Ancient Mediterranean Oil Lamps Capture the Pop Culture of Their Time

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The evolution of the oil lamp from crude container to sculptural masterwork is captured in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which owns one of the richest troves of lamps from the ancient Mediterranean world, all produced between 800 BCE and 800 CE. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these 630 or so lamps are typically not on view. To make these stunning objects more accessible, the museum recently published a free, digital catalogue by lychnologists lamp scholars Birgitta Lindros Wohl and the late Jean Bussire, which provides a technical study of every single lamp.

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J. Paul Getty Museum published a free, digital catalogue documenting one of the richest troves of lamps from the ancient Mediterranean world.

Terracotta lamp from Asia Minor with triangular ornament handle in the shape of a human head (1st 4th c. CE)

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That saucy lamp is one of about 250 in the Gettys collection that has no known parallel in the world thus far. The majority of the collection was acquired from Hans-Klaus Schller, a private collector in Germany who travelled primarily across Asia Minor as well as in Egypt, Italy, and Greece and acquired lamps along the way.

Terracotta lamp from Asia Minor with Hecate, flanked by two dogs, lifting her six arm and holding torches in her six hands; lunar crescent on her head (1st c. BCE 4th c. CE)

Terracotta lamp from Anatolia with curled-up sleeping dog in high-relief (1st-4th c. CE) (all images courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and all featured in Ancient Lamps in the J. Paul Getty Museum by Jean Bussire and Birgitta Lindros Wohl)

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The oil lamp, at its core, is quite a modest object. Roughly the size of your hand and made of clay or metal, it really needs to hold only fuel and a wick to fulfill its duty. But while the basic engineering of oil lamps remained the same for thousands of years, the forms of their vessels were ripe for artistic experimentation. Oil lamps became highly decorated wares, featuring designs that play with the shapes of their handles, nozzles, and bowls.

Terraotta lamp from Central Anatolia (1st c. BCE)

Terracotta lamp from Turkey with a man sitting, reading a book scroll (1st c. CE)

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That small, soft, flickering flame brings to life and animates all the art, imagery, textures around you, creating a very intimate and perhaps even sensual environment, Lyons said. This is something that even ancient authors have noticed in some literary works, the lamp is personified as if its the confidant of its owners. And the lamp observes everything thats going on, quietly. Its a very sensual understanding of this simple household artifact that brings it even more to light.

Terracotta lamp with three evenly spaced phalluses interspersed with three testicles so each phallus seen separately gives the impression of being complete

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Youre really seeing popular culture right before your eyes, in a very intimate and direct way, the museums Curator of AntiquitiesClaireLyons told Hyperallergic. Its that variety that I think gives you an insight into what people found funny, what was topical.

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Terracotta lamp from Anatolia with grimacing comic theater mask (1st c. BCE 1st c. CE)

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Although geared more towards academics,Ancient Lamps in the J. Paul Getty Museumis also fascinating for general perusal. The imagery carved onto lamps is incredibly varied, from motifs to depictions of daily life and mythology; there are reliefs of landscapes, people at work, sporting events, and even explicit scenes of fornicating couples carved into these small vessels.

The museum is currently in the process of reinstalling its antiquities collection at the Getty Villa. When these galleries open again, only two bronze lamps will likely go on view, Lyons told Hyperallergic. They will appear in a room devoted to Roman art and interiors to give visitors a sense of how a Roman residence might have been furnished. Thinking about the lamp in this original context also emphasizes the importance of its role to simply let people appreciate the elaborate things they own.

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Terracotta lamp with from Anatolia ornament handle decorated with volutes and palmette (1st c. BCE 4th c. CE)

Essenhigh reveals a freedom that resonates with all manner of fusion: of figure and design, of abstraction and narrative, of sentiment and humor, and more generally, of ambitious painting with a readable narrative.

Green-glazed terracotta lamp from Germany with four incised leaves symmetrically place in cross-shape (1st c. BCE 4th c. CE)

Bronze lamp from Asia Minor molded in the shape of a peacock (5th-6th c. CE)

Terracotta altar-lamp from Central Anatolia with bowls for flames and burning incense (1st c. CE)

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Most of those he found were simple oil lamps, but in the collection are also suspension lamps that would have hung from elaborate stands. There are also a handful of lampstands with built-in depressions for lighting wicks but also shallow bowls for burning incense to fill the house with aroma.

Early clay lamps were wheelmade and resemble pigs ears, shaped like a saucer with a pinched corner for a wick-rest. But once artisans began working with molds a faster technique that also allowed for mass production they could  introduce all kinds of figurative elements and ornate decorations. It was during the Hellenistic period when lamps began to be more than common domestic artifacts and took on increasingly creative exteriors. Their shapes, too, changed. Some look like bulbous teapots or jugs; some feature extravagant handles that resemble people. And then there are the lamps that look nothing like lamps. One thats shaped like a seated man reading a book scroll seems more pipe-like; another that features three connected phalluses looks oddly like an ancient precursor to the fidget spinner.

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