The Priest's House Museum & Garden, 23-27 High Street, Wimborne Minster, Dorset BH21 1HR
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About Us - Object of the Month

 Oil lamp

Palestinian ovoid lamp with cross motif and large filling hole, 475–700 AD, part of a personal collection that belonged to F.W. Robins.

Stone Age man discovered that a wick soaked in animal fat would provide portable lasting light. As early as 30,000 years ago, primitive lamps hollowed out of stone were used.

By the Neolithic (about 4,000 BC), stone lamps had developed a spout to hold the wick. Neolithic lamps have also been found fashioned out of chalk. In the East and the Mediterranean, some of the earliest lamps were made using conch and scallop shells filled with oil. As pottery became more widespread, lamps were made from clay. They still retained a distinct shell shape. The Phoenicians, the great traders of their age, spread the design around the Mediterranean and the new-style lamp began to penetrate into the interior of most of Europe and the Middle East. Examples date from around 1,500 BC.

The Greeks improved the basic design and from 600-300 BC, Greek lamps were made using a potter’s wheel. The rim was curved inwards to help prevent spillage and the spout was bridged to hold the wick more securely. During the Roman period, further improvements were made. Lamps were moulded in two separate pieces. The top of the lamp curved inwards rather than the previously rounded shape and the filling hole became smaller helping to prevent spillage. The use of moulds enabled decoration and Roman lamps are beautifully decorated depicting classical gods and goddesses, animals and gladiatorial scenes.

Egyptian lamps initially showed both Greek and Roman influences but later developed into the distinctive egg-shaped design, often with stylised frog or corn decoration.