The History of Clay Lamps from Egan Bronze classical oil lamps cast in bronze with patina Clay lamp image

Today’s power outages quickly remind us of ancient man’s ways of dealing with the natural cycles of light to dark. Their daily chores of hunting and gathering ceased at sundown.

To the ancients, this element of fire was looked upon as a great spiritual provider. They, as well as the other creatures had to share the same water sources and the fires enabled them to keep beasts at bay, kept them warm and roasted their food. Their observations of the interaction of the heat and damp soil (clay) in this environment quickly led to the development of various vessels of need i.e., saucers, urns, and lamps. Their nights were no longer a time of fear and uncertainty.

During this period dating back to 25,000 - 3,000 BC the clay lamp designs developed very slowly. A simple saucer of fish oil, animal fat or vegetable oil in the center supplied with a woven fibrous wick could give ample light to a small room. Eventually these saucers were modified with pinched sides for wick rests and easier spillage control of the fuel.
Clay lamp
The general style and construction remained relatively the same until about the 4th or 5th BC. During this period the bodies of the clay lamps began to close over the top and finally by 300 BC almost all lamps were of the closed body type.

As time progressed, artists began embellishing these enclosed vessels with nozzles, handles, and decorative designs as their function dictated. The manufacture, style and artistic expression, from this period forward, advanced rapidly and many diverse examples exist.



Photos courtesy: Cleveland Museum

Frank Egan 1999 - 2017