Friday, 16 August 2019

Please Do NOT Wash

An eBay seller based in East Sussex states "Here for Sale is a Very High Quality Roman Bronze Double Spouted, Double Busted Oil Lamp. Dating From Around 200 - 400 AD" and makes an earnest plea to the successful buyer:

"Please Do NOT Wash as This May Cause Damage to The Item."

I can totally understand his worry. It must have taken ages to put all that fake orange crap on the item in the first place. It would be tragic to wash it off and reveal the brand new shiny metal underneath.

(A genuine patina would of course be unaffected by soap and water - and does not wash off.)

But perhaps more worryingly, the fact that the item doesn't even remotely resemble any real Roman lamp (or is even a decent replica) appears to be lost on the people bidding for it.

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UPDATE: Sold for £118.

It's a trifle disconcerting to see how readily some people are parted from their money. I could understand someone willing to pay, say, £50 or even £60 for a really good-quality accurate replica of a Roman bronze lamp to use in an historical re-enactment - but that thing is nothing even remotely like a real Roman lamp. If they turned up with it in front of knowledgeable people, it would just be a laughing stock.

But then, perhaps I'm being too much of a purist. I watched a bit of the 2014 movie Exodus: Gods and Kings on TV last night and winced as I noticed the pharaoh was happily using Hellenistic lamps that hadn't even been invented until over a thousand years after the supposed events in the movie. I'm guessing Ridley Scott wasn't overly bothered by anachronisms.

The most disconcerting thought is the niggling suspicion that at least some of the people bidding for that eBay monstrosity were under the impression that it was actually genuine - despite clearly not having the vaguest idea of what a genuine example looks like. At that level of brainlessness, I imagine they would still be none the wiser even if they DID wash it and saw the brand new shiny metal underneath.

Sigh, I give up hope in humanity!


Friday, 19 July 2019

Gaza Apollo - the story continues

Ever since a bronze statue of Apollo surfaced - and then promptly disappeared - in Gaza over five years ago, historians, curators, collectors, political groups and just about everyone have been yearning to either possess it or at least get a better look and know more about it. Currently, it appears to be in the custody of Hamas - and perhaps not likely to re-emerge any time soon.

In the meantime, a documentary by Nicolas Wadimoff was released last year and Al Jazeera have announced an abridged version. See it here while it lasts (until 14 August 2019). Frankly, I could do without the cheesy philosophical interludes but the film does offer a few excellent insights into some of the context and characters involved.

My personal thoughts? I suspect the statue is authentic (ancient Greek or a Roman copy) but its condition does not seem to suggest that it was lying under the sea for centuries. I tend to think it was originally found on dry land and perhaps, as one of the people in the film speculates, dropped overboard for some reason while being transported in modern times. It's quite possible it was being smuggled by boat between two other countries and jettisoned or lost when the venture was inconveniently interrupted. Who knows?

At any rate, whatever its origin, my two greatest concerns - assuming the statue really is authentic - are that it is likely to be in urgent need of conservation and that it eventually ends up properly curated on public display.

My thanks to Michael Press for publicising this news.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Latest find at Vindolanda

Loving this latest find announced yesterday (15 July 2019) by the Vindolanda Trust. The artefact was merely described as a "beautiful little oil lamp that was uncovered from the Antonine excavation" but I'll flesh that out a bit with my own analysis. The object is a Firmalampe (factory lamp), a late form of Loeschcke Type X, and was made in the Rhineland during the 2nd century AD. Although Trier was the prime production centre, the style and fabric here suggest it was possibly made in Cologne. Many examples bear a maker's mark in raised letters on the base, sometimes of an Italian maker with a branch workshop(?) in the Rhineland, but the marks are less common on this later style.

Oil lamps never really caught on to a large extent in Britain. British-made examples tend to be relatively crude and typically mica-dusted. A large proportion of the oil lamps found in Britain were imported, normally from Gaul, Germany or Italy. They are found mainly in urban or military contexts, and are very rarely found in any context at all after the 2nd or 3rd century.

The likely reasons for their comparative rarity in Britain are the cost of importing olive oil and their unfamiliarity outside urban or military environments. The preferred lighting in most of Britain consisted of open lamps (e.g. Loeschcke Type XI) burning animal fat, or possibly tallow candles.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Puzzle jug solution? The mystery of an ancient Egyptian lamp.

Getty Museum
A "curious" type of lamp produced in Ptolemaic Egypt has caused even leading scholars in lychnology to scratch their heads over the years. The lamps are made of pottery, some examples on a wheel and some in a mould, they date from around the 3rd to 1st centuries BC and are said to be quite common at excavations in the Alexandria area.

