The oil lamp
It is known that oil lamps have been widely used for domestic lighting since the fourth millennium BC. In fact, these lamps had been introduced in Syria and Palestine during various eras throughout the fourth millennium, but remained limited to certain city-states. The design of those oil lamps, nowadays referred to as « Phoenician lamps », also known as « Canaanite lamps », is generally similar: they are shaped like saucers, with one, two, or four notches indented at the rim that are designed to hold wicks. In the English language they are therefore also referred to as « saucer lamps ».
By the third millennium BC, in what is now Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, oil lamps had already become widely popular for everyday domestic lighting.
From the late second millennium on, oil lamps have become common household items, used by all civilized populations. They continue to be used throughout Antiquity, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and until the twentieth century. Handed down from generation to generation, they are being used by the peoples of Asia, Africa (the Maghreb and Machreq states), and Europe; and they have also been introduced in many colonial territories.
For more than two thousand years, there is no notable further evolution of its design. The oil lamp continues to be of saucer-shaped terracotta, with a slightly elevated rim featuring one or two indented notches to serve as supports for wicks. The wicks were usually made of vegetable fiber. Surprisingly, lamp designs with four wick supports no longer appear in these eras. The fuel most commonly used is sesame oil which is kept in the dish-shaped cup. Some variants are being made of shell and metal.
The Greeks were the first to notice the frequent risk of spilling oil from an open saucer-shaped bowl. From the classic era on, they improved the design of their lamps, primarily by reshaping the lamp body to become a fuel container. The Romans, Byzantines, and early Arabs copied that concept. Other than that, the principal features of the lamp remained unchanged: the body of the lamp which had now become a fuel reservoir, and the wick holder which, since Greek times, had taken the shape of a tubular spout. The now-closed fuel container was of course fitted with a filler-hole.
The Romans – who else? – were the first to start a genuine industrial-scale production of oil lamps. They were also the ones who, from the first century AD onwards, began to diversify the design of certain elements of the lamp, namely the handle and the spout. They also added decorative elements such as medallions and ornaments.
Initially, terracotta, ceramics, bronze, and iron had been the principal manufacturing materials. Since the Middle Ages, and more so since Renaissance, other substances, such as brass and glass, also came into use. Production methods evolved from manual crafting to refined manufacturing. Major milestones were the development of turned and machined lamps, cast and molded lamps, and the introduction of a variety of production processes. Semi-mechanized production methods were first introduced by the end of the eighteenth century.
Oil lamps become an article for daily use
We now know that, the oil lamp is of sociological and historical interest, because it is an essential part of daily use in domestic life, in religion and mythology. They have become a commonplace, a sacred object, and an object of art. The lamps can be used for the dating of archaeological excavations layers. Indeed, it is often sufficient, to find a single lamp fragment or a shard to date an archaeological site.