Roman oil lamp

Object of the Month: 05/2003

What is it?:

Roman oil lamp



Age: 2nd or 3rd century AD
What is it made of?:


Accession #: A73:1:270

Roman oil lamp

Oil lamps were one of the most common household items of ancient times. Lamps made of stone or shell were used as early as the Stone Age. Ceramic lamps like this one were used all over the Mediterranean area from 2000 B.C. through the Middle Ages. They were used to burn oil, usually a plant oil such as olive oil that was abundant. Archaeologists find fewer lamps in areas like Britain, because oil was scarce and expensive there.

Cross-section of an oil lamp The lamp used a wick, made from fibers such as linen or papyrus, that was inserted into the body of the lamp. The end of the wick rested in the nozzle. The oil was poured into the lamp though the filling hole on top of its body. The wick was lit and a small flame was emitted from the tip of the wick resting in the nozzle. The lamp could be set on any flat surface but was also portable and could be carried in a person's hand.

Aside from their basic functional use for indoor and outdoor illumination, lamps also served other purposes. They were buried in tombs and graves along with pottery, jewelry, and other symbolic gifts. They could also be dedicated as votive offerings to gods and goddesses in temples and sanctuaries.

Depiction of Eros on top of oil lamp Lamps were made using a two-part mold. Wet clay was pressed into each half of the mold and then the two halves were joined together. They were allowed to dry slightly, and then the molds were removed and the oil-hole and wick-hole were pierced by hand. Finally, the lamp was fired in a kiln for up to two days.

Lamps could be decorated with almost any scene, from divinities to animals to abstract decoration. This particular lamp depicts Eros (Cupid), the son of Aphrodite and the agent of love, carrying a basket of fruit in one hand and a small goat in the other. Eros was a commonly used subject in Greek and Roman art and is most often represented as a winged baby.

Maker's mark on base of oil lamp On the lamp's base is what is called a "maker's mark", which was a symbol or name indicating the specific workshop that created the lamp. This can be useful for archaeologists, because it can sometimes tell us where and when the lamp was made. This particular potter's mark, three crossed palm branches bound together, is found on lamps made in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.