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Section: Ancient Lamps
Page 14 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.

Cyprian pottery. Many lamps have words or phrases of a religious character stamped in Greek characters along their margins. An example of this kind, found at Tiberias, is copied on fig. 20. It is shoe-shaped, of a coarse friable light grey earth, bearing the epigraph in relief, in debased Greek, reading in translation—"The Light of Christ shines for all." Fig. 21 is a Christian lamp also found at Tiberias. It is shoe-shaped, of a light yellowish paste, and enriched with a Greek cross. The receiver contains a small finger-bone. Fig. 22 is a lamp found at Gezer, of unusual form, the funnel-shaped filling-hole standing up half an inch beyond the receiver, which is built up in concentric sections. These examples are in my collection. All lamps found in sepulchres are, as far as I have seen, almost white, or with traces of a covering of pipeclay, or a slip of fine white clay; and it seems probable that, like the white lekytlii, they were made specially for funeral purposes. Greek sepulchres always contain some objects made purposely for them, and passages in wills have been found mentioning the personal possessions which the deceased would wish to have buried with them. Some of the vessels found in tombs had been made so thin as to do no more than bear their own weight. In ancient Egypt the making of mortuary articles was an important branch of trade, and some of the papyri found in sepulchres proved on unwinding to be mere jargon, and even sometimes blank,—rolled and prepared thus to save -trouble and expense, in the expectation that the fraud would never be discovered.

Cyprus is noted for its ceramics, and the island is rich in suitable clays for producing it—a black and a red earth or frit. Great numbers of terra-cotta lamps have been found among the ruins of its ancient cities, such as Salamis and Idalium, more especially by General di Cesnola in 1866,. and later by Major A. P. di Cesnola, and their forms vary greatly. The very early open lamps unearthed in this island have been already mentioned. Fig. 23, a Cyprian lamp, in my collection, is a Greek type of a rare form. It is of a dark, red paste, annular receiver, large oil-hole, long semicircular handle fashioned (o appear pivoted on either side in the centres of the sides of the body, like the handle of a pail, and reaching out horizontally half an inch beyond it. Among the lamps found on the island are the following:—A specimen formed as a human foot, with an Eros reclining on the instep; another, the grinning head of a Nubian woman, with an earring of gold. One showing Silenus lying on an amphora, his hand pointing to his mouth. Some of the early lamps exhibit marked traces of Phoenician influence ; but this people were remarkable rather as agents for distribution than for independent designing.

Babylonian and Assyrian lamps are most frequently of a light grey or a yellowish paste, but they are occasionally met with in red ware; and examples have been found, though rarely, covered with a thin film of blue glaze. Their length is usually from 1½ to 5 or 6 inches, and the forms are both annular and shoe-shaped, with handles and without. Those from Nimrud, on the Tigris, assume the shape of the head of a meerschaum pipe, deep bowl and long nozzle. Examples fashioned as animals and birds are not uncommon.



1. More probably the figure represents a cock, as emblematic of vigilance.

2. The modius or corn-measure is the attribute of the Chthonian or Telluric deities.

3. The remark applies to dynastic times only. The quality and design of predynastic pottery were better than any produced in later times in Egypt.

4. The sacred monogram occurs in a Roman villa at Frampton, in Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in Britain. A silver vessel found at Corstopitum, Corbridge, but now lost, also bears the monogram. This emblem assumes various forms at different periods.

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