Tuesday 27 October 2020

Ancient Greek Lamps: The Genius of the Central Tube

Athens, 5th century BC
(Getty Museum)

A distinctive feature of ancient Greek pottery lamps is the conical tube that began appearing in the centre of many of them towards the end of the 7th century BC. Its use has intrigued scholars for many years and various theories have been proposed. 

At first, it seemed obvious that the lamps were designed to "fit on a peg" [1] or were mounted on the tapered spike of a stand. However, it was pointed out that such an arrangement would be "unstable" [2], some of the tubes are too angled or narrower at the bottom than at the top, and, crucially, examples of the tubes did not show any traces of the wear that would be expected on the inside. In short, although the tube may have sometimes allowed lamps to be mounted on a spike, that is unlikely to have been its primary function. 

Perhaps the lit lamp was held aloft by a cord passing through the tube and knotted at its end? But it was noted that while that scenario could apply to lit lamps with evenly-spaced multiple nozzles, it would clearly unbalance lamps with a single one [3]

Another theory - that both the tubes and the closed cones found in contemporaneous lamps were intended as a method of reducing the amount of fuel the lamp could contain - strikes me as counter-intuitive and unlikely. 


In fact, the central tube is likely to be a masterpiece of design ingenuity, a blend of form and function that any modern designer would be revered for. The clue to its probable true purpose lies not in what is present but in what is missing. Almost no lamps of this tubed type have a handle. 

Handles on wheel-made lamps must be separately fashioned by hand and luted onto the body. The shallow depth of early lamps dictated a narrow point of contact. Their projecting nature made conventional handles vulnerable and, as evidence shows, they were easily broken. A fragile and unreliable handle was clearly an unwelcome risk while carrying a lit lamp and a more dependable method of holding it was needed. 

The solution was to incorporate the method actually into the body. The central tube, typically with a fairly wide cavity under the base, is "simply a convenient finger hole to aid in grasping firmly and carrying safely a slippery lighted lamp" [4]. Indeed, placing the index finger under the base cavity and the thumb over the shoulder or the top of the tube provides a good grasp. The concept is much like that of the grip provided by the hollow indentation in the underside of mesomphalic phialai. 

Sicily, 5th century BC
(RomQ Reference Collection)

Not only did the tube provide the holding ability of conventional handles, it also offered another important part of their function. The same author suggested that the open tube would allow lamps to be hung on a cord [5], but not in the way previously suggested. This would not be while the lamps were lit and being used but while they were empty, perhaps when displayed for sale, in transit or in storage. 

Spanner in the works? 

At first glance, the fact that similar tubes occur on contemporaneous lamps having a fixed pedestal would seem to make all those proposals redundant and it has been suggested instead that the tube may have "provided an anchor for tying or wrapping the end of the wick" [6]. However, lamps on fixed pedestals are unusual and it may well be that they merely replicated the accepted standard design of lamps without them, regardless of whether the tube was fully functional - much like the relatively pointless solid lugs on pottery factory lamps replicated the pierced ones on metal lamps. 

I believe some of the proposals advanced as an explanation of the central tube are still perfectly valid for common lamps: a means of improving the grip when carrying lamps that typically lacked a conventional handle, while also offering the options of hanging them on a cord when not in use or, indeed, perhaps occasionally mounting them on the tapered spike of a stand if desired. 

In addition, I suggest another advantage, regardless of whether the lamp has a fixed pedestal or not. A wick inserted into the nozzle of a circular lamp with a flat floor will merely hit the back wall. A wick inserted into the nozzle of a circular lamp with a central tube (or a substantial cone) will be deflected to one side and is more likely to coil neatly inside the perimeter. 

New times 

Whatever advantages central tubes may have had, they were less suited to lamps that were evolving with deeper bodies and smaller filling-holes, and they gradually fell out of fashion. Nevertheless, the problem posed by conventional handles remained. As lamps generally became deeper and thus heavier, the typically horizontal handles of the period proved even less equal to the task [7]. The increased body height made handles that were attached vertically more viable but they too were vulnerable and a large proportion of lamps simply omitted handles altogether.