Popularly known as 'jug' lamps, they do indeed resemble that type of object but what would be a spout is located near the bottom rather than at the top. The frequent presence of carbon residue around the 'spout' confirms that it is actually a nozzle for a wick and the object is a lamp.

But here's the conundrum that has puzzled scholars: Not only does a chamber that rises far higher than the fuel level dictated by the lowly placed nozzle seem completely pointless, the upper part of the chamber is riddled with holes. What on earth is the point of adding an apparently useless perforated extension above the fuel chamber of a lamp?

Could the object have been used as a burner to produce smoke (e.g. as insect repellent)?

No, the function I propose may have helped to discourage insects but not through the application of smoke. While carbon residue around the nozzle proves use of a flame there, that around the holes above it is merely secondary and there are no burn marks inside the vessel itself. In addition, that scenario would not explain why all the holes are concentrated in only one place.

Could the object have doubled as some kind of filter or sprinkler?

No, but it is likely that the object did perform two roles and it is those holes that give the best clue to the object's true probable purpose. While the bottom part of the chamber would have contained liquid fuel (such as olive oil) for the lamp to function, the part above the nozzle clearly did not. The contents of the upper part would need to be a relatively dry and solid substance.

That substance was almost certainly incense. Incense was used not only for religious and other formal occasions at public locations in the ancient world, it also played a traditional role in the domestic environment where it was commonly heated at household shrines, valued for its supposed medicinal properties or simply employed as an aromatic amenity.

If the upper part of the chamber was intended to hold incense, why are there no burn marks inside it?

Incense does not always need to be literally burnt to be effective. Merely heating it is sometimes a preferable alternative. Slow, gentle heating not only avoids the smell of charring and the discomfort of smoke, it releases the fragrance of the incense over a much longer period. The concept is still practised today.

How did the fuel and incense stay separate if they shared the same chamber?

It is important to bear in mind that these lamps tend to be very small (typically only 4 to 6 centimetres in diameter) and it was apparently not thought necessary - or even desirable - to create a physical barrier between the fuel and the incense. The liquid fuel would naturally sink to the bottom of the chamber and, as found in modern practice, lumps or pellets of incense heated on top of a bed of olive oil produce a harmonious aromatic blend.

Okay, so why the holes when any aroma would have vented perfectly well through the open top of the chamber anyway?

As I said, it is the holes that give the best clue to the object's probable purpose. But it is easy to misunderstand the reason for them. Confusion can be caused by incorrect assumptions about the direction of flow. I suspect the holes were not created primarily to let aroma out; they were created to let heat in.

Pottery is a poor conductor. The body of a pottery lamp does not become warm enough to have much effect on any incense placed inside it. The heat would be provided by the flame on the outside of the lamp - which is why all the holes are concentrated in only one place, directly above a scoop-sided wick-hole deliberately located as close to them as possible. The holes allowed the heat from the flame to reach the incense.

Conclusion: The objects would thus serve as both lamps and censers. Though not always immediately obvious to the modern eye, ancient technology could be quite ingenious.

RomQ Reference Collection

I was not around when the lamps were made and used, and of course my solution to their unusual form is only a hypothesis. Not quite as dramatic as solving murder mysteries perhaps but I personally find that trying to interpret the more intriguing artefacts from the past can be just as satisfying - even if my simple deductions may sometimes strike other sleuths as "elementary".


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Leather books from Turkey

I see that yet another dubious artefact has been seized from 'smugglers' in Turkey ('Hebrew manuscript recovered from smugglers in central Turkey', Daily Sabah, 12 March 2019). Turkish authorities love to publicise their leading role in 'recovering' truckloads of antiquities supposedly stolen from war-torn Syria - but there's a slight hitch. Pretty much all of the 'recovered' objects proudly displayed in their photos appear to be tourist-grade fakes (just one example).

The latest seizure is no exception. Lots of these peculiar leather books (aptly dubbed 'Golden Brownies') have been turning up over the past few years (none from reliable sources). Despite the self-congratulatory smugness of the Turkish police at having brilliantly cracked a Syrian smuggling ring, most scholars regard these garish items as no more than modern fake tat aimed at gullible buyers.

What's more, it seems quite likely that they are being produced in Turkey itself rather than in Syria - so actually not 'smuggled' at all. One has to wonder whether the part in the suspects' statement about the object having been "stolen from a museum [unnamed] in Syria" was naively believed by the suspects themselves or conveniently inserted by those who pressured them into signing it. After all, what self-respecting museum would curate such rubbish?

