Ancient Oil Lamps

Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy

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The earliest lamp other than a bowl with a wick is a saucer lamp. This lamp is a pinched rim bowl. It appeared with the introduction of wheel-made pottery. It had four pinched corners, used with four wick holes. The one-pinch corner lamp, or cocked-hat lamp, became the standard for about 2000 years.

The first Greek lamps were the cocked-hat type, made in Athens during the 7th century B.C. The transition to the bridged nozzle lamp occurred in Asia Minor. Athens then produced high-quality lamps from the 6th to the 4th century B.C. These new types were exported throughout the Mediterranean. They were wheel made, with a closed in shoulder and a distinct nozzle. They were glazed with the fine black glaze used in Athens. These lamps were used down to the 3rd century B.C. All areas of the Greek world eventually copied these for local use. During the Hellenistic period, molded lamps were produced; these became the standard throughout the Roman period. The early molded lamps were simple, but by the 2nd century B.C., designs appeared on the shoulders.


The Roman lamp in the 1st century A.D. had reached a high state of quality. Lamps from workshops in Rome became very popular throughout the Empire. They were eventually copied in local workshops. They typically had a short, flat nozzle, and handles at the back. The early workshops all signed the lamps with stamped names or symbols at the base. Designed and ornamented shoulders were used in the Palestinian area, and the frog lamp from Roman Egypt became a standard type. This oval lamp originally had a frog relief image. The design changed later to palms incised at the shoulders. Various other designs were used.

The major use of the ancient lamp was illumination of domestic, commercial, and public buildings. At religious festivals and games, lamps were used on a large scale. Thousands of lamps were used during the secular games in 248 A.D. presented by Philip I. At Pompeii, around 500 lamps were used on a commercial street to light the shops. Lamps were used in large quantities as votive offerings to the gods in temples. Many lamps are found in tombs where they were intended to light the way of the departed. 

The ancient lamp is an highly collected artifact. Only the most unusual and desirable lamps are over $300. An attractive historical collection can be acquired for a reasonable amount of money.

Lamp References

Adler, Noam. Oil Lamps of the Holy Land from the Adler Collection. (Israel, 2004).
Alicu, Dorin and Emil Nemes. Roman Lamps from Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa. BAR Supplementary Series 18. (Oxford, 1977).
Bailey, Donald M. A Catalogue of Lamps in the British Museum. Four volumes. (British Museum, 1975-96).
Bailey, Donald M. Excavations at Sidi Khrebish Benghazi (Berenice). Volume III, Part 2: The Lamps. (Tripoli, 1985).
Bailey, Donald M. Greek and Roman Pottery Lamps. (British Museum, Portsmouth, 1963).
Baur, P.V.C. The lamps. (The excavations at Dura-Europos conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters. Final report 4, pt. 3). (New Haven, 1947).
Broneer, Oscar. Corinth, Volume IV, Part II: Terracotta Lamps. (American School at Athens: Princeton, NJ, 1930).
Broneer, Oscar. Isthmai, Volume III: Terracotta Lamps. (American School at Athens: Princeton, NJ, 1977).
Djuric, Srdjan. The Anawati Collection, Ancient Lamps From the Mediterranean. (Ontario, 1995).
Ennabli, Abdelmajid. Lampes chrétiennes de Tunisie (Musée du Bardo et de Carthage) = Etudes d'Antiquités africaines. (Paris, 1976).
Goethert, K. Römische Lampen und Leuchter. Auswahlkatalog des Rheinischen Landesmuseums Trier (Schriftenreihe des Rhein. Ldesmus. Trier, 14). (Trier, 1997).
Hayes, J.W. Ancient Lamps in the Royal Ontario Museum - I: Greek and Roman Clay Lamps. (Ontario, 1980).
Howland, R.H. The Athenian Agora, Volume IV: Greek Lamps and their Survivals, American School at Athens, 1958.
Israeli, Yael and Uir Avida. Oil-Lamps from Eretz Israel - the Louis and Carmen Warschaw collection at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (Jerusalem, 1988)
Menzel, Heinz. Antike Lampen im Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum zu Mainz. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum zu Mainz, Katalog 15. (Mainz, 1954).
Mlynarczyk, J. "Terracotta Oil Lamps from Qumran: The Typology" from RB 2013 - T. 120-1, pp. 99-133.
Osborne, Dr. Alfred. Lychnos et Lucema. Catalogue raisonné d'une collection de lampes en terre cuite trouvées en Egypte. Société archéologique d'Alexandrie. (1924).
Petrie, W.M.F. Ehnasya and Supplement. (London, 1904 - 1905).
Petrie, W.M.F. Gerar.
British school of archaeology in Egypt|, 1928. (Vienna|, 1928).
Perlzweig, Judith. Lamps from the Athenian Agora. Excavations of the Athenian Agora, Picture Book No. 9. (Princeton, 1963).
Perlzweig, Judith. Lamps of the Roman Period, First to Seventh Century After Christ. The Athenian Agora Volume VII. American School of Classical Studies at Athens. (Princeton, 1961).
Rosenthal, R. & R. Sivan, Qedem 8, Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology: Ancient Lamps in the Schloessinger Collection, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1978.
Schäfer, S. and L. Marczoch. Lampen der Antikensammlung. (Frankfurt am Main, 1990).
Shier, Louise A. Terracotta Lamps From Karanis, Egypt, Excavations of the University of Michigan. The university of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology Studies 3. (Ann Arbor, 1978).
Slane, Kathleen W. Corinth, Volume XVIII, Part II: The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, The Roman Pottery and Lamps. (American School at Athens: Princeton, NJ, 1990).
Sussman, Varda. Oil-Lamps in the Holy Land: Saucer Lamps: From the Beginning to the Hellenistic Period: Collections of the Israel Antiquities Authority. (Jerusalem, 2007).
Sussman, Varda. Ornamented Jewish Oil-Lamps From the Destruction of the Second Temple Through the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. (Jerusalem, 1972).
Sussman, Varda. Greek and Hellenistic Wheel- and Mould-Made Closed Oil Lamps in the Holy Land, Collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority. BAR International Series 2015. (Jerusalem, 2009).
Szentléleky, T. Ancient Lamps. (Amsterdam, 1969).
Tushingham, A.D. Excavations in Jerusalem, 1961-67 Vol. I. (Toronto, 1985).
Walters, H.B. Catalogue of the Greek and Roman Lamps in the British Museum. (British Museum, 1914).

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Petrie Gerar

Petrie, W.M.F. Gerar. British school of archaeology in Egypt|, 1928. (Vienna|, 1928).