Lamps were being provided with a side lug by the end of the 4th century BC and although early examples are normally pierced and are likely to have been primarily intended to allow the lamp to be hung on a cord, unpierced asymmetrical lugs survived as a vestigial feature for over two hundred years. That seems to suggest that the protrusion may not have been always purely a hanging device on early lamps or always merely decorative on later ones but may also have been valued as a basic means of helping to improve the grip when carrying lamps that lacked a handle.

However, neither conventional handles nor lugs equal the classic elegance of the integral and symmetrical tube. The simple beauty of Athenian lamps of the Periclean period, with their fine black glaze and stylish design, is striking even today. 


[1] Broneer, O. 1930, Corinth, Vol.IV.2: Terracotta Lamps, p.33
[2] Thompson, H.A. 1933, Hesperia, Vol.2.2: Terracotta Lamps, p.198 (n.1)
[3] Howland, R. H. 1958, The Athenian Agora, Vol.IV: Greek Lamps and their Survivals, p.24
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Bookidis, N. & Pemberton, E.G. 2015, Corinth, Vol.XVIII.7: The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore: The Greek Lamps and Offering Trays, p.104
[7] Howland, p.68

Monday 17 August 2020

Reply to Twitter feedback

Ben Westwood, Finds Liaison Officer for Durham, Darlington & Teesside, has responded on Twitter to my earlier post about the silver seal from Shropshire. I'm grateful for his willingness to discuss the issue and his points deserve a thoughtful answer but rather than be constrained by the 280-character-per-tweet limit on Twitter I'll answer them here.
"I/we have no problem with debate or discussion, & don't always get things right. i'm very far from 'outraged' as your alternative interpretation, in fact i think it's very interesting." 
Sorry if I misjudged your level of reaction but a series of no less than fourteen tweets which included the boast "Like it or not, we are experts in portable antiquities & artefacts" did give the impression that you were ever so slightly miffed.

It's not an "alternative interpretation"; it's the only sensible interpretation - the interpretation your colleague should have reached.
"My problem, as i made clear was with the tone & offensive language used. describing a colleagues work as vacuous because you disagree with the way he has chosen to engage with current debate is a poor choice of words, especially given the context."
vacuous: showing a lack of thought

It was precisely "the way he has chosen to engage with current debate" that was vacuous. No matter how virtuous the cause, there is little excuse for a professional FLO to weave some wild fantasy around an artefact merely to fit topicality.

It doesn't require a great deal of 'thought' to show a tiny bit of sense and do at least a minimum of basic homework. It's a silver seal. The typical motif on a silver seal is heraldry - so open a book about heraldry. It's not rocket science. What on earth did he think it was? Some sort of weird trophy?
"That was only part of my critique though, & it's telling you've chosen not comment the main issue here. You part-quote me in relation to these two tweets, but seem to miss that i was drawing attention to @PortantIssues [Paul Barford]"
Huh? Please try to stay focused. Paul and I are not joined at the hip. Paul has his blog, I have my blog. I am discussing the post on my blog. Whatever your "main issue" may be, it has no connection to my post on my blog.
"more worryingly, in your defence of @PortantIssues blog [...] you make no reference to the very offensive language used ['negroid'] ..."
See my comment above. That word makes me uneasy and I personally avoid any terminology that may be insensitive but the term is still used by other people. Indeed, before going ballistic on Twitter, you might want to have a word with your own colleagues at the British Museum (e.g. see Curator's Comments: here, here, here).
"However, you seem sadly to have missed the point of my thread. We encourage, welcome, debate & discussion, but hyperbole and polemicism are not helpful, neither is accusing a heritage colleague of 'pseudo-archaeology', which I really think is unwarranted, & below you."
Please point to a genuine example of 'hyperbole' in my post. 'Polemicism'? I'm not sure you quite understand the difference between polemicism and justifiably strong criticism. Perhaps I expect a higher standard from a professional FLO associated with the nation's most prestigious museum than to cobble together a piece of unresearched rubbish and publish it on an academic website that the public would expect to be reliable. My post about it may have revealed a little of my exasperation but it was in fact very restrained (this current post may be somewhat less so!).

