Shine a Light

Written by David Parkhill, Assistant Collection Manager, Archaeology.

The need to extend daylight hours, for either pleasure or the day to day business of living, or earning that living, has always been with us. Before the advent of electricity, allowing a room to be illuminated with the simple flick of a switch, light was generally achieved by the use of either a candle or a lamp.  Candles, while being a far cheaper alternative to pottery oil lamps, did not provide the same amount of light, nor could the light be adjusted by trimming the wick, as was the case with lamps.


Artificial lighting was widespread throughout the Ancient Roman world and was either generated by candles or pottery lamps. Not only used in private and public buildings, lamps were also utilised in temples and as street lighting or ceremonies. Lamps have also been recovered from tombs, perhaps indicating their use as grave goods. An unintended use for the terracotta lamps is now offered to the archaeologist, allowing them to date sites by comparing manufacturing materials and styles.

A lamp is basically little more than a container to hold fuel, and a place to support a wick. The wick drew the fuel up into is fibres, providing illumination when lit, and having the capacity for reuse when the wick was trimmed. In the Mediterranean world, fuel usually took the form of olive oil, but nut oil or castor oil was also used, with the wicks made of linen, papyrus or some other fibrous material.  The very early lamps, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period, were probably little more than a shell or a depression in a rock that held a fuel source, likely animal fats, that was burned to produce a poor quality, smoke-filled light. Lamp manufacture evolved from these simple fuel containers to handmade items resembling saucers with up turned lips and a place for the wick, to wheel made and finally to mould made lamps.

Lamp mould, depicting an animal, ca fourth century AD. Queensland Museum
Detail of lamp mould, Queensland Museum

By their very nature, saucer lamps and wheel made lamps were generally devoid of decoration, but with the advent of mould made lamps the artistic nature of the maker could be expressed, and lamps become embellished with designs. The discus, or upper concave surface of the lamp, could be adorned with simple geometric patterns or incorporated elements of mythology as in the lamp seen in plate 2. The discus on this lamp has been adorned with a rabbit or hare eating berries or grapes. Both the hare and rabbit are features of Greco Roman mythology, symbolising romantic love, as well as, abundancy and fertility.  This lamp also has burn marks at the nozzle indicating use.

Lamp with mythological scene including animal, first century AD

In contrast to the used condition of the previous item is the lamp shown in plate 3. This lamp has no scorch or burn marks around the nozzle indicating a lack of use. Running along the edge of the discus is a wreath featuring oak leaves and acorns, symbols used to indicate military prowess and valour, or as a sign of clemency from an emperor.

Lamp with organic inspired central design, date unknown

Another popular motif in lamp decoration was the gladiator, and these were often sold as tourist items outside the arenas.  Plate 4a shows a helmeted gladiator in greaves (shin guards), and carrying a sword and shield. The lamp appears to depict a Thraex or Thracian gladiator, which is able to be identified by the armour and the protective covering on his sword arm. Depictions of gladiators were a common subject, and makers took care to represent them in great detail.

Lamp with gladiator, first century AD

Mould made lamps were formed in a mould. Moulds facilitated the speed and efficiency of lamp production. Moulds were usually formed out of clay or plaster, or carved from stone. They were made in two parts: a top and bottom.  The top part of the mould carried the inversed design intended for the discus or other parts of the upper lamp, the bottom part devoid of decoration and largely functional. Sheets of damp clay were pressed into both halves, and once dry, the mould was removed, and the two halves were joined together, and holes pierced into the clay, and a handle could be added, and a thin slip, or clay wash, was applied and the lamp was then fired in a kiln. The use of a mould also allowed for inscriptions such as makers marks to be easily added to the lamp base at the time of manufacture.

Underside detail showing the makers mark

However, lamp makers were not satisfied with just embellishing their lamps, but also turned their hand to the form of the lamp itself. Lamps took on the form of human or animal heads, feet, gladiator helmets and many other shapes.

Archaeologists see terracotta lamps as important artefacts, allowing them to date sites and record trade routes by comparing differing manufacturing materials and styles, as well as the manufactures themselves.

All items depicted in this blog are held in the Archaeology Collection of the Queensland Museum.

Join us as we celebrate National Archaeology Week with our special Meet our Curator sessions in the Discover Centre  Monday 15 – Friday 19 May 2017, 1pm – 2pm. Find out more on our website.

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