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Oil Lamps

Antique historical roman oil lamps

Oil lamps were the ubiquitous light source in Roman antiquity. Of course, candles or pine shavings were also used, but the oil lamp made of clay was to be found in every household.

Roman oil lamp

Oil lamps are lighting fixtures that use oils as fuel. They were an important source of artificial light for thousands of years. With the Romans, the earthen light givers became a mass product. Some lamp manufacturers stamped their names on the bottoms of the products, these pieces are called fire lamps. Many Roman oil lamps were decorated. The area of the top on which the motif is placed is called the mirror. This is usually also where the hole for filling the oil is located. The wick was pushed into the front extension of the lamp, the so-called snout.

Oil lamps are older than candles 

There is no evidence of candles until the 1st century, but even centuries later candles were still more expensive than oil lamps. Because the trade in olive oil declined in the Middle Ages, people in the countries north of the Alps preferred to use pine shavings, torches and tallow candles. Candles were often used for sacred purposes.

Our oil lamps are made in the traditional way from two-part moulds and fired to a very high temperature. After drying, the picture lamps are usually given an engobe, a special clay slip, which makes the lamp wonderfully red, as in Roman antiquity, and gives it a decorative surface.

Roman oil lamps a traditional craft

The Roman oil lamps are made by hand in a two-part form, as in antiquity.

The upper and lower halves of the oil lamp are modelled and trimmed together in the mould halves. After firing at approx. 1000°, the clay thickens and hardens. When filled with cooking or olive oil, the Roman lamp bathes your home in an atmospheric light and is more durable than any candle or tea light.

Fuel for oil lamps

The fuels used (fat, tallow, oil) are thick, so they can only rise a few millimetres to a few centimetres in the wick. If the fuel runs out, part of the wick burns up. The Romans used olive oil as fuel, but of course you can also use normal lamp oil or cooking oil (please read the information enclosed with the lamp carefully).

Information about antique oil lamps

Roman oil lamps are still popular collectors' items today - they are regularly excavated by archaeologists and have been imitated again and again by craftsmen over the centuries and used as decorative objects.

What makes Roman oil lamps so fascinating?

Perhaps it is their simple method of manufacture, their ease of use or the rich decoration with ornaments and scenes from mythology.
Modern man is surrounded by light, there are even words like "light noise", but before the invention of gaslight or electricity it was different. There were still torches, lanterns, candles, but Roman oil lamps made of clay soon became the most popular illuminant of antiquity - they were easy to make, inexpensive and easy to transport. Basically, any object that can be filled and fitted with a wick can be used as a lamp. Even in the early Stone Age, shells and stone bowls with fat were used, then in antiquity oil lamps experienced their breakthrough: they were mass-produced from a variety of materials, such as clay, glass, metal or tile. Their great popularity in the Mediterranean region was based above all on the constant availability of olive oil as a fuel.

Roman oil lamps are full of valuable information: The clay from which they were made tells us something about the manufacturing process, the type of production and trade relations. The look of the lamps can be traced back to specific, regional manufacturers - this also yields information about trade relations or social change. The common people could only afford simple oil lamps with the simplest decorations. Multi-flame Roman oil lamps, with ornaments and figures, indicated higher social status. The most decorated lamps were kept in temples. Shape, colour and decoration can be assigned very precisely to chronological periods. For this reason, oil lamps have been used for decades by classical archaeologists to date strata, meaning that when archaeologists excavate something and find oil lamps among the many objects, they can use the oil lamps to infer the age of the harder-to-date objects.

Once upon a time, dark night began with the setting of the sun, but through lamps, man took possession of the night that had previously frightened him. Thus, the symbolic character of light derives from its practical aspect - lights are also lit to commemorate the deceased, just as votive lamps were given to the grave in ancient Rome. In addition to private homes, tombs and temples, mines, caves, cisterns and sunken cargo ships are the most common sites for Roman oil lamps. Among the temples, they are found especially in those of the light deities, such as those of Apollo, Sol Invictus, Vesta and Mithras. Some Roman oil lamps must also have had a ritual character, because they were found in large quantities in saeculum of theatres where gladiator fights took place.

From time immemorial, Roman oil lamps were also used to communicate religious ideas, many of them depicting gods, but over time lamps with Jewish and Christian symbols, such as the Christogram, also became more common, which were then found in synagogues and churches. Outside these contexts, they help indicate the presence of religious groups at archaeological sites.

"And so the whole thing is.
Forever fulfilled, and we live
As mortals by eternal give and take.
The nations grow, the nations fade away;
in a short space of time the generations pass away,
and like runners they hand to each other
the lamp of life."

Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. 50 BC.

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