|13 December 2004
Clay lamps in antiquity
Today as in antiquity, light has served the principle utilitarian function of illuminating dark spaces. It has also performed a symbolic role. In ancient times, people would leave votive lamps behind in tombs. Clay oil lamps would ultimately emerge as the most popular for satisfying the lighting needs of ancient peoples. They were comparatively easy to manufacture, inexpensive, and highly mobile.
Syria-Palestine and Arabia experienced a vibrant "lamp culture" in antiquity. This is evidenced by the significant quantities and diverse types of locally manufactured lamps found at archaeological sites throughout the region. Any vessel capable of holding fuel and supporting a wick could serve as a lamp. As early as 18,000 years ago during the Epipalaeolithic Age, conch shells and eventually carved-stone bowls served as oil lamps. Thousands of years later, oil lamps would become far more sophisticated in design and would be manufactured using a variety of materials. Their popularity throughout the Mediterranean world may be explained in part by the widespread availability of olive oil, considered one of the best fuels for lighting.
Clay lamps are surprisingly information rich: the shape and other macroscopic characteristics of lamps, such as color, texture, slip, and decoration, are generally specific to chronological periods. For this quality, lamps have been useful to archaeologists for dating archaeological strata for generations.
In terms of ancient art, clay lamps represent some of the most expressive among artifact types. Clay lamps help archaeologists reconstruct daily activities inside the otherwise empty shell of a room or corridor of a ruin. In Late Antiquity, clay oil lamps were used as a medium to express and to circulate religious thought. Scientific analyses of clay lamp fabrics have provided scholars a wealth of information as to the technique adopted by potters to manufacture lamps, the types of clays selected, and the origin of lamp clays.
In recent years the clay lamp has gained greater recognition among scholars as its full information value is more widely realized. With last year's founding of the Association Lychnologique Internationale at the Roman Museum in Nyon, Switzerland, the study of ancient lighting will enjoy a bright new century of archaeological discovery.
Source: The Daily Star (8 December 2004)
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