Europe, where they were soon copied or made by branch workshops. By the middle of the following century, the lead in export had been taken by North Africa and the lamps of prolific makers like Marcus Novius Justus or Caius Junius Draco were to be found not only in remote provinces but in Italy itself.

Lamps could perform a variety of functions: in addition to everyday domestic or commercial use, they were employed to light up arenas and theatres at night, they were a common feature in temples, where they were not only fixtures but also brought by worshippers as votive offerings, and they played an important role as tomb furniture. The same type of lamp could be used for any of these purposes and there seldom seems to be any relation between the scene depicted on a lamp and the use to which it was put.

Light has always been an inspiration and it is small wonder that lamps have acquired a symbolic significance; they were regarded as a metaphor for life, learning and enlightenment in ancient days and they remain so today, serving as academic, philosophical, religious and heraldic emblems. Ancient lamps have been admired for over four hundred years their designs were copied during the Renaissance and they have been collected and studied since at least the early seventeenth century. Pioneer works such as Liceti's De lucernis antiquorum reconditis (Venice, 1621) and Bellori and Bartoli's Le Antiche Lucerne (Rome, 1691) were precursors of the specialised field of lychnology and the vast corpus of knowledge assembled today.

Lamps are of great interest to the art historian because of the representations on many of them and an invaluable tool to the archaeologist because of their use in dating a site. A typology has been created over the years building on the pioneering research of scholars like Siegfried Loeschcke but there is much beyond that. Lamps can provide an excellent vehicle to investigate various aspects of life in ancient societies including manufacturing methods, clay distribution, workshop organisation, commerce, trade routes, import/export customs, religious values, propaganda, inter-societal influences, plagiarism, trademarking, fuel use, and so on.

RomQ Reference Collection

The RomQ Reference Collection is quite small but reasonably comprehensive, including examples of many of the commonest lamps from the beginning of pottery types some 4,000 years ago up to those of the Middle Ages. Only a few of the lamps are noteworthy but the basis of the assembly was to be representative rather than qualitative. The online catalogue is arranged along conventional typological lines, with the lamps in roughly regional or chronological order within the divisions. There are clearly limitations entrenched in that system but it adequately serves the purpose of a brief catalogue.

The collection comprises over 180 items, most of which are displayed online. Some of the accompanying descriptions are merely perfunctory at present and it is hoped that they will be fleshed out in the future. Visitors are welcome to download and re-use the images for any non-commercial use, including on their own website. Acknowledgement to the RomQ Reference Collection would be appreciated.


The core of the collection was formed many decades ago and added to since. The acquisition of material is now static; attention is focused on study and research.

In the early days it was easy to be certain that the lamps acquired had come from even older collections but over the years it has become far more difficult to distinguish between those and lamps that might have been excavated more recently. Due to that difficulty and a desire not to contribute, even unknowingly, to a destruction of the archaeological record caused by modern illicit excavations, any further acquisition would have to comply with the relevant section and points in the revised Code of Ethics adopted by the Museums Association (UK) and published in 2008.


David Knell
December 2008


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