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):
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 Familiarity with a much wider international typology than that of Wheeler's localised (and long outdated!)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.

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.

Friday 17 August 2018

Ancient Lamps updated ... finally!

Many years ago, when more than half of the UK was still on dial-up internet access, my specialist interest in Classical lychnology became known online and I found I was being bombarded with questions about ancient lamps. It was very often necessary to use images of artefacts to answer the questions properly but in those days there were very few images of ancient lamps already online to use as a reference and constantly sending scans of them illustrated in specific books or papers was taxing.

Eventually, in May 2006, I decided to compile the photographs I had taken of the lamps in my own modest collection and arrange them on a website to use as a ready-made reference (the name 'RomQ' came from a domain I intended to migrate to at the time). The website was basic but it was gratifying to note that it was being consulted by both scholars in the academic community and people who were otherwise unfamiliar with ancient history. I then occasionally updated the resource over the next four years but due to personal circumstances it remained untouched beyond 2010. 

After a hiatus of almost eight years, I have finally spent the last few weeks updating the catalogue portion. As with many other fields, eight years is a long time in the world of lychnology. Fresh research moves at a rapid pace. Old books soon become outdated in the light of new information and I have taken the liberty of writing identifications that may sometimes differ from those in established catalogues, even those of the British Museum. I therefore offer the caution that my own conclusions may also be subject to revision or correction. 

The internet has likewise moved on since I created the website. A plethora of museums and other institutions have now made details and images of their collections available online. However, although that is an excellent development, some of those resources are clearly composed without specialist knowledge of ancient lamps and the fact that care needs to be taken is perhaps illustrated by texts such as this on the archaeological museum website of a very prestigious university (name withheld to avoid embarrassment):
"The lamps in this collection, dated between the second century BCE and the second century CE, represent a common type. In these examples, a central discus contains the main decoration and the filling hole, where a wick would have been inserted to create a small flame. Lamps had one or more nozzles through which oxygen flowed, allowing the wick to burn for continued illumination."
I would have thought the terms "filling hole" and "nozzles" would offer a clue as to how an oil lamp actually functions. Nevertheless, the publication of collections is a very welcome step in the right direction and I am also deeply grateful to people who have shared information about those in private hands.

Above all, I am particularly indebted to those people who have published papers, articles, excavation reports and other material which give detailed information about the discovery of ancient lamps in situ. The place where an artefact is found is of course by no means necessarily the region where it was made (quantitative statistics, fabric analysis, workshop remains, wasters and moulds give a clearer indication of that) but it provides equally important information about its area of distribution, its potential relation to trade networks, its date of currency, its status and the role such objects played in the society that used them. By extension, such data can aid the interpretation of a range of similar artefacts where the context is unknown.

No ancient artefact is an island. In that regard, it is vital to appreciate that the ideal key to exploiting them as a learning tool stems from discovering not only what the context tells us about the object but, often more importantly, from discovering what the object can tell us about its context. Thus, divorced artefacts can be anathema to archaeologists and historians alike (my own policy is given here). Nevertheless, there is a huge number of such artefacts already stored in institutions or other collections and they are still an invaluable source of information.  

To mangle a hackneyed metaphor yet again, lamps can indeed help to shed light on the ancient world.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Donald Bailey (1931-2014)

Donald Michael Bailey, a major force in the field of lychnology, was one of my heroes when I was a kid. I would buy Roman lamps in antiques markets and I regularly took my latest purchase to the British Museum for his opinion. You'd think he would get sick of seeing this pestering nuisance but instead he always gave me a warm welcome. Perhaps he was glad to see my youthful enthusiasm. He was gentle and modest but seemed delighted to impart some of his encyclopedic knowledge when eagerly questioned.

We were last in touch about ten years ago. I realised he was getting on and may have passed away since then. But it was still a sad shock to come across the obituary in the Guardian by sheer chance and see his death confirmed.

It gives me pleasure that I still have all the lamps that he examined for me - all apart that is from the occasional dud that he good-naturedly chided me for, saying I should have known better with a twinkle in his eye. I soon learned to discriminate and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had him as a mentor in a pursuit that has given me enormous enjoyment in my life.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Antiquarian book sale - Beverly Hills style

This prayer book is being auctioned by Ambiance Arts and Antiques, a flashy shop in Beverly Hills, on eBay. Although the book is undoubtedly valuable, both the sales pitch and the venue caused some amusement. It seems to be Beverly Hills at its finest. The price of $3,500,000 may seem a trifle steep. But we are advised that the book is not only "unique", it's also "rare" as well!

(I do wish people would realise that the word "unique" means 'the only one of its kind' - which makes the tautologous word "rare" a bit of a superfluous understatement.)

The description falls somewhat short of what might be expected of a normal dealer in antiquarian books but note the warning: "QUALIFIED BUYERS ONLY". In order to qualify, perhaps any potential customer must first prove: a) that he has more money than the entire economy of Switzerland and b) that he has had a full frontal lobotomy.

Although the "last page of this book shows the date", the seller seems to have trouble understanding it. The Persian year 1123 equates to 1744 in the Gregorian calendar and the Islamic year 1123 equates to 1711 in the Gregorian calendar, neither of which is "circa 1706".

The book boasts a "beautiful gold hard cover". That sounds extremely impressive but I suspect it actually means the binding is gilt morocco, which is not quite the same thing. And "70 pages" presumably means 70 leaves (in bibliographic collation a page is only one side of a leaf). And I'm guessing the baby phrases "hand writer" and "hand writing" are pitched at a semi-literate clientele who might have difficulty with the adult words "calligrapher" and "manuscript".

Curiously for an item offered for such a large sum of money, there is not the slightest hint of its condition (whether the binding is loose, whether any leaves are missing, torn, dog-eared, etc.) or, apart from its original owner, of its provenance (later inscriptions, library stamps, auction records, ALR check, etc.). A comment on Daum glassware offered by the same seller suggests an attitude to condition may be somewhat cavalier and a publicised spate of book thefts from libraries in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that a mention of provenance would be wise. I'm not entirely sure that the generous offer of free postage offsets concerns that the seller states "NO RETURN" in big red letters.

Sadly, if "Sultan Hussain Safavi [...] used it every day for praying and keeping himself out of sickness and trouble", it didn't work very well. Eleven of his twelve sons were slaughtered and his dynasty was nearing its end when he was himself beheaded. Perhaps a bad omen ...



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