My comment about pseudo-archaeology was intended as a plea. Archaeology starts with evidence and then draws tentative conclusions; pseudo-archaeology starts with a conclusion and then selectively misinterprets evidence to suit it. The Reavill article came dangerously close to the latter.

There's no need for "debate". The article is demonstrably crap. It's also very unfair to those of his colleagues who are more knowledgeable. If your friend wants to write about the slave trade, I suggest he does his colleagues (and the public) a favour, engages in some basic homework, and finds an artefact that actually has something to do with it.

Thursday 13 August 2020

PAS: Truth be damned, let's just be topical!

On Friday (7 August) Peter Reavill, a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), posted a long article which misinterpreted a silver seal found in Shropshire in 2013 (HESH-0A2407). Apparently in a misguided attempt to be topical, the author gave his article the subtitle "How a single artefact can shed light on the transatlantic slave trade" and tagged it as 'Atlantic Slave Trade, Black Lives Matter, Enslaved Person'. Excited by that theme, the author then went on to make wild assumptions in the text - "... design depicting a Black man – most probably an enslaved person", "the depiction of an enslaved person on this seal" - while desperately trying to link the seal to "the enslavement of African people".

When Mr Reavill publicised his article on Twitter, Paul Barford noted the trite narrativisation on his blog and I added a comment underneath to point out the real interpretation of the seal.

I thought no more of it but I now see Ben Westwood, another FLO, is apparently outraged that anyone dared to challenge the nonsense in the PAS article. Let's have a look at his points:
"I’ve thought long & hard over whether to reply to this, but seeing comments describing Peter’s article  as ‘vacuously jumping on the BLM bandwagon['] ..., I think it’s important to respond. Firstly there’s nothing vacuous about what @findsorguk are trying to do in terms of the objects we record ..."
What is 'vacuous' is the warping of what should be a detached and impartial assessment of an artefact into an unlikely fantasy merely to fit topical agenda. Perhaps my standard for drawing a line between fact and wild flights of uninformed imagination is somewhat stricter than that of the PAS.
"[David Knell] argues that rather than Slave Trade, the device is a heraldic 'Moor's head', & of course such debate is welcome."
Any chance of an intelligent "debate" requires the immediate ditching of that "Slave Trade" narrative; it's a false accretion founded on an ignorance of armorial art. Instead of forcefully foisting topicality onto the artefact, we'll start from scratch.

Post-medieval seals could feature a wide range of motifs - ordinary copper-alloy examples tend to be generic (initials, sailing ships, classical busts, anchors, hatching, and so on) - but by far the most typical device on a personal silver seal of this quality was either a monogram or a 'family crest' (either literally the device displayed on a helm above the heraldic achievement, the main device ('charge') displayed on the shield, or the entire achievement). Regardless of whether the 'crest' was properly granted or merely assumed, it was nevertheless heraldic.

It shouldn't need me to point that out. There are more than two dozen examples on the PAS website, including one identified by Mr Westwood (DUR-A53171). Here's just one example (NLM-0D2C6D) that is fairly close to, though not quite as fine as, the one under discussion:

A variety of human heads occur as devices in heraldry: the 'wild man', the 'Saxon', the 'Englishman', the 'Saracen', the 'old man', the 'woman', the 'child', and so on. As I explained in my comment underneath Paul's blog post, the example on the seal is known as a 'Maure' ('Moor's head'). Although the device is by no means as common as a lion rampant, it is not exactly rare either (appearing on the arms of Corsica, Sardinia and Coburg among many others) and it's rather surprising that it threw the PAS team into a shocked wobbly. The use of human heads of any type is not to my taste - they run the risk of being insensitive - but that on the seal is very familiar to anyone with a passing interest in heraldry and, despite Mr Reavill's strenuous effort to make it topical, the device is most unlikely to have even the remotest connection with the "transatlantic slave trade".

