Plastic lamps with figurines first appear in the Hellenistic period, possibly originating in Athens. Found in all parts of the Mediterranean basin, they were particularly popular during the first and second centuries A.D. Egyptian and Italian workshops seem especially strong. In the fourth century, partly due to growing Christian influence, many types of these artifacts disappeared. By the end of the fourth century strict enforcement of imperial edicts against idol worship put an end to their production. The iconographic typology of these items is broad, including anthropomorphic and zoomorphic repertories as well as general items. Many of these variations are listed below.
These cheap objects were the luxuries of the poor. Some were brought to temples as votive offerings, and some took their place in domestic lararia. Others went to children as playthings. In niches and over doors many kept away sickness or the evil eye. A few presumably stood on shelves simply as ornaments. Finally, these figures often accompanied their owners to their graves (Grandjouan 1961, p. 5).
The twenty-four Getty plastic lamps are all moldmade. Most are made to be placed on a flat surface. Three can only be suspended: cats. 591–92 and 609; three can be either suspended or placed on a flat surface: cats. 593, 595, and 604. Three lamps have two nozzles: cats. 592–93, 607; two have three nozzles: cats. 595 and 597; one has four nozzles: cat. 608.
Among the various subjects represented, five are related to the theater and circus: cats. 586, 592–95; four to mythology: cats. 588 (Silenus), 591 (Cupid[?]), and 600–601 (Bacchus); two to domestic life: cats. 587 (teacher or scholar) and 590 (harpist); seven to the human body: cats. 602–4 (heads with African features), 596–97 (phallic images), 598–99 (sandaled feet); four to animals: cats. 589 (monkey), 605–6 (bull’s head), and 607 (dove); cat. 608 represents a boat, and cat. 609 a pinecone.
For most of these plastic lamps (with four exceptions, cats. 599 and 607–9), no exact parallels have been found in the published literature. Thus their dating is often conjectural, based mainly on the shape of the nozzle. The dates suggested cover about five centuries. Six lamps are presumed to date from the second to first century B.C.: cats. 600–603, 605–6; one to 50 B.C.–A.D. 50: cat. 593; three to the first century A.D.: cats. 592, 594, and 607; five to first to second century A.D.: cats. 586–88, 595, 598; four to the second century A.D.: cats. 589, 591, 599, and 608; two to the second–third century A.D.: cats. 604, and 609; and one to the first half of the third century A.D.: cat. 590. Two lamps cannot be dated even approximately: cats. 596 and 597.