Oil lamp

Antique bronze oil lamp with Christian symbol (replica)
Antique bronze oil lamp with Christian symbol (replica)
A terra-cotta oil lamp, Anitque oil lamp (replica)
A terra-cotta oil lamp, Anitque oil lamp (replica)

An oil lamp is a simple vessel used to produce light continuously for a period of time from a fuel source. The history of oil lamps extends for about 10,000 years, from prehistory to as late as the 19th century, or even until now in some rural remote communities.

Olive oil lamps continued in wide use in countries around the Mediterranean Sea well into the 19th century, with the lamps being mass produced out of metal (most commonly brass or bronze), but otherwise little changed in design from lamps of some 2,000 years earlier. In 1780 the Argand lamp was invented and quickly replaced the ancient form. It was, in turn, replaced by the kerosene lamp in about 1850. In small towns and rural areas these continued in use well into the 20th century. The light given by an olive oil lamp is significantly brighter than a candle, but significantly less than the Argand lamp or the kerosene or paraffin burning lamp.

Structure & Function

Oil lamps were used not only for lighting, but also for funerary and votive purposes. Lamps were used for domestic purposes in homes and for public purposes in temples and public buildings.

By studying the lamp's designs, symbols, structure and decorations, and the material of which it is made, we can identify the age and perhaps the locality of the lamp. The lamp can also give us insights into the culture of its users and their social status.

Occasionally the design of the lamps also reveal feminine reproductory system. Indian bronze lamps with a protruding central portion is supposed to project the masculine genital on a feminine womb with light representing 'origin of life' in most cases.

Oil lamps were made from a wide variety of media like gold, bronze, silver, stone and terra-cota. The most commonly used material was fired clay; terra-cotta and many bronze lamps have been unearthed. In most cases, the production and distribution of lamps was local, but in some instances they were produced by factories and exported to different areas..

The usual size of a terra-cotta oil lamp is 7-10 cm in length and 3 cm in depth. The walls being around 0.5 cm thick. Lamps with more than one nozzle are usually larger in size.


Double-nozzled oil lampFound in Samaria.
Double-nozzled oil lampFound in Samaria.

The following are the main external parts of a terra-cotta lamp.

  • Shoulder
  • Pouring hole
The hole through which fuel is put inside the fuel chamber. Its width ranges from 0.5 -5 cm in general There may be single or multiple holes.
  • Wick hole , and the nozzle .
It may be just an opening in the body of the amp, or an elongated nozzle. In some specific types of lamps there is a groove on the superior aspect of the nozzle that runs to the pouring hole to collect back the oozing oil from the wick.
  • Handle
Lamps come with and without a handle. The handle comes in different shapes. The most common is ring shaped for the forefinger surmounted by a palmette on which the thumb in pressed to stabilize the lamp. Other handles are crescent shaped, triangular and semi-oval. The handleless lamps usually have an elongated nozzle, and sometimes have a lug rising diagonally from the periphery. The lug may act as a small handle where the thumb rests. Some lugs are pierced. It was speculated that pierced lugs were used to place a pen or straw, called the acus or festuca , with which the wick was trimmed. Others think that the pierced lugs were used to hang the lamp with a metal hook when not in use.


A wick is placed over the pennis and extends into the fuel chamber. Most lamps come with one nozzle, few lamps had more, from two to twenty nozzles. However, the more the nozzles, the more the consumption of fuel.

The wick was made of different materials, linen, flax, papyrus, tow, or ordinary rush. The Thickness of the wick is an important factor too, thin wick burn fuel slower than thick ones. However, the thickness of the wick does not affect the size of the flame much.


The main fuel was olive oil, though extracts from fish, crude fish oil, nuts, and plants were also used. Oozing crude petroleum was also used. The fuel was poured into the fuel reservoir via the pouring hole in the discus.

Lamp Holders

Lamps were put on lamp holders when in use. Lamp holders include:

  • They were fastened to a wall by a nail or a wooden wedge. *They were also hung suspended from brackets
  • They where placed in candelabra.
  • Sometimes they were placed in niches in the wall.
  • They were put on lamp stands of different shapes.

