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The story of ancient oil lamps

     Terracotta baked clay pottery was made and used throughout the Middle east and was produced in the earliest settlements along the Fertile Crescent where the clay was abundant and varied in color. The early potters had ample resources which to experiment, create and develop their styles. The pottery was made as a fairly course, porous clay that when fired, assumes a color ranging from dull ochre to red and was usually left unglazed. Most terracotta pottery has been utilitarian because of its cheapness, versatility and durability. As technique and firing methods improved, a great variety of shapes evolved. The most widely utilized pottery in the Ancient World was oil lamps, bottles, pitchers, bowls and plates, their basic shapes remaining unchanged for over a thousand years and still being used in today's modern world. The oil lamp was the source of light in every household, the bottles and pitchers were used to store wine, water, oils, spices, balm and the bowls and plates were used to eat from and hold foodstuff. Parts of a typical ancient lamp is the body, the oil, the top, rim, the nozzle, the wick hole and the handle.

To the ancients, the element of fire was looked upon as a great spiritual provider. They, as well as the other creatures had to share the same water sources and the fires enabled them to keep beasts at bay, kept them warm and roasted their food. Their observations of the interaction of the heat and damp soil (clay) in this environment quickly led to the development of various vessels of need such as saucer, urns and lamps. Their nights were no longer a time of fear and uncertainty.

During this period dating back to 25,000 3,000 BC the clay lamp designs developed very slowly. A simple saucer of fish oil, animal fat or vegetable oil in the center supplied with a woven fibrous wick could give ample light to a small room. Eventually these saucers were modified with pinched sides for wick rests and easier spillage control of the fuel.

The general style and construction remained relatively the same until about the 4th or 5 BC. During this period, the bodies of the clay lamps began to close over the top and finally by 300 BC almost all lamps were of the closed body type.

As time progressed, artists began embellishing these enclosed vessels with nozzles, handles, and decorative designs as their function dictated. The manufacture, style and artistic expression, from this period forward, advanced rapidly and many diverse examples exist.

An oil lamp like this plus several others would have been used to light up a home in Roman times. In ancient Greece and Rome, most lamps would have been filed with olive oil. A wick made of cotton or flax would have been placed in the smaller whole most lamps were made of terra cotta or clay, some were made of bronze, and even gold. It was the woman's responsibility to keep the home fires burning. A filled lamp would burn for about 10 hours, a light brighter than a candle, but still dim by our standards. I read they were about as bright as a 40 watt bulb. Very early lamps, bronze age, were clay bowls with pinched sides, even large shells were used, later there were several different round shapes, then elongated, some were plain and other had very elaborate designs or pictorials. The mention of bees or honey in Greek and Roman mythology is common. The Roman goddess Mellona was the protector of bees. On the summit of Mount Olympus, home of the gods, honey nectar was served as the favored drink. According to mythology, bees nourished Jupiter, The Roman god of the universe. The bee was also the emblem of cupid.

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Ancient oil lamps can be purchased at our online antiquities store

Posted on 2007-04-30, By: *

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