Paul Barford has compiled a list of the characteristics of these 'Golden Brownies' and his note of their sources suggests that most of them appear to be originating from western Anatolia (and quite possibly manufactured there or transported from a centre further east).

It would seem that far from helping to thwart the looting of Syria's cultural heritage, all the Turkish authorities have really done is expose a thriving fake industry in their own country.



Friday, 16 November 2018

How reliable is the PAS database? (Part 2)

While idly exploring the database of the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) I came across this entry for a pottery lamp supposedly found in Norfolk in 1986 (record created 11 years ago, updated 2 years ago):


Here is the PAS identification (with my comments below):
"Romano-British"
It has nothing to do with Romano-British culture.

"known as a 'factory lamp' or firmalampe"
It does not even remotely resemble that type of lamp.

"Probably made in Gaul or Germany."
It was made in northern Syria, at the opposite end of the Roman Empire.

"2nd or 3rd century."
It is not earlier than the 5th to 6th centuries AD.
I appreciate that PAS staff have a large workload and I hate to nitpick but artefacts of this type are very well known (Kennedy Type 20) and extensively recorded in the literature. More worryingly, although they are common on the modern antiquities market, it is extremely unlikely that they ever formed part of Britain's ancient archaeology.


The PAS identification (a 'factory lamp' made in Gaul during the 2nd century) fits plausibly into Romano-British archaeology. The reality is far more doubtful.

The difficulty here seems to be that the identification of the object was an unwarranted assumption, guided by the narrow confines of what would be expected within a supposed British context and tailoring it to fit, rather than accepting that the discovery of the object was very different to that of a documented excavation and that the object could not safely be treated in the same way. Familiarity with a much wider international typology than that of Wheeler's localised (and long outdated!) London in Roman Times was called for. The episode highlights the importance of recognising that PAS recording is not a substitute for traditional archaeology.

I once mentioned that PAS records are inherently open to abuse and are thus unreliable. A careless and  incorrect identification compounds the problem. It is misleading and potentially distorts our perception of the British past. Moreover, it lends credibility to nonsense invented to exploit that misperception.


Tuesday, 18 September 2018

How to Spot Fake Roman Lamps

Figure 1
Inspired by a recent article on 'How to Spot Fake Cuneiform Tablets', I've decided to do the same for fake ancient lamps. Well no, that's actually a bit of a porky. The article on cuneiform tablets is quite long and I have no intention of trying to cram even a general introduction to spotting fake ancient lamps (history, motivation, case studies, manufacture, regional variation, analysis, repercussions and so on) into a mere blog post. I'll leave that for a chapter in the proverbial 'future book'. My post will be more in the nature of making a couple of very quick observations.

The finest fake lamps can be quite difficult to detect and to cover that end of the topic in the depth necessary would require a thesis rather than a blog post so I'll lower the tone and, without going into detail for fear of alerting fakers to amend their future products, simply confine most of my post to a few brief comments on some of the commonest duds (though, despite my title, not only those purporting to be 'Roman').

Although detecting fake Roman lamps is not always as easy as knowing the difference between a Roman gladiator and Robin Hood (Fig.1, top left), recognising a great deal of the rubbish churned out to flog to gullible tourists or eBay punters needs little more than common sense.

Army uniform

Figure 2

Lamps were produced in huge numbers in ancient times but, despite what some sellers would like you to believe, lamps that were made in different workshops in different areas at different periods were not all made from identical clay with identical colour and did not acquire identical patination. That observation applies to this sample of well-known fakes from the 'Syrian Series', offered, among a plethora of other spurious nonsense, by a notorious dealer in New York City (Fig.2, above).

Figure 3

The same applies to this selection of blatant fakes from the 'Bulgarian Volute Series', offered for prices ranging from $396 to $1,596 by an American dealer on both eBay and VCoins (Fig.3, above). Noting the huge variety of real Roman volute lamps (plus the plastic and factory types included here) is only a mouse-click away.

Sensing the dubious nature of a single presentation of lamps that all have almost identical fabric despite purporting to have different origins is of course child's play. The task becomes more difficult when, instead of being shown together, those same lamps enter circulation and are unwittingly mingled with authentic ones by inexperienced collectors or uninformed dealers. At least three of the lamps in this publicity shot for the sales catalogue of an upmarket business in Chicago (Fig.4, below) are also likely to be modern fakes from the 'Bulgarian Volute Series' but picking them out from the other items requires a sharper eye. While most products of that series should be clear enough, a few of them can be quite deceptive when isolated from their siblings and their detection may involve an analysis that is outside the cursory scope of my blog post.

