Friday, July 03, 2009

Oil Lamp Clues

The detective and the historian have similar jobs.

The detective has to reconstruct the events of a crime.
The historian has to reconstruct the events of the past.

Both use concrete objects as clues.
Both read statements taken by eyewitnesses.

In the case of the historian, or historical novelist, we call these 'primary sources'. My favourite witnesses are Martial, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger, just to name a few. They are my 'informants'.

This is one of the reasons historical detective stories are so satisfying to write and to read. The two genres go beautifully together.

Researching my mystery stories set in imperial Rome, The Roman Mysteries, I love Nancy-Drewing the halls of museums for information about how ancient Greeks and Romans really lived. I especially love any artefact that gives me a glimpse into the mind of a first century Roman. For this reason I usually move quickly past the gold wreaths and silver treasure troves and go to the humblest display cases, those showing objects of every day life.

For example, in the British Museum, Room 69 has wonderful displays of Greek and Roman life. The stylus and wax tablets and inkpots of school children; dice, knucklebones, marbles and board markers for games of strategy and gambling; little votive statues offered at a shrine; a baby’s ceramic potty or feeder cup; the cook’s strainer or bun pan; the engineer’s plumbline and papyrus 'blueprint'.

A beautiful rock crystal dice in the games display case of Room 69 became a vital clue to the identity of Ostia's dog-killer in The Thieves of Ostia. The naughty apotropaic pendants in The Colossus of Rhodes can be seen in the display case about superstition in the same room.

In the Museum of London, You can see carbonized seeds of the flowers they planted and food they ate in Londinium. There are also oyster shells, fish sauce bottles, hair-pins, coins, brooches and templates for the cobbler to make sandals. They have naughty apotropaic amulets, too.

But in all museums, I particularly linger at the oil-lamp collection. These were not the cheapest lighting in Roman houses, those were candles made of tallow (animal fat). But oil lamps were cheap, cheerful and extremely popular. Made of clay in moulds, they were produced en masse. The variety and type of designs on them tells us a lot about the Romans, and especially what they liked: which types of entertainment, which gods and goddesses, which birds and animals. Some of the oil lamps are funny or rude. They show drunken Cupids, or maenads and satyrs. Some are X-rated! Others are perfectly innocent.

They also tell us details about Roman life. An oil-lamp with a quadriga from the British museum reminds us that racing chariots were small and light, unlike heavy wooden ceremonial chariots. (Ben Hur, take note!) Just as a modern football supporter might buy a souvenir mug after the match, in ancient Rome you might take home an oil lamp from the Circus Maximus, daubed with the colour of your favourite team: the Reds, the Greens, the Blues or the Whites.

A delightful oil lamp in the Museum of London is shaped like a foot with a sandal. I love the detail, especially the hobnails, faithfully reproduced on the bottom.

At one time you could buy reproductions of this sandal oil lamp in the museum shop. I bought one a few years ago and one day I decided to try it out. I filled it with olive oil and put a piece of string in the 'toe nozzle', to act as a wick. I was sceptical. Surely a piece of string would burn up in a few seconds? But it didn't. It burned for hours and when the flame began to diminish I just poured olive oil in the 'ankle hole' and it burned brightly again.

I turned out all the lights in my riverside flat and crept around, holding the oil lamp and pretending I was Flavia looking for clues. I observed that the light was quite flickery and spooky, and that the lamp gave off a fair amount of black smoke. Over time, this smoke would have discoloured Roman ceilings and walls. I also noticed that my hand got a bit greasy. Clay oil lamps are porous and 'sweat' oil, unlike their more expensive bronze counterparts. Also, oil can dribble out of the nozzle if it's full.

This gave me an idea. Maybe Flavia could find a greasy handprint on a wall at the scene of a crime. She would deduce from this clue that the crime had been committed at night, because the perpetrator had been holding an oil lamp. Furthermore, the perp must have been poor, or he'd have taken a bronze oil lamp that didn't sweat oil... I used this idea in my volume of Roman Mystery Mini-Mysteries, for 'The Case of the Citruswood Table'.

Recently, I came across the most delightful collection of oil-lamps I have ever seen, in the most unexpected place. My husband Richard and I were exploring the volcanic Aeolian Islands, just north of Sicily. The largest of the 'seven sisters' is an island called Lipari. The second floor of the Archaeology Museum there has at least a hundred Roman oil lamps, all beautifully displayed.

