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Section: Ancient Lamps
Page 2 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.

Great numbers of terra-cotta lamps have been found in Egypt, Magna Graecia, Sicily, Attica, the Isles of the Aegean, Cyprus, Asia .Minor, Carthage, Italy, and the provinces of the Roman empire generally. The earliest examples that can be identified, possibly those following on the " lampas" or torch of Homer, one of the winged steeds of Aurora, are open, the receivers annular in form, with a projecting rim and a spout or lip in one part of the circumference for laying in the end of the wick. Specimens of this kind have been found both in terra-cotta and black glazed ware; but this shape alone is far from being decisive as to age, for the uncovered-in form has been unearthed in Britain and other provinces of the Roman empire; and it continued in use among the peasantry, especially in Cyprus, for many ages, indeed up to comparatively recent times. An example, 4½ inches long, is illustrated in fig. 1. A lamp in the Black Gate Museum of this form, which belonged to Mr Robert Blair, F.S.A., one of the hon. secretaries of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was in use in India not many years ago. Some of these lamps date back perhaps as far as B.C. 600, possibly even earlier. This shape, which combines the necessary steadiness for carrying about and the flatness for setting down, forms the basis for all later designs; but with an open receiver the oil was apt to spill when the lamps were handled, and a covered-in body was soon seen to be desirable.

The form of the bulk of the lamps preserved is either annular or shoe-shaped ; the body or receiver of the first-named kind, which is the earlier, is covered in with a concave top, in or near the centre of which is a small hole for filling in the oil, and there is a nozzle for the wick, while in the case of the latter description the top of the receiver is usually more or less convex, and the filling-hole often much larger, or is itself placed in a small concavity, the wick-hole being in the toe-end of the shoe. These, in their order, may be roughly described as the Western and Eastern types. Some lamps assume fanciful forms, but there is really less variety of shape than might be expected over a period of a thousand years. Plugs or stoppers for the filling-holes were sometimes used, and specimens have been found, though rarely. Lamps are both plain and enriched with a subject in relief, or are decorated with floral or geometrical designs. The subject is more frequently restricted to one figure, especially in the case of the earlier specimens, this being in accordance with the then canon of art against any redundancy of ornamentation. The decorative work intended to relieve and embellish the subject, framing it, as it were, is characterised by extreme simplicity, and may even be described as formal and monotonous. It is used sparingly in the best periods, while the worst are characterised by a superabundance of enrichment, which ought to be strictly subordinate to the subject. Like other terra-cottas, lamps were often coloured, but this has mostly disappeared with the lapse of time. The reliefs and inscriptions upon pottery have proved invaluable in the making of history, and often at times when other records are scanty, for not only do they portray the manners, customs, and costumes of bygone ages, but they illustrate the mythologies and legends of those times, and the changes therein, besides outlining the rise of Christianity, with its later modifications and developments during the earlier stages.

Continued ...

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