As far back as prehistoric times, dwellings have yielded simple stone containers that held fuel and a floating wick. With the growing complexity of the built environment, a great variety of lighting implements, from clay saucers and shell bowls to precious-metal vessels, are found in Near Eastern and Aegean sites during the Bronze Age. Over time, lamps became both more technologically sophisticated and, by the Hellenistic period, more elaborately decorated with figurative and other iconographies, as was appropriate to their widespread use in homes, markets, temples, palaces, burials, and sanctuaries. This trend reached its apogee during the Roman imperial period, from which derives the bulk of the Getty Museum’s collection, published here for the first time.
Oil lamps reveal more about life in antiquity than their practical function as illumination devices may suggest. Like pottery and coins, their typological development has been documented to the degree that excavated finds give archaeologists a reliable tool for dating. Manufacturers frequently marked their products with signatures and stamps, allowing the trade from factory to customer to be mapped over considerable distances. Although usually classed as a mundane instrumentum domesticum, portable sources of light were essential fixtures in commercial districts and architectural interiors. When suspended from brackets and candelabra, a lamp’s flame produced an animated chiaroscuro effect on sculptures, wall paintings, textiles, and furnishings. Such intimate ambiances led some ancient authors to personify lamps as confidants of their owners’ private moments. Their placement in sanctuaries and graves emphasizes the role of divine radiance in ceremonies involving fire and light.
Most of the Getty’s lamps were acquired from Hans-Klaus Schüller, a connoisseur with a sharp eye for regional variants and unusual imagery. Heading the series, which ranges from around 800 B.C. to A.D. 800, is a bronze lamp common in Nuragic sites in Sardinia. Taking the form of a boat, it is emblematic of the seaborne metal trade that connected eastern and western Mediterranean cultures. Greek wheel-made types with an open oil reservoir were eventually eclipsed by molded lamps with relief designs on the now-covered basin. A majority of our lamps have a decorated discus and come from prolific Roman imperial workshops, which met the ubiquitous demand for lighting. In the late Roman and Byzantine eras, Judeo-Christian symbols and inscriptions give tangible signs of the spread of new religious beliefs. Several early Islamic examples witness the longevity of a traditional form, which continued to be made in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt between the seventh and eleventh centuries.
Notable for their great diversity, the lamps catalogued here depict nearly three hundred distinct iconographic motifs, reflecting changing fashions and a rich repertoire of images drawn from mythology and religion, the occupations and entertainments of daily life, and the natural world. Some 250 vessels represent a form or a decor that is either unparalleled or only approximated by other known types. Among them, a unique lamp decorated with a male head in gold foil and azure glass recalls the golden votive lamps mentioned in classical literature. An altar-shaped lantern decorated with reliefs of Olympian gods was a dual-purpose thymiaterion, whose flames diffused both light and the fragrance of the burning incense.
We are deeply indebted to the authors, who each brought their profound knowledge and commitment to this project. It is a source of great sadness that Jean Bussière, whose extensive experience was critical to the identification of our lamps from North Africa, Asia Minor, and other production centers, did not live to see his contribution published. We are therefore all the more grateful to Birgitta Lindros Wohl, a longtime friend of the Getty Villa, who undertook the task of researching the Greek and metal lamps, and of overseeing the final editorial stages. Our thanks are due also to the Getty Museum’s curators of Antiquities, notably Claire Lyons, as well as the departments of Antiquities Conservation and Imaging Services, and to Getty Publications for realizing the authors’ comprehensive typological study so successfully as an online resource. Available in digital and print formats, Ancient Lamps in the J. Paul Getty Museum promises to be a valuable sourcebook for students and specialists in lychnology, archaeology, and social life in classical antiquity.