While the ancient lamps in the Powerhouse Museum are not unique, in the context of a Museum of technology, they are important illustrations of the early technology of artificial light. They have historical significance in demonstrating lighting devices in use between c. 200 BC and 1500 AD. They have research potential for fuel and fabric analysis, and have social significance as examples of both ancient domestic objects and as examples of early mass-production.
Harnessing fire to make light was one of the most significant steps in the history of human invention. The ancient lamps in the Powerhouse museum collection represent the history of artificial lighting in the Mediterranean and Western Asian worlds, where liquid fuel such as vegetable oil was used. Beginning around 4000 BC in the Old World, pottery lamps became relatively common. These were shaped like simple bowls, but by 3000 BC wick supports were created by pinching a section of the bowl rim. From around 500 BC, under the influence of Greek tradition, wheel made lamps were made which had a closed fuel container, and a nozzle or spout to support the wick. The use of a two-part mould to manufacture lamps seems again to be a Greek invention, beginning in the 2nd century BC. This proved enormously popular, allowing lamps to be decorated with relief designs. The Powerhouse collection also contains a fragment of a blown glass lamp, of a form most commonly used in candelabra in religious buildings.
Lamps were always manufactured in large numbers, but during the Roman period mould-made ceramic lamps represented one of the most significant outputs of factory production throughout the Empire. The fall of the Roman Empire in Europe coincided with the rise in use of wax or tallow candles, although this lighting source remained expensive and the use of artificial light was substantially reduced in Europe from the 6th century AD until modern lighting systems were invented.
In the eastern Mediterranian, western Asia and north Africa, mould-made lamps continued to be manufactured in substantial numbers until the 10th century AD, when the technology was discontinued – for reasons which remain obscure. Lamp makers returned to the open or closed wheel made forms, by now decorated with green glaze related to the increase in glazed pottery known from the early to Islamic period. The latest pre-modern lamp in the collection is a fine, large glazed mosque lamp.
D. M. Bailey, Greek and Roman Pottery Lamps, British Museum, London, 1963
D. M. Bailey, Catalogue of Lamps in the British Museum I – IV, British Museum, London, 1975-1996
J. G. Westernholz (ed.), Let there be light: Oil lamps from the Holy Land, Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, 2004
In the Powerhouse Museum Library:
W. T. O'Dea, Lighting I: Early oil lamps, candles, Science Museum, London, 1966 (PAM 621.32 ODE)
V. A. Wlock, The development of domestic lighting, Castle Museum, York, 1949 (PAM 621.3228 WLO)
F. W. Robins, The story of the lamp (and the candle), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939 (749.63 ROB)
Dr. Kate da Costa, specialist for P. Donnelly, curator July 2011.