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Section: Ancient Lamps
Page 2 of 2Last updated: 13 April 2008

Flashing Blades and Desert Islands

Roman volute lamps: The conversion of real scenes into fake ones

David Knell

Another misunderstanding is revealed in the second example of a fake lamp. Again, the fake lamp on the right is a copy of the real lamp on the left. The real lamp on the left depicts an altar with a caduceus leaning to the left behind it. But this is a late provincial lamp made from a worn mould. Earlier lamps clearly show a palm-branch crossing the caduceus and leaning to the right behind the altar. The only remnant of the palm-branch shown on this later lamp is the stalk, a faint diagonal line to the left of the altar.

Left: Roman lamp, probably Balkans, late 1st century AD   Right: Fake lamp

The fake lamp on the right omits the palm-branch altogether - even the stalk - because the faker copying an example of the later lamp did not realise what the faint diagonal line was.

A more surprising mistake made by the faker is that he did not recognise the caduceus, a rather well-known symbol, and appears to have interpreted it as a Roman toilet-brush.

The altar itself has also been mangled. Even the altar depicted on real lamps is frequently misidentified by those who fondly fancy they can see a Roman thatched cottage (perhaps raised on stilts rather like a Malay hut?). But what appears to be a thatched roof is in fact merely the flames rising from a burnt offering and the "stilts" are simply the feet of the altar.

Although only three feet are shown, the pronounced corner running vertically above the central foot on the real lamp makes it clear that the altar is three-dimensional, probably square, with one foot at each corner; it is being viewed at an angle.

The altar on the fake lamp however is two-dimensional and the originally rectilinear spaces between the feet have become a pair of high arches, rather like doorways, suggesting that the faker too subscribed to the popular fantasy that this object was indeed a thatched cottage. Perhaps he saw the caduceus as a leaning palm tree behind it, completing the tropical idyll?

Thus, on these two lamps a defeated combatant has become a swashbuckling infant-prodigy and a prosaic altar has become a Caribbean paradise. If the market for fake lamps ever dries up it seems likely that the fakers could find sparkling new careers as Hollywood scriptwriters.


1. Discarding or lowering the shield was typically the first signal of surrender.

2. Since gladiators typically held their shield with their left hand this gesture emphasised that they were no longer holding it.

3. It is incongruous because he is already displaying the secondary signs of submission, such as holding the sword out to the side and beginning to kneel, whereas discarding or lowering the shield should have come first.

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