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H5120-4 Oil lamp, part of collection, discus lamp, terracotta, maker unknown, found / bought in Pompeii, possibly Italy, 200-400. Click to enlarge.

Roman oil lamp

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.

Further reading:
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.

This object is part of


Object No.


Object Statement

Oil lamp, part of collection, discus lamp, terracotta, maker unknown, found / bought in Pompeii, possibly Italy, 200-400

Physical Description

Ancient earthenware oil lamp, Late Roman discus lamp, probably Italian, possibly Warzenlamp

This lamp was made in a very worn mould.
It has a round, high body, with around 5 rows of tiny dots on a fairly flat shoulder. There is a small filler hole, slightly sunken, in the centre of the lamp. A pierced loop handle with 2 grooves is attached to the rear, with the back of the base extended to support the handle. There are traces of volutes on the nozzle sides, terminating on the shoulder in a spiral/large dotted line ?. There is a degenerate channel line ? on nozzle. The round nozzle tip seems to have a thin ridge outlining the outer edge. There is a flat plain base with ridge from the base of handle. The bridge is the highest part, and the nozzle end is higher than back end.
The lamp shows signs of use, with carbon blackening around the wick hole.

Type: this seems to be a Warzenlamp with a ridge from the handle to the base ring. The pear shape of the lamp is also consistent with a Late Roman date.


On the base 'POMPEI' (sic) is written in pencil, museum number in black ink on base



36 mm


60 mm



There is a white encrustation over the exterior.
The lamp was used.
Fabric (from base surface) seems to be a medium/fine fabric, with no stones/inclusions obvious on surface.
Type: Late Roman discus lamp of the central Mediterranean - if decoration is a series of small dots it is one of the Warzenlamp types
Date: 3rd - 4th century AD
Place of manufacture: possibly Italy, as it appears to have been found/bought in Pompei

Terracotta lamps of this type were made through the employment of stone, plaster or terracotta moulds. Normally two moulds were required: a top mould for the top part of the lamp and a bottom mould for the bottom part of the lamp. Clay would be pressed into these moulds forming the shape which also included a nozzle or spout (in some cases more than one) to accomodate the wick and also a filling hole for the oil that would be later poured into the main reservoir of the vessel. Decorative details would have also been added at this point since many of the moulds demonstrated an array of pre-designed motifs on them. Once the clay was pushed into the mould, the mirror image of the motif would be transferred onto the malleable clay. Once the desired shaped had been obtained, the clay was removed from the moulds and the two segments were joined together by the potter, who would smooth out any visible joining lines before baking in a kiln. At times the potter would stamp or scratch a maker's mark on the base before the item was fired. Lamps were mass produced in the Classical and later periods, and the manufacturing techniques allowed for their relatively easy production in specialist pottery workshops.



May have been discovered in Pompeii (written on base) - no further proof, and may simply have been bought there, which suggests it was looted from Pompeii or the Bay of Naples area.

Lamps were used throughout antiquity for the principal purpose of lighting in domestic, civic and also religious contexts (funerary or votive) where permament light was required. The origin of the lamp is not known for certain, but it had become commonplace in Greece by the 4th century BCE, where its use replaced that of the torch known from earlier times. Since the large scale production of olive oil which (amongst other things) was used as lamp fuel and constituted part of a major industry in Ancient Greece it is not surprising that the mass-production of lamps occured as they were in constant demand. This demand continued well into the Roman period and the subsequent CE era. As the industry continued to grow, so did the varied styles of lamps, that illustrated incredible diversity in their shapes, decorations and materials. Shapes ranged from simple single nozzled ones to others that had 12 or more spouts. Others demonstrated zoomorphic (animal) or anthropomorphic (human) forms, while others had varied decorations confined to the top of the lamp with vegetable or abstract motifs, but also figural scenes (mythological, legendary, gladiatorial, domestic life, erotica etc). Further, while terracotta was the most common material used for the production of these devices, they were also made in stone or metal such as gold or silver, but they were most commonly produced in bronze.

Cite this Object


Roman oil lamp 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 28 February 2021, <https://ma.as/242249>


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