Production Methods

Hand Made

Before the discovery of the wheel, lamps were handmade.


The crude potter’s wheel was introduced in the Middle Bronze age and lamps were thus made until the 3rd c. BC. In the Hellenistic period increasingly lamps were mould made.

Lamp Moulds

The use of molds was first developed in Greece and Egypt during the 3rd century BC. In the Roman times, the molds were regularly used in large scale in the different parts of the Roman Empire. The use of molds continued up to the 8th century AC. Molds can be stone, clay, or plaster.

Plaster vs. Clay Moulds

An archetype or patrix was first made. Plaster or clay was then formed around the patrix, it will then dry and harden into a mold.

Clay moulds, were removed from the patrix before they had fully dried. Then they were kiln fired, thus they may deviate or shrink from their original form. Clay molds needed more labour than plaster ones. These problems are not encountered with plaster. Plaster molds were dried completelty then removed from the patrix. Paaslter thius makes an accurate replica, but it has the disadvantage of leaving some surface granular artifacts. However, clay molds are more durable.

It is difficult to find the remains of ancient plaster molds as it is a perishable material. Some clay moulds were recovered. By studying the surfaces of surviving lamps it seems that plaster was preferred to clay.To make a lamp, two molds are needed one for the upper art and one for the lower part. Some pairs of molds have knobs and corresponding holes to fit the two molds together.

Lamp Typology

Lamps can be categorised based on different criteria as follows below:

Lamp Typological Categories

Typologically, ancient lamps can be divided into six major categories

  • Wheel Made

Greek and Egyptian lamps that date before the 3rd century BC. Simple, little or no decoration, wide pour hole. No handles. A lug. Pirced or not. Pierced lugs occuried beifly between 4th and 3rd century BC. Unpierced lugs continued until 1st century BC.

  • Volute, Early Imperial

With volutes extending from their nozzles, predominately produced in Italy during the Early Roman period. They have a wide discus, a narrow shoulder and no handle. Elaborate imagery and artistic finishing and wide range of patterns of decoration.

  • High Emperial

These are late Roman. . the shoulder is wider and the discus is smaller with less decorations. Have handles and short plain nozzles. Lesser artistic finishing.

  • Frog

This is a regional style lamp exclusively produced in Egypt and found in the regions around it too, between ca. 100 – 300 AD. the frogs are an Egyptian fertility symbol.

  • African Red slip

indigenous to North Africa and decorated in a red slip. Second century AD. wide variety of shapes. A flat heavily decorated shoulder with a small and relatively shallow discus. Their decoration is either neutral, Christian or Jewish. Grooves run from the nozzle back to the pouring hole, may be to take back slipping oil. Often have more than one pour-hole.

  • Slipper

Oval shaped. Found mainly I the leant. Produced between 3rd to 9th centry AC. Decorations include vine scrolls, palm wreaths, and Greek letters.

  • Factory Lamps

also called Firmalampen, these are universal in distribution, and simple in appearance. They have a channeled nozzle, plain discus, and 2 or 3 depressions on the base with matching protrusions or bumps on the shoulder. These convex and concave elements function like modern day Lego, allowing the lamps to be securely stacked one on top of another.

Initially made in factories in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul between 1st century and 3rd centuries AD. They were exported to all Roman provinces. The vast majority have been stamped to identify the manufacturer.

Oil Lamps in Religion

The Bible

  • And you shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive-oil for the light, that a lamp may be set to burn continually. Exodus 27:
  • When you set the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lamp stand (menorah).Numbers 8: 1 -4
  • There I shall cause pride to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed.â (Psalms 132:16);
  • For a commandment is a lamp and the Bible is light; and reproving discipline is the way of life. (Proverbs 6:23);
  • A mans soul is the lamp of God, which searches the chambers of ones innards. (Proverbs 20:27).
  • A lamp is called a lamp, and the soul of man is called a lamp. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30B)
  • Your eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is sound, your whole body is sound, your whole body is full of light; but when it is not sound, your body is full of darkness. (Luke 11:34);
  • He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. (John 5:35);
  • And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.â€
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