Figure 4

Variations on a theme

Figure 5

The uniformity of the modern items mentioned in the previous section is probably due to their production in only one or two workshops in very recent times. The situation changes when a style of fake lamp has been made over a long period. Workshops alter their methods over time and, inspired by their success, other workshops copy the style, perhaps adding a few idiosyncrasies of their own to the basic design. The clay and finish then also begin to vary quite dramatically over the years, as can be seen in such hackneyed classics as the infamous 'Hathor Type' (Fig.5, above), a fantasy produced in vast quantities to dupe credulous tourists in Egypt since Victorian days.

Figure 6

Much like the Egyptian makers of the 'Hathor Type' with its enigmatic face, a few enterprising citizens of Tunisia have also long ago recognised the irrepressible urge of tourists to buy the improbable but exotic and have been busily fulfilling that demand with items from the 'La Marsa Group' since the 1950s. This group, likewise with a variety of clay, finish and detail, includes a lamp in the form of a head with no less than three nozzles, backed up by one depicting an archer and another displaying a disproportionately huge Christian symbol (Fig.6, above).

Far from putting tourists off, their childlike crudity, artificially time-worn condition and frequently dark and dirty surface are calculated to win over a species of clientele who very often fail to appreciate that real ancient lamps were largely intended for discerning adults and typically spent most of their existence sealed from the wear and grease of human handling by being buried underground.

Swimming with the tide

Figure 7

Never one to neglect an orphan merely because its origin is obscure, I feel another quirky lamp is due for consideration. The 'Dolphin Type' (Fig.7, above) appears to be based on genuine Hellenistic lamps found in Asia Minor but the feature of an offset handle is strikingly exaggerated into an obvious fishtail shape and its body often bloats out on the opposite side so that the whole thing resembles a classical dolphin. Differences in clay and finish suggest the type was made by different makers over a long period yet, contrary to the other variations normally found in such cases, the same crude pattern of slapdash ridges adorns the upper surface of every example encountered, almost as if the manufacturers were terrified of updating, modifying or refining the moulds for fear of making the product look too sophisticated and alienating a clientele who expected it to look primitive.

Although examples of this boldly unconventional type are very common on the commercial market, where their zoomorphic design appeals to buyers, I am not aware of any example from a documented archaeological excavation, their curiously arrested development beyond an endlessly repeated basic concept gives pause for thought, and I have long been doubtful of their authenticity. They share some aspects with the 'La Marsa Group' and I suspect they may be related. Like members of that family, lamps of the 'Dolphin Type' are a crudely executed exotic form circulating for many decades and show the consequent variations in clay, finish and detail that prolonged manufacture tends to entail but the fabric of some examples is remarkably similar to that of examples belonging to the Tunisian series (Fig.8, below).

Figure 8

Tunisia was a French colony for over seventy years, the French language is still widely spoken there and, with the exception of those from neighbouring countries, people from France form by far the largest number of foreign tourists today. Small wonder then that fakes from the 'La Marsa Group' crop up on the French market far more often than elsewhere in Europe. The fact that the same applies to lamps of the 'Dolphin Type' seems unlikely to be mere coincidence.

A touch of class

I'm nearing the limit for a blog post but in case any readers are complacent in the thought that spotting fake ancient lamps is simply a matter of avoiding those that come in identical batches and those in improbable styles, I'll end with an example of the better class I mentioned earlier. The lamp shown here (Fig.9, below) is an accurate style with a very convincing clay, finish and patination, a type that can easily fool many curators and dealers into accepting it as an ancient artefact from Imperial Rome.

Figure 9

The lamp is indeed Italian and it is indeed old - but not nearly as old as you might think. Closer examination reveals that it is a 19th-century fake belonging to the 'Naples Group', a series named after the city where they were made from about 1870 up to the First World War. Some of the most convincing fakes are those made many decades ago and the older they are, very often the more plausible they become. Time and time again I find undoubtedly old but nevertheless fake lamps proudly displayed in provincial museums or advertised in the catalogues of reputable dealers and auction houses. Thus, they can even acquire an impressive provenance over the years.

As to the gladiatorial scene shown on the discus: although an accurate copy of a genuine motif, it is always wise to be extra cautious with any lamp depicting gladiators or bawdy sex scenes. Lamps with those themes were produced in large numbers in ancient times since Romans apparently loved them but fakers are well aware that modern people love them too and pay high prices for them.

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A pictorial summary of over 30 fake ancient lamps is included on my website. An example of one of the items shown in Figure 4 is listed as FB5.

A useful series of observations and case studies is also included on the website of a prominent ADA member.


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