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Section: Ancient Lamps
Page 6 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.

burning before the cow-shaped sarcophagus of Mycerenus (Menkara) at the same place; and then writes, quite as a matter of course, of evening being the time for lamps,—" and about the time for lighting lamps." It is clear, then, that this mode of lighting was known to the ancient Egyptians of the new empire, and it is recorded that lamps were employed in illuminations by Cleopatra; but it is certainly very strange that specimens have not been found wholesale in tombs in Egypt, where so much of the pottery of daily life was stored for the use of the defunct in the fields of Aalu; but perhaps it was imagined that there is no darkness there. In these. tombs, from a very early period, consisting as they do of a series of subterranean chambers and passages all richly frescoed, the artists must have had a good artificial light to have been able to do their delicate work; and had torches been used they would have left indelible traces of their presence on the ceilings, which were often low, but nothing of the kind is to be seen in any freshly-opened tomb, unpolluted by the modem savant or tourist. How, then, were these sepulchres lighted when in course of construction and decoration? The prehistoric strata of ancient Greek cities that have been excavated, such as Tiryns and Mycenae, have not yielded any vessels that can be identified as lamps, while numberless examples of the conventional forms have been unearthed above these deposits. The sites of temples and shrines would have yielded many more examples of pottery but for the practice of the breaking up and clearing away of votive offerings periodically by the attendants; thus, older specimens have only been preserved in these buildings in cases where they had become covered with earth or rubbish. Numerous lamps have been recovered in Christian sepulchres.

These utensils and candelabra are referred to in the writings of Pherekrates, a comic Athenian poet, who lived in the time of Pericles (B.C. 470-29), and who is quoted by Athenaeus. The myths themselves supply some evidence bearing on the antiquity, or rather perhaps on the popular use, of lamps in Greece, for in the early one of Demeter (Ceres) the goddess is always represented carrying a torch, her definite attribute, when seeking for her daughter Persephone (Proserpine), while in illustrations of later myths the lamp appears. There is no evidence that the early Britons ever got beyond the torch for illuminating purposes, though in Britain, as elsewhere, it may be that some of the clay vessels found had been used for the purposes of oil-lamps ; but if so they are without spouts or nozzles, for no marks of the action of fire, such as so freely appear on the blackened and burnt nozzles of terra-cotta specimens, are discernible on any spouted vessels in any way suitable for the purpose. The earliest form of lamp was probably a vessel more or less annular, with a floating wick, arid thus without nozzle or lip; and the use of such a utensil may possibly go back to very ancient times. Herodotus states in book ii. that at the festival of the lighting of lamps already referred to, held at Sais and all over Egypt, flat vessels filled with salt and oil, on which a wick floated, were used for the purpose of illumination, and that they burned all night, and in the open air. We may probably infer from this that it is only the comparatively later lamps which have nozzles, and that the earlier ones were formed as Herodotus describes; and here we have perhaps the reason why no lamps with nozzles, that is, vessels that have been identified as having been used for lighting purposes, have been found in the earlier deposits or in tombs. Many lamps were kept burning at shrines, and the legends regarding certain sepulchral lamps, referred to by Pliny and others, which burned for a long time without any renewal of oil, may have some slight foundation in fact, and the addition of some sort of salt, as mentioned by Herodotus, possibly had the virtue of rendering the mixture slow-burning; but if so, it must have been at the expense of the illuminating power.

Continued ...

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