Clay lamps shed new light on daily life in antiquity

Artificial light permeates many aspects of our daily lives. It is so pervasive in society that, compared to the ancient world, its presence and significance goes roughly unnoticed. Yet, its effect on our lives is far greater and its use considerably more complex. Through fiber optics, for example, light is a vital delivery system of information, transmitting words and images across the globe on the Internet and on satellite television.

Today as in antiquity, light has served the principle utilitarian function of illuminating dark spaces. It has also performed a symbolic role. Take, for example, the timeless practice of lighting a candle or lamp in memory of loved ones. In ancient times, people would leave votive lamps behind in tombs. A modern example of this practice is found in the P?re Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where 33 years after the burial of Doors legend Jim Morrison, bereaved fans of the rock star continue to light candles at his grave.

Archaeologists are not able to excavate ancient light. However, they do recover the objects that housed, controlled, and sustained it. In antiquity, the chief instruments used for everyday lighting purposes were oil lamps, lanterns, torches, lamp-stands, candles, and hanging lamps. Among these devices, 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. Lamp images portrayed on mosaics and on small objects (i.e. coins, seals, lamps, and glass vessels), and literary mention of lamp use in religious texts, represent further examples of this dynamic lamp culture. Given the importance of light in the religious customs of the lands from where the three Abrahamic faiths originate, it is no wonder, then, that lamps figure prominently there in word, image, and form.

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. By late antiquity thousands of years later, oil lamps would become far more sophisticated in design and would be manufactured using a variety of materials: They were moulded from clay, blown from glass, cast in metal, and chiseled from stone. 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 - throughout the region where olives were cultivated in abundance and a strong olive oil economy prospered.

The find spots of ancient lamps are especially wide-ranging, including mines, villas, caves, temples, cisterns, military installations, churches, and even sunken cargo ships. One of the most significant lamp deposits in the Near East, for example, was found at the Shrine of Apollo in Tyre, Lebanon. Many of the 88 clay lamps recovered at the complex date to the Roman period. Other important find spots include the hippodrome workshop at Jerash, Jordan, a room containing numerous lamps with erotic imagery at Ashkelon, Israel, and a cistern in the residential quarter at Sepphoris/Saffuriye in the Lower Galilee.

Perhaps not as impressive in size as a large marble portrait bust of a Roman emperor or a mosaic floor replete with designs, clay lamps are surprisingly information rich. Like ancient amphorae and common ware pottery, 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. The macroscopic features of clay lamps also tend to reflect styles specific to regional workshops; thus, by mapping the distribution of diverse lamp types recovered at archaeological sites, trade patterns and demographic shifts can be reconstructed and connections with different regions established.

In terms of ancient art, clay lamps represent some of the most expressive among artifact types. For instance, the images of various objects of daily rural life portrayed on Judean moulded lamps - earrings, combs, pitchforks, amphorae, fluted chalices, fruits, birdcages, and baskets - are highly reflective of a local Judean folk art. Also referred to as "Darom" (Hebrew "south") lamps, examples of this early Roman-period group are most commonly discovered at sites in Judea, and in recent years with greater frequency at Galilean sites, such as Sepphoris and 'Iblin.

Clay lamps help archaeologists reconstruct daily activities inside the otherwise empty shell of a room or corridor of a ruin. For example, at Bet Guvrin/Beit Jibrin southwest of Jerusalem, nearly one hundred lamps and numerous lamp fragments were recovered in the sacellum, or shrine chamber, of the amphitheater. That lamps were found in association with two altars indicates they may have served a ritual role among the gladiators. Similarly, a deposit of 31 clay lamps were unearthed surrounding the altar inside the Mithraeum, or Mithraic cult center, at Caesarea Maritima/Qaisariye; the discovery further underscores the significance of light in this Roman mystery cult centered around the sun-god Mithras.

In Late Antiquity, clay oil lamps were used as a medium to express and to circulate religious thought. Greek passages linked to liturgies associated with specific Christian churches such as the Church of St. Mary's in Nazareth, for example, occur on early Byzantine lamps popular in the Jerusalem area. Kufic inscriptions depicted on early Islamic lamps further praise the greatness of Allah. Clay lamps also disseminated religious symbols: Lamps portraying pagan gods, Jewish menorahs, and Christian crosses were widely manufactured and distributed by pottery workshops in North Africa, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Syria-Palestine.

The occurrence of such lamps helps archaeologists identify the presence of religious groups at any given site, and in some archaeological contexts represents the only artifact type to do so.  Take, for example, the "candlestick" slipper lamps with cross images recovered in the rock-cut tombs at Tel el-Ful north of Jerusalem. Because lamps decorated with crosses - a distinct Christian symbol - would have appealed to a Christian clientele, a large quantity of them discovered in a funerary complex like that at Tel el-Ful indicates Christian burial there, and thus, the presence of a Christian community somewhere in the vicinity of the site in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.

Beginning in earnest in the 1980's, 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. One method is petrographic thin-section analysis that uses the polarizing microscope to identify the constituents of clays. Diagnostic inclusions preserved in the lamp sherd's clay fabric, such as basalt rock fragments or minerals geologically unique to a region, may point to the general provenance of the lamp's manufacture and perhaps indicate the addition of temper by the potter. Petrography further aids in detecting variation among lamp fabrics that is useful in grouping the artifact type: For example, it has shown that different clay sources were exploited for the manufacture of several lamps of the Beit Nattif type, thus suggesting different workshops of origin.

Direct current plasma-optical emission spectrometry (dcp-oes) and neutron activation analysis (naa) are additional scientific methods that are quite useful in determining the chemical compositions of lamp clays. By "matching" lamp compositions with reference materials sampled from known locations, such as clay deposits and pottery associated with an ancient pottery workshop, archaeologists are able to determine the origin of a specific lamp group. For example, naa results have identified the Jerusalem area as a production center for the knife-pared "Herodian" lamp type of the early Roman period, while dcp analysis has suggested that at least two clay deposits were quarried for the manufacture of the enormously popular Syro-Palestinian discus lamp.

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 (the root "lychn-" from the Greek lukhnos meaning "lamp") at the Roman Museum in Nyon, Switzerland, the study of ancient lighting - and the clay lamps' unique and important niche in this aspect of daily society - will enjoy a bright new century of archaeological discovery.

Eric C. Lapp is a lychnologist, or ancient lighting specialist, and is a research consultant for the Archaeological Collection of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This article is published in THE DAILY STAR with the cooperation of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading North American scholarly body for the study of the ancient Middle East





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