[This entry originally by R. Kerns]
Lamps were an essential light source in antiquity. They are made of terracotta, a widely-available and flame-resistant material. Generally, they have a circular body serving as an oil reservoir, an open nozzle to hold a wick at one end, and (oftentimes) a handle at the other.¹ Terracotta lamps were typically made using molds, allowing for the efficient mass-production of identical lamps.² While many lamps have decorative motifs on top, some also have a in planta pedis.³ Through mass spectrometry analysis we know that these lamps primarily burned primarily, but animal fat was occasionally mixed with it.⁴
Lamps from the Gioiella-Vaiano Site
Red lamp with cornucopia design
This lamp was found in an upper strata in the southwest corner of trench A6. Because it was intermingled with a variety of building materials (mostly roof tiles), its depositional context indicates that it was likely buried during a structural collapse or was the result of a dump.
Why this artifact matters:
By studying the decorations on artifacts, we can better understand what their owners valued for themselves and how they wanted to be perceived by others. This particular lamp features a cornucopia motif on the discus, symbolizing plentiful harvest and relating to the villa’s crop production. Additionally, visitors to the villa might have used the lamp, so its owners would have wanted to positively portray themselves through their belongings. By choosing a common harvest motif, they subtly projected a sense of affluence and successful production; the visitor might then subliminally associate these cultural values with their hosts. In sum, the owners could have been trying to reinforce their successes to friends or visitors. Or, they might have just really liked cornucopias.
Flipping the lamp over, we find an poorly preserved in planta pedis (maker’s stamp) on the bottom. Like a brand logo, maker’s stamps indicate who made the lamp, thus benefiting the manufacturer by providing advertisement. The distribution of lamps with a certain stamp help us to understand the extent and chronology of commerce networks. If the stamp on this lamp were legible, we could potentially understand whence the owners purchased it.
Because of the large quantity of comparable lamps, we can approximate the production date of our lamp to be between the first and third century.5 The lamp’s date then provides a datum for the site’s occupation. If the lamp were in a primary context,6 the lamp’s date would serve as an approximate terminus post quem7 for the phase of the site (the date after which the site was in use) because the lamp’s use at the site had to occur after its production date.
Umbrian black lamp
This lamp was found under a fragment of opus signinum9 in the southwest corner of Trench A6, inside of the nymphaeum. Near the lamp were large fragments of painted wall plaster that likely fell from an upper part of the building during the structural collapse. Below the lamp was a cobble layer, which the excavators originally identified as late period work surface. Based on its find-spot, the lamp was likely buried during the collapse of an upper level floor after the abandonment of the site. Finding this lamp at a possible floor level amid plaster fragments indicates that the cobble floor may have been one of the last working-surface phases in this area of the site.
Why this artifact matters:
This particular lamp is covered in a dark clay slip ensuring impermeability.10 It has a plain rounded body with a tall rim and centered filling hole. Based on the breakage points, we can tell that it originally had a handle and long nozzle.
This type of lamp was common in Umbria, indicating the possible presence of a production center nearby,11 or a regionally specific style. This style of lamp could have been made on-site, which would have required a kiln. Pottery was first modeled from clay, either by hand or using a mold, then baked hard. Although we have not found a kiln itself, we have found several wasters12 indicative of a kiln onsite. We also know that the villa occupants had access to the fuel necessary for firing because they had a heated bath complex, which would have required a constantly running furnace.
These two biconical lamps were recovered from the upper debris levels of the Central Area in 2019. They are identical in form, comparable to Loeschcke type X and Buchi type Xa, and both have a raised bollo (stamp) on the base: VIBIA(NI). They are, however, different in color, possibly because they are from different clays or because of a difference in firing technique in the kiln. These lamps have a circular body and slightly elongated nozzle but no handle. The fill area is depressed creating a raised lip that continues around the line of the nozzle. They are undecorated save for three raised vertical bands around the body.
The upper fills levels of the Central Area were formed relatively recently as a result of agricultural activity on the site. The materials recovered from those fills were pushed down into the Central Area from the terrace above, which was likely the residential quarter of the Villa. This same stratum included a high percentage of common ware pottery and examples of sigillata.
Why this artifact matters:
The stamp, VIBIA(NI), and the style of these lamps suggests that they originated in the Po Valley. This is yet another indication that the Villa’s network of trade and exchange extended beyond Central Italy.
- Harris 1980, 128.
- Garnett 1975, 179.
- Planta pedis refers to a maker’s stamp, located on the base of the lamp.
- Kimpe et al. 2001, 87.
- Bussière and Wohl 2017, Cats. 278-440. This lamp is comparable to Loeschke Type VIII lamps, which had a round body with a short rounded nozzle. These lamps were most popular throughout the Italian peninsula during the 1st-3rd centuries CE, with some examples from the 1st century BC and 4th-5th centuries CE.
- A primary context refers to the original, undisturbed location of an artifact. Because the lamp was in disturbed fill, it was not in its primary context.
- Latin, literally meaning “end after which.”
- Stopponi 2006, 198.
- Romans used opus signinum for flooring. Also called cocciopesto (Italian), this building material consisted of broken tile bits mixed with mortar.
- Faley 2019.
- Stopponi 2006, 198.
- A waster is a piece of misfired pottery. These pieces were used to test the temperature of a kiln prior to the firing process.
Bailey, D. 1975. A Catalogue of the Lamps in the British Museum. London: British Museum Publications Ltd.
Bussière, J., and B. Wohl. 2017. Ancient Lamps in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.
García Gimenez, R., R. Vigil de la Villa, M.D. Petit Domínguez, M.I. Rucandio. 2006. “Application of chemical, physical and chemometric analytical techniques to the study of ancient ceramic oil lamps.” Talanta 68, 1236–1246.
Garnett, K. 1975. “Late Roman Corinthian Lamps from the Fountain of the Lamps.” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 44:2, 173-206.
Harris, W.V. 1980. “Roman Terracotta Lamps: The Organization of an Industry.” The Journal of Roman Studies 70, 126-145.
Kimpe, K., P.A. Jacobs, M. Waelkens. 2001. “Analysis of oil used in late Roman oil lamps with different mass spectrometric techniques revealed the presence of predominantly olive oil together with traces of animal fat.” Journal of Chromatography A, 937, 87–95.