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Oil lamp with two nozzles depicting a theatrical mask

Oil lamp with two nozzles depicting a theatrical mask
© BA Antiquities Museum/C. Gerigk

Registration Number(s)
BAAM Serial Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum Number 0033

Inv.Inventory
 P.14324

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Oil lamp with two nozzles depicting a theatrical mask

Category:
Furniture and furnishing, lighting / heating equipment, oil lamps
Date:
Graeco-Roman Period (332 BCE-395 CE)
Provenance:
Lower Egypt, Alexandria, El Shatby, Bibliotheca Alexandrina Site
Material(s):
Man made material, pottery (terracotta)
Height:
2.5 cm;
Length:
10 cm;
Width:
6 cm
Hall:
Antiquities of the BA Site, showcase 10


Description

A terracotta oil lamp with distinctive decoration. This kind of oil lamp was prevalent in Alexandria. The opening into which oil is poured into the lamp has a characteristic sunken and circular disc below the level of the rim. Two palm foliates stretch out from the rim ending in two rather large round holes. Between the latter is a grotesque face.

Alexandrian oil lamps can be recognized by the protrusions on either side which may have been there to help support the index finger while carrying them. The type of handle is also characteristic, although it started to disappear during the Hellenistic era.

Oil Lamps

Ancient man has thought of ways to overcome darkness as well as his fear of darkness. The deities he worshiped were deities of light and he derived happiness or solace from them. The sun god Helios who was woken up in the morning by the cock's crow, rode in his golden chariot which was driven by four horses behind his sister, the goddess of Dawn. She preceded him in his journey across the heavenly vault, travelling from east to west every day. 

Helios was also the brother of Selena, the moon goddess (another aspect of light). No Greek household was devoid of a statue of the goddess Hestia, goddess of the hearth (fire). Her hearth represented the altar for the gods. One way to get close to her was to keep the hearth fire alight at all times. Hestia was represented as a woman holding a lamp in her hand and wearing a white dress and a red shawl on top of it. The Romans called this goddess 'Vesta'.

Oil lamps play an important role in the dating of epochs. An enormous number of them was found, as they were prevalent everywhere, and the role they play in dating other artefacts is by far bigger than the one played by jewellery which is rarely found in archaeological digs. 

Hellenistic oil lamps are recognizable by the height of their base and the pointed mouths. Furthermore, the opening of the middle hole through which the oil was poured into them, became far narrower in relation to previous lamps. They also had a 'knot' or protrusion on the left side or on both sides of the lamps to support the index finger whilst carrying them.

The potter's wheel was known in Greece from the time of the Bronze Age, when pottery making flourished. By the second century B.C. oil lamps were made by pouring clay into differently shaped moulds. The original production was purely on functional grounds, however, in time, the shape and size of these lamps started to proliferate with the advent of the Bronze Age, during the Golden Age when Greek art was at its height and up to the Hellenistic Era.

The lamps were decorated with mythological motifs and personages, scenes from everyday life such as the quadriga (chariots) racing, warriors fighting, animals and various decorations of high aesthetic value.


The information given here is subject to modification/update as a result of ongoing research.

Bibliography
  • "Pottery". In Ancient Greece and Rome. Edited by Carroll Moulton, Volume III. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan,1998.
  • "Bronze Age". In A Dictionary of Ancient History, Speake Graham. Oxford, OX, UK; Cambridge. Mass, USA: Blackwell Reference, 1994.
  • سوزان الكلزة. الفنون الصغرى. د.م.: 1999.
  • عبد المعطي شعراوي. أساطير إغريقية. القاهرة، مكتبة الأنجلو المصرية: 1992-1995.
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