Marc Breitsprecher

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The lamp, in the form of a small clay bowl in which oil was burned, was the most common form of domestic lighting from very early times. As olive oil was plentiful in Palestine, this was the fuel normally used in lamps. As thou shalt command the children of Yisrael, that they bring pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always (Exodus 27:20); the wick was usually made of flax. According to the Mishna, a much greater variety of oils was used for lighting during the Roman period, included oils extracted from sesame seeds, nuts, horseradish and vegetable resins: naphtha (an inflammable oil, obtained by dry distillation of coal, shale, etc.) is also mentioned. While the shapes of lamps, and the materials from which they were made, are never specified in the Bible, clay lamps are among the most common pottery vessels found in the archaeological remains – both in dwellings and in tombs. Since they were very simple and cheap household utensils, their shape was not influenced by fashion as much as by other pottery vessels. They do, however, constitute an important source for the study of art, religious customs and symbols.

Good question and one that must be asked. There are a lot of reproduction oil lamps being manufactured in Northern Africa for the tourist trade. Many of these lamps find their way to Internet marketplaces and are sold as genuine. Many times it takes an expert to know if a lamp is a genuine 2000-year-old antiquity or a 3-week-old reproduction, which is as worthless as a lump of clay. We buy only from reputable dealers of coins and antiquities and everything we sell is guaranteed authentic. Certificates of Authenticity (COA) are available for a nominal fee.

The earliest identifiable lamps are those of the Early Bronze Age. These take the form of simple round bowls: It would, in fact, be quite difficult to distinguish them from other bowls were it not for the blackened spot left by the burning wick. A change in shape occurred in the Middle Bronze Age when the rims were pressed inwards to form four spouts into which the wicks were inserted. The lamps have either a flat or rounded base. This type did not last long and was replaced in the Middle Bronze Age by a simple bowl with a slightly inward-curving rim, pinched in one place only, and a rounded base. This design became common and there was little change throughout the Late Bronze Age except for a noticeably more pronounced spout.

Another method of preparing a mould was to carve it out of soft limestone. At first, moulded lamps imitated those made on the wheel – the decoration consisting of simple geometric or vegetal designs. It was not until the Roman period that this great invention, which turned the lamp production into an independent industry, was exploited in full.

All of the lamps were found in and around Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron and date from about 1000BC (these are the open bowl type) to 800 AD (the swirl patterned Islamic types). All lamps are in excellent condition; these are not broken and repaired as many other lamps on the market. Each lamp has an identity and date listed under the images.

From its first appearance in the Early Bronze Age and through to the late 4th century B.C., the clay lamp was invariably made on the potters wheel. In the early Hellenistic period, a basic change occurred with the introduction of the mould. This speeded up production and also provided a means of decorating the lamps. In the purely Jewish settlements the bowl lamp was still used, though its shape changed: The flat rim disappeared and the sides were completely pressed together to form a kind of cornucopia. The Greek closed lamp and its imitations were also in common use during the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. They tended to become deeper, thus providing more lighting hours. Their disc (or ring) bases ensured a better footing and some had a larger handle. Early in the 3rd century B.C., potters in various Greek centers had already begun to make lamps in moulds. In this process a lamp made of wood, clay or metal served as a matrix from which clay moulds were made. The potter would then press well-powdered clay into the mould. When it had become leather-hard, the two parts of the lamp were removed from the moulds. The excess clay was pared off and the filling-holes were punched out. The two halves were then stuck together and the lamp was ready for firing in the kiln.

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By the middle of the 1st century A.D. a new type of lamp was being introduced in Palestine. This replaced the Herodian lamp completely before the middle of the 2nd century A.D. and predominated during the next centuries. Lamps of this type are round, flatter than the previous models, with a large disc, have a small filling-hole and a comparatively small, round nozzle. Here too there is a wide range of decoration and deliberately damaged discs have again been observed. During the late Roman period, this type became more elongated with a smaller disc and a larger filling-hole. The decoration, mostly conventional, is limited to the rim and the nozzle: The handle becomes a mere knob. The nozzle is still rounded, as in any prototype. During the 4th century A.D., a somewhat smaller lamp evolved with a more pronounced, bow-shaped nozzle. The body is mostly decorated with formal designs but the space between the nozzle and the body sometimes bears Jewish symbols such as a menorah, an amphora, a bunch of grapes or an arched facade. In the Byzantine period, the most common type of lamp is a development of the late Roman model. It is generally decorated with simple motifs, including certain Christian symbols.