As the name implies, the heraldic device of a 'Moor's head' was loosely based on Christian perceptions of the mainly Muslim population of northern Africa (the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, such as those used as heraldic supporters in the arms of the Royal African Company, were typically depicted wearing headdresses, not as bare-headed 'Moors') and is medieval in origin. Those examples proudly displayed by Corsica and Sardinia, for instance, date back to the 14th and 13th centuries respectively and probably allude to the defeat of Moorish rule during the Middle Ages; that displayed by Coburg honours the town's patron saint (Saint Maurice of Egypt) and was granted in 1493.

Saint Maurice
The 'Moor's head' featured in the arms of Freising wears a crown, since it represents one of the Magi, a saint or simply a king. Closer to home, legend has it that the device of the Moir family stemmed from fighting the Moors in Spain; more likely it is simply a pun on their surname - much like that granted to the Blackmore family and confirmed in 1620.

During the 18th century the main branch of the latter family (now using the variant spelling Blakemore but still bearing the same arms) was based at Darlaston [1]. Since Darlaston is less than twenty miles from Sheriffhales, it seems quite likely that the seal belonged to that family and was lost during a local visit. At any rate, still not much evidence of a connection to an "enslaved person", let alone to the "transatlantic slave trade".
"Either way, stereotypical African depictions, with the usual artistic tropes, are very problematic & must be acknowledged."
Absolutely agreed, it's long past time that stereotypical caricatures were consigned to oblivion. If the medieval legacy of heraldry is to be preserved, a modern heraldic depiction of any human being should be utterly free from any racist exaggerations or overtones. However, agreeing that I loathe stereotypical caricatures as much as Mr Westwood has nothing to do with a PAS article that favours sensationalist speculation over sound scholarly objectivity.
"The seal was found close to 2 wealthy C18th estates with Slave Trade connections"
That may well be - a disconcerting number of rich 18th-century families had invested in schemes such as the Royal African Company or benefitted in some way from the sugar, cotton or tobacco industries - but neither the company nor the Leveson-Gower family used that device as their emblem. And the Blakemore family made their money through the iron industry.

Or perhaps it is being seriously proposed that rather than following family tradition, a member of the English landed gentry crassly commissioned the seal as a one-off to gloat over the source of their wealth and advertise that they were nouveau riche? Really?

Sadly, I gather the topic is closed and my input counts for nothing:
"This record is published/green flagged, meaning that it has been written by the FLO, examined by the Treasure Registrar, & at least 1 (poss more) specialist British Museum curators. In addition, the article written by Peter has been checked/examined by specialists/experts in advance of publication. Like it or not, we are experts in portable antiquities & artefacts, & see more Treasure than anybody, thus well placed identify archaeological objects."
Well, that's that then. The PAS and the BM have spoken. But as much as I'd love to doff my cap in subservient awe, forgive me if I don't have undiluted faith in a PAS that described a common Syrian artefact as "Romano-British" and a BM that describes a depiction of Dionysus (1913,1021.2) as "a tragic mask of a woman" [2]. We all make mistakes (including in my own books and articles); the trick is to accept a blow to our ego sometimes and correct them.

In the meantime, I dare say the PAS team feel better for pointlessly letting us know they sympathise with the aims of BLM as if everyone somehow thought they were an isolated pack of Neanderthals. It's just a pity that they ignored the aim of their employment, threw any semblance of detached objectivity out the window and thoughtlessly distorted the reality of an artefact to do so. The phrase "context of diversity" normally refers to accepting different kinds of people, not inventing different versions of the truth.

