The earliest oil lamps began as shallow dishes made of stone or clay, which were filled with oil and a wick balanced inside. Impracticalities of this early design which resulted in spilled oil or difficulty controlling the wick, led to the gradual development to the style of oil lamp with a lip or a covered top, most commonly associated with the Classical world.
Oil Lamps in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greek oil lamps were initially made on a potter’s wheel, with an opening at the top and a funnel to support the wick and hold it in place. Some wheel-made lamps had additional decoration added with extra clay before firing, but the vast majority were left plain for the sake of convenience. The advent of mould-made lamps led to an increase in decoration, predominantly in the form of abstract patterns but sometimes featuring human or animal figures. Moulds were also used to make metal lamps. In general, however, Greek lamps were less complex and decorative in their designs.
The Romans adopted and then adapted the Greek oil lamp, altering it for greater ease of use and for their own decorative tastes. Roman oil lamps were more enclosed than the earlier Greek examples, further reducing spillage of oil and leaving more space for detailed decoration. Though some Roman oil lamps still featured simple patterns and abstract designs, many more now featured figures, often from mythology, such as Cupid, or animals, naturalistically rendered. Metal lamps in particular provided an excellent medium for more elaborate designs, with some metal lamps featuring spouts and handles shaped into animal heads, both real and mythical. Such designs, having been more complex and difficult to make, would undoubtedly have been produced for the wealthy and thus are less common than more simple designs and terracotta lamps.
Many mould-made oil lamps from across the Greek and Roman world featured maker’s marks, designed as a sort of early means of advertising or branding, which would allow a buyer to identify the workshop or artist who produced the lamp. Now, such identifying marks are invaluable to academics and collectors alike as they allow us to better date and locate the origin of the examples that still survive today.
As time passed, the iconography on oil lamps changed, particularly as a result of increasing Christian influence. In the Late Roman Empire, and Byzantium, whilst the lamps themselves remained largely unchanged, Christian imagery, particularly the Chi Rho, became more and more widespread, ultimately replacing the imagery of the Greco-Roman pantheon, which had once been such a popular choice of design.