Here are some of my favourite oil lamps from the Archaeological Museum of Lipari:

Several of the oil lamps show gladiators, some defeated and some victorious. (This was obviously a popular subject.) Defeated gladiators kneel on one knee and lift the forefinger of their left hand to beg for mercy. Victorious gladiators hold up their shields and brandish their swords.

Gods and goddesses are popular, too. One delightful lamp shows Venus with her hair down. The person who owned it might have worshipped the goddess of love. Or an oil lamp with a depiction of Venus bathing might simply have been a romantic hint to his girlfriend.

One charming oil lamp shows a peacock. The peacock was Juno's special bird, so it might belong to someone who worshipped her. Or it might just stand for beauty. Another oil lamp with a picture of a blacksmith (below) might be Vulcan, god of the forge.

Love is a favourite subject for oil lamps. This is fitting. After all, lamps were mainly used after dark. A tipsy Cupid helps his even tipsier friend home after an evening of banqueting. (at the top of this post) Or two Cupids try to bag a hare. Pliny the Elder tells us that ignorant people believed eating hare made you more beautiful! A girl might have given her boyfriend or husband an oil lamp with cupids on it. And he might have given her a lamp with an erotic scene on it. There were many of these, showing a men and women in various positions reminiscent of the most notorious frescoes from Pompeii.

A theatre-goer, poet or playwright might have a theatrical mask on his oil lamp. We often forget that the theatre - tragedy, comedy, pantomime and mime - was as popular as the race-track or the arena. Ancient Romans might also have collected oil lamps that showed their profession. The blacksmith on this lamp (right) holds tongs in his right hand and a hammer in his left. Most craftsmen and artisans wore sleeveless tunics. He has forgotten his. His 'heroic nudity' may indicate that he is Vulcan, god of the forge. A sailor might have a ship on his. Or if you had an ancestor who fought in a famous naval battle, your favourite lamp might be one with a warship on it.

Mythical creatures appear frequently on oil lamps: nereids, sea-horses, tritons etc. Real but exotic animals like a camel (left) or a hyena (below right) are also popular. These might have reminded the owner of a day at the arena, where beast fights made up the morning events. Such oil lamps show us that camels and hyenas were known in first century Rome.

Birds were popular. The dove and the pomegranate (below) both speak of love. We have seen Juno's peacock. You might give an oil lamp with an owl on it to a wise daughter, or a hawk on a branch to your son. A sparrow plucking a berry may have hinted at your love for someone.

Or it may have been an innocent gift for a nature-lover. You find deer and horses on oil lamps, too, especially when they are doing something exciting, like racing or eluding the hunter.

Oil lamps are the ancient equivalent of modern coffee mugs and tee-shirts; they provide us with clues about what the ancient Romans liked and what made them laugh. If these delightful artefacts are anything to go by, the ancient Romans liked sports, love, animals and stories. Just like us.

There is a Latin proverb that says Fallaci nimium ne crede lucernae: don't trust too much in deceptive lamps.

But the humble oil-lamp can throw a different kind of light on the ancient world.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2 and 3. The new Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain, launched in May 2016 with book one: Escape from Rome are also perfect for use in classrooms.]


  1. This was a truly remarkable and informative blog post. I really love that you put pictures of all these sorts of lamps. It really helps us visualize, well those of us not within crying distance of the British Museum!

  2. '...those of us not within crying distance of the British Museum'

    ... or of the Aeolian Islands! :-)

  3. Very nice blog, and wonderful pictures of lamps. I so agree with you, it's the items in museums that show everyday life that truly take you into the past. I reckon life for a Roman wouldn't have been at all bad, as long as you were rich of course! I'd certainly prefer it to most other eras.

  4. Yes, Jane. You'd definitely want to be rich if you lived in Roman times!

  5. Very cool post. I loved the experiment with the oil lamp.

    It made me wonder, is there an equivalent of the Society for Creative Anachronism for Greece and Rome? How come ancient times don't get the same air play as mediaeval?

  6. Salve, Gary!

    Ancient times may not get as much attention Down Under, but they certainly do here in the UK. I'm spending all next weekend at a Military Spectacular in Caerleon Wales. There will be Roman legionaries, Roman food experts, spinners, weavers, mosaic-makers, Roman 'doctors', displays, etc, etc!

    Thanks for the pos feedback!

  7. Barbara2:44 PM

    What a great post - love those lamps!!