Despite the misleading subtitle of the Reavill article, the artefact has not shed an iota of light on the transatlantic slave trade (hardly surprising since the artefact has nothing to do with it); the article merely illustrates the validity of Paul Barford's warning about narrativisation. It is a reckless reversal of archaeological practice: instead of dispassionately allowing an artefact to speak for itself and learning from it, a largely irrelevant sermon based on misinformed guesswork and irrational assumption has been clumsily piggybacked onto it.

There is already more than enough pseudo-archaeology in the world, please don't add to it.


By the way, hopefully Peter Reavill already knows the "Royal portraiture similar to that seen on coinage" is Queen Anne but seems unsure of the others. The "armoured male ‘adventurer’ in cuirassed armour [tautology epidemic?]" is Hannibal, the "classical revival imagery" is Hermes or a Greek hero, and the "18th century male gentleman [is there such a thing as a female one?] in a frock coat" is George III.

While Mr Reavill's failure to recognise common 18th-century iconography is understandable (his strength appears to be the Bronze Age), he was clearly far out of his depth in trying to guess that on an 18th-century seal. It is therefore alarming that despite that inexperience and hyped up almost exclusively on a huge diet of irrelevant slave trade literature rather than proper research (see his 'References') he decided to publish an article about it anyway. And it is even more alarming that his deeply flawed article was apparently "checked/examined by specialists/experts in advance of publication".

Is this the sloppy standard of academic rigour (or indeed copy editing) we should expect from a team of professional "experts in portable antiquities & artefacts"?



By their very nature, seals have a traditional character and their designs often tend to be deliberately conservative. Thus, they can be difficult to date precisely. I noticed that many PAS entries refer to previous entries of similar items as a means of determining the date but there is a danger of simply perpetuating an error if the previous entry was itself based on unsound attribution. The dates given in a few entries strike me as somewhat earlier than is likely.

I'm not entirely convinced that the PAS date of "late 17th or very early 18th century (pre-1713)", though conveniently classifying the seal as Treasure when found in 2013, is correct for the item in question. The octagonal shape with beaded border is a common Neoclassical theme which, together with the artistic style of the head, might suggest a later date, perhaps around 1750-1800.

It would be useful to test the standard of the silver. The Britannia standard (95.8%) was in use between 1697 and 1720, after which the Sterling standard (92.5%) was revived. It is not a completely reliable method of dating since there are many exceptions (small items did not always adhere to the law and the Britannia standard has continued alongside Sterling in some cases up to the present day) but it might provide a reasonable clue.

The letter B stamped on the seal is likely to be one of the maker's initials, not a date letter, but tracking him down would be difficult.


[1] Burke, Sir Bernard, Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, London 1852, pp.106-7.
[2] see Green, J.R., 'Roman bronze lamps with masks', HEROM 2012, p.32.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Reinventing the wheel (or hook)

Back in November 2019, I noticed a somewhat awkward description of a Roman object on the PAS database (SOM-EFC2F3). Although the object was correctly identified as a 'lamp hook', there seemed to be some doubt and some sort of medical implement was offered as an alternative.
"The finder has suggested that the artefact may instead have been a medical implement. The small diameter of the hooks, their position, with one curving up and one down, and the small suspension loop, all suggest it would be hard to securely suspend a lamp calling in to doubt the existing interpretation."
I used the 'Report a mistake' button at the bottom of the PAS page. I pointed out that the object was indeed undoubtedly a lamp hook and that the confusion may have been due to the fact that the hook was depicted upside down.

It's not a fish hook - designed to dangle in a river. It's a suspension hook - much like that on a coat hanger - designed to hang something from a peg or whatever. The object is much easier to understand when it's the right way up.

The object was not hung from the "suspension loop" (the hole is at the bottom of the object, not "at its top"); it was hung from the large hook near the top and a lamp would have been attached by chains to the hole at the bottom. An example on my website explains their use in more detail.

And as proof of their use, there are many lamps where the hook is still attached. Here are two museum examples.

I received a cordial reply from the FLO. She thanked me and stated she would amend the PAS record. That was back in November but I imagine both the backlog of other work and the disruption of COVID-19 have since delayed that intention.

