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Section: Ancient Lamps
Page 13 of 14Last updated: 12 April 2008

On Terra-cotta Lamps
On Terra-cotta Lamps

An Edwardian Article - from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, December 10, 1906.

Robert Coltman Clephan, FSA Scot.

lamp is very characteristic of the style of art of the new empire. Fig. 19 is a double lamp in black ware from Alexandria. The handle is annular, and each twin lamp has a long nozzle. It is enriched with a geometrical design. I have not seen another of the kind. These examples are in my own collection. The Greek A is stamped on the bottoms of many, specimens found in Egypt, a circumstance perhaps suggestive of there having been a considerable lamp-making industry at Alexandria.

Among the specimens from Egypt in the British Museum, all belonging to the late Greek or Roman and Christian periods, are the following :—Lamps formed as busts of Osiris and Serapis ; an elephant's and a Nubian's head; an example from the Fayum, of fine red paste, has a heart-shaped handle, a lug on each side of the receiver, and stands on a pedestal fashioned as a full figure of Bes, about 5 inches in height. Another example from the same province represents the figure of Minerva standing in her bath, a specimen probably of Roman origin. Some lamps from Coptos have the covers of the receivers modelled as frogs, like figs. 16 and 17. There are two specimens with ten lights each, one of them shaped rectangularly, the other formed as a triangle, another annular with six lights. On one example the name of St Mark the evangelist is moulded in relief. The sizes of the lamps in the collection vary greatly, one being no more than an inch long, and another with two nozzles measures only about 2 inches from end to end, while others are, if I remember rightly, as much as 10 inches in length.

The great majority of lamps found in Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor are shoe-shaped, with usually a much larger filling-hole than that present in annular examples; but many, more especially those from Judaea, have receivers almost semicircular in form, with very long nozzles. The paste used in Palestine is mostly of a light red or a yellowish-brown colour, but not to the exclusion of shades both lighter and darker.

The Jews, who were a pastoral and nomadic people, did not excel in pottery; and their decorative work, which is distributed over the usually somewhat convex tops of the receivers, exhibits great poverty of design, consisting often of merely a few parallel lines or concentric circles. The subjects are symbolic, almost to the exclusion of the human figure, probably partly owing to the Mosaic law against graven images; and enrichment first begins after the commencement of the Christian era, when symbolism in contradistinction to individuality soon became the motive force of early Christian art representation. As the multiplication of the mythological subjects delineated on Roman lamps demonstrates the decay of what we call Paganism, for want of a better word, so do the early emblems of Christianity register the hunted beginnings and progress of the newer faith; for the earlier symbolic forms are merely suggestive,—the cross, for instance, being only indicated by its extremities, though it must be remarked that the simple cross was but rarely used as a monumental Christian symbol before the fifth or sixth century. These emblems gradually expand during and after the reign of Constantine into the full symbols of Christianity, such as a fish, one of the earliest; the ship; the Agnus Dei; the palm bough; the dove and the olive branch; the monogram of our Saviour, or Chi-Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ;[4] and eventually the full cross. The hooked cross, the fylfot or swastika, is found on a few early specimens, but this emblem is a form of the cross going far behind the Crucifixion, and its very ambiguity perhaps recommended it to the infant Church, subjected as it was to so much persecution. This form of cross has been found at the supposed site of Troy (Hissarlik), Tiryns, and Mycenae, besides being a Buddhist symbol, much in evidence in the recent expedition to Thibet. It is an ancient emblem in Greek art, and would appear to be the symbol of some very ancient divinity. It is often present on 

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