Biblical Antiquities :
Masterpieces of Biblical Art : Roman Imperial period terracotta seven nozzle oil lamp
Roman Imperial period terracotta seven nozzle oil lamp - PF.2208
5" (12.7cm) high
x 4.875" (12.4cm) wide
Location: Great Britain
| Photo Gallery
Terracotta oil-lamps were used as a source of
light by almost all ancient civilisations, offering an
alternative to candle light. Candles, made from
beeswax or tallow, were of course cheaper to buy
but did not last that long.
Oil-lamps generally functioned by pouring oil
through a central hole and burning a wick placed
into the nozzle area. Wicks were commonly made
from pieces of linen but were also made from flax
Pottery oil lamps were made in three different
ways: hand-crafted, wheel made, or made with
the aid of a mould. The use of moulds became
increasingly popular, as once made, a mould
could be used to create a number of lamps,
which meant that lamps could be easily and
directly reproduced. This method also ensured
that the manufacturing of lamps could be
extremely efficient and organized manufacturing
and also a fairly lucrative one, producing large
volumes of goods with a standardised quality.
Moulds were made from either clay or plaster.
Roman lamp makers preferred the use of plaster
moulds but both types had advantages and
disadvantages. For example, a clay mould would
require firing whereas a plaster mould could be
left to dry. However, plaster moulds also wore out
quickly, as the surface would deteriorate through
It is possible to determine whether a lamp was
made with the use of a plaster mould, as such
moulds would often contain air bubbles, created
during its manufacture. These air bubbles would
create visibly obvious raised bumps which were
subsequently pressed into the clay.
To use a mould, clay would be pressed into both
halves, with any extra clay cut off at this point.
The maker would then press the two sections
together and leave them to dry. Once dry, the two
sections of the mould would be removed. Where
the two pieces of clay met, wet clay could be
added to ensure the join was neat. Also at this
stage, the required holes would be pierced into
the clay. These holes could become the filling
hole, the wick hole or an air hole. A handle could
also be added if this had not been part of the
main body. The lamp would then be left to air
thoroughly before a glaze could be applied and
finally the lamp could be fired.
A simple and early form of lamp was the cocked-
hat type. This was created by producing a
shallow bowl or plate and folding in the edges
whilst the clay was still wet. Many fired clay
lamps came in basic shapes, with round or oval
bodies. In addition to these, more elaborate
lamps could be found, in the shapes of animals
and imitating parts of the human anatomy. Other
variations in style could include the number of
nozzles. Lamps with several nozzles could hold
several wicks, thereby producing more flames
and more light.
Levels of decoration on lamps could vary
enormously, and depend upon the date of
manufacture but also upon limitations created by
the shape and size of the lamp itself. Some lamps
contained a large central circular area which
contained the filling hole. This area allowed space
for decoration, with scenes ranging from
everyday activities, to entertainment such as
gladiatorial scenes, to depictions of common
myths. In addition, more simple decoration could
be added through the use of raised circles and
dots around the central hole.
Glazes were often applied to lamps of Roman
origin. Although these glazes could contribute to
the final colour of the pot, they were not generally
used for decorative purposes. Instead they
served a useful function, as the addition of the
glaze ensured that the lamp was more watertight.
Most glazes used were in fact simple slip
coverings, washed on to the pot and would vary
with the location of lamp manufacture, as did the
clay itself used for the construction of the main
body of lamp. They could be applied by painting
on the slip, pouring the slip on the lamp, or by
dipping the lamp. This dipping technique often
could result in lamps with finger marks, showing
where they were held during this process.
Plain and undecorated lamps would be cheaper
to produce and in consequence to purchase,
these simpler types of lamps are more often
found in military zones of the Roman empire.
Pottery lamps are extremely useful finds on
archaeological sites. Due to the ability to date
pottery through closely studying the material,
styles and material of lamps, archaeologists are
able to gather much information about them and
other finds. As clays varied depending upon the
location, a lamps appearance could also vary. By
looking at the colour, texture and the presence of
any grit in the clay, archaeologists are able to
assess where the lamp was produced.
They also allow an insight into the culture of the
empire, and through their different styles allow a
glimpse into the social status of the users.
This elegant seven wick red-slipped Roman oil
lamp has the sunken discus decorated by a
number of concentric circle, in turn decorated by
short radiating lines, with a central filler hole.