In the meantime, I have posted this as a reminder to anyone else who is puzzled by such objects. There's no need to reinvent the wheel; the research has already been done long ago and the hooks get a chapter all to themselves in D.M. Bailey, A Catalogue of Lamps in the British Museum, Vol. IV, 1996.

Friday 3 April 2020

Leather books from Turkey: more thoughts

Further to my earlier post on the phenomenon of a constant stream of 'Golden Brownies' (GBs) emerging in Turkey, I note that yet another "Torah" (curious that almost all of these fake manuscripts are from religious minorities in that region) has been trumpeted in the Turkish press (Daily Sabah, 'Turkish police nab 3 suspects trying to sell ancient Torah for $1.25M', 25 March 2020; Hurriyet Daily News, 'Gendarmerie seizes historical Torah in Turkey’s Mus', undated). Not only is the object not even remotely a Torah (the first five books of Moses typically in scroll form), it is so obviously a modern piece of tat that a mere moggy can spot it as farcical.

Pages from another so-called "Torah", announced by the Daily Sabah in 2018 ...

Of particular concern is that the spurious imagery and concocted provenances of these GBs have been eagerly picked up by far-right conspiracy websites (such as The European Union Times) and heralded as confirmation that "Judaism is Satanism". Dr Sam Hardy has provided some interesting insights into the situation (Conflict Antiquities, 2 April 2020). (A link to the EU Times rant is included under Dr Hardy's blog post.)

I had initially assumed that the Satanic and Illuminati symbolism in these fake Turkish/Syrian manuscripts merely reflected the 'Jewish conspiracy' mythology endemic in that part of the world and accepted as fact by their ignorant non-Jewish authors. And thus, almost incidental to the main goal of making money from selling them.

However, I am now beginning to see that symbolism not as merely incidental but as at least one of the prime motivations for their manufacture in the first place - to present these supposedly ancient manuscripts as proof that the mythology is true.

Perhaps even more worrying than the fact that the GBs are being produced is the thought that the Turkish police and media are happily complicit in validating and publicising them. I have an uneasy feeling that their widespread publicity in that country is not so much a way of praising the police force.

Have any of these insanely-priced GBs ever actually been sold at all or were they intended to serve another purpose? It's strangely convenient that their purported "sellers" are constantly being caught, it's strangely unnatural that they are seldom found with anything else of remotely comparable value, and I sense a possibility that the whole operation may have been deliberately engineered as a sickening political tool - a devious way of covertly promulgating antisemitic propaganda in broad daylight. Any other artefacts supposedly "recovered" with the GBs would be merely 'smoke and mirrors'.

What better way to ensure support for an authoritarian regime than to stimulate mass fear of a 'hidden enemy'? It matters nothing that a few scholars recognise the fakery; the target is the general public and neither Turkey nor Syria will be the first country to fall for that fear tactic and endorse a tyrant.

Is apparently busting the illegal antiquities trade in Turkey really only a front for performing something far more sinister? Just a thought ...

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Lesson from Croatia

Seismic Map
Zagreb is located in a zone of high seismic activity and a 5.3 magnitude earthquake struck a wide area around the city on Sunday, 22 March. Fortunately, there were few human casualties but the earthquake caused some heartbreaking damage to its cathedral and museums.

Moral: If you live in a known earthquake zone, make sure any antiquities in a display case are securely mounted.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

An enduring tradition

I noted a truly amazing supply of bronze lamps offered by Artemission, a dealer based in London, over five years ago. Far from being exhausted, that supply continues to this day. And, true to tradition, this example below bears an uncanny resemblance to a series of very obvious fakes ...

It can be yours for a mere $900 ...

This version below - with not only two nozzles at ridiculous angles but also a head plunked on top - may be even more tempting. Just stump up $2,200 for this one ...

In these times of a pandemic crisis it's heart-warming to see that some old customs remain unchanged. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.



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