By the middle of the 1st century B.C., a new type of lamp had made its appearance in Palestine. In contrast to the Hellenistic lamps of the previous centuries and the Roman lamps that appeared in the last quarter of the century, it was not moulded but made on the wheel. It is known as the Herodian, although it in fact made its appearance before Herods accession and did not disappear until the 2nd century A.D. It is made of very finely powdered clay and has a clock-shaped body and a large filling-hole with a ridge around it. The nozzle was made separately and took the form of a splayed arch with a large wick-hole. This type is characterized by the use of a method of knife paring which made it extremely thin and light. Most of these lamps have no decoration, though some do have incised lines and sometimes small circles between the nozzle and the body. Lamps with more decoration occur by the middle of the 1st century A.D., especially when the preferred method of production was again by mould. This later type has a loop handle and by the end of the 1st century is much more lavishly decorated. It seems that the Herodian lamp was mainly used in the region of the Judean Hills, though it was not entirely confined to use by the Jews as may be deduced from lamps found in the potters workshop at Oboda and certain other Nabatean sites.

Although the basic principle remains unaltered, there is significantly more variation in the Iron Age. The lamp of this period has a broad, flat rim as well as a pronounced wick spout and a flat base which tends to become higher as time goes on until it is evenly placed on a high stand. Sometimes the lamp and the stand are two separate parts. Less common are lamps with seven wicks – both with and without stands. Somewhat different is the cup and saucer type – a vessel consisting of a small bowl with an attached cup. While the cup sometimes has one or three small holes through to the bowl, identification of this vessel as a lamp is in fact somewhat doubtful as none have so far been found with a blackened spout. Bronze lamps were found only rarely.

In the Persian period, high-footed lamps disappear completely and the flat bowl lamps become even shallower; thereby preserving the broad Iron Age rim. The base becomes somewhat concave. In this period, bronze lamps similar in shape to their clay prototypes make their first appearance. From the Hellenistic Period onwards, and especially in the Roman period, it is the bronze lamps that influence the design of the clay vessels.

Toward the end of the Byzantine period, lamps made on the wheel reappear. They are made of coarse red clay, similar to the material used for cooking pots, and are undecorated. They resemble a boot with a high, looped handle and (like Byzantine cooking pots), are ribbed. Alongside these, mould-made lamps (with similar linear decoration) developed from the model are also common. Among the latter are some decorated with a menorah or a cross and the inscription The light of Jesus shines for everyone. A large variety of glass and bronze lamps is also found in the Roman and Byzantine periods, the bronze ones being mostly imported from Roman and other provinces.

The lamps of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. have a round or rounded body and a concave disc for the filling-hole, sometimes with additional small holes to ensure that no oil was wasted. The base is flat and nozzle elongated -terminating either in a sharp triangle or a bow shape. Many lamps have a large loop handle. Where more light was needed, multiple spouted lamps called policandelia were used. These were made either by joining several lamps at the base or by attaching seven spouts to a single larger container in the form of a seven-pointed star. Towards the 1st century B.C. lamp production deteriorated and shapes, decoration and glaze (if any) became very austere.

HomeAntiquities Ancient Clay Lamps and Pottery

HomeAntiquities Ancient Clay Lamps and Pottery

In the 5th century B.C., as closer contacts with the western world were established, Greek lamps began to appear. Greek potters had succeeded in producing a closed lamp which prevents the oil from spilling. The body of this type of lamp is round, the base concave, the rim slightly in curving, and the nozzle a separate piece attached to the body. The clay of these lamps is of a far higher quality than that of the local ones and has a lustrous black glaze. A strap handle is attached to the body. In the 5th and 4th century B.C., local imitations of these types were produced in the east: These were inferior in texture and glaze and were sometimes even unglazed.

In mixed or non-Jewish towns the Roman lamp, known as Augustan, is more common. This is round, has a very large disc with a small hole for filling and a triangular or bow-shaped nozzle. As they were made in a mould, such lamps could be decorated in a wide variety of ways – mostly on the discs. The decorations range from simple rosettes to images of deities, scenes taken from every day life, animal, birds, fairly coarse erotic scenes, political and religious propaganda and so on. Some lamps of this kind, found on sites that were known to be Jewish, had their decorative discs broken off; probably in accordance with the second commandment prohibition against graven images.

A lamp is called a lamp, and the soul of a man is called a lamp (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b)

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