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 Old books soon become outdated in the light of new information and I have taken the liberty of writing identifications that may sometimes differ from those in established catalogues, even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.



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