An Introduction to Oil Lamps

A Perspective on Ancient Oil Lamps from Israel


The attraction with light and the fear of darkness has occupied man's thoughts from the beginning of documented time.  However, our enchantment with light coupled with the various ways and means of perpetuating this phenomenon has intriguing elements that shadows the development of ancient history. 


This body of work, as part of a personal catalogue, specifically relates to the history of oil lamps from ancient Israel (Canaan) and the role that the Bible and archaeology played in its interpretation and understanding.  The Bible was one of the major sources for our knowledge on the history of ancient Israel.  Until the eighteenth century the Bible was generally accepted as a dependable history on antiquity.  The Bible was regarded as being factually true; the Creation, the Flood, Noah's Ark, the walls of Jericho, and so on.  As the Age of Reason progressed it gave way to nineteenth century philosophies of evolution and scientific materialism; the Bible and various records of antiquity were discounted as an unreliable basis for the reconstruction of history.


The daring actions of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as described in the book of Genesis, were discounted as mere legend.  The very existence of Moses was doubted.  Joshua was believed to have little or nothing to do with the Israelite conquest of Canaan.  The Kings David and Solomon were considered greatly over overstated.  However, with the more recent archaeological discoveries and scientific analysis of the ancient Near East today, the pendulum has swung the other way.  Modern historians and archaeologists do not accept every part of the Bible equally as literal fact; yet they have come to accept much of the Biblical data as constituting documents of antiquity, documents, which take on a new meaning when they are analysed in the light of newly, discovered extra-Biblical sources. Utilizing the Bible and archaeological resources together they have shown that a number of previously thought-of Biblical myths are in fact, historical truths.


The search for Biblical 'truth' is a never-ending quest to substantiate the questions of what happened so long ago, in such a desolate and hostile environment that has captured our interest since recorded time. 


The role of pottery, and specifically the evolution of the oil lamp, plays its part in the understanding and acceptance of historical evidence that are contained in the Bible and studied extensively by the archaeological community which helps complete the overall historical picture of ancient Israel.


"Darkness is the enemy, concealing dangers, a threat; it reminds us all of the closeness of death."  But; Light is Life.........................Even the Bible regards the nature of light to be one of the most important ingredients to the establishment of the world and the natural order of the universe.  It is one of the first elements that God created.

1  When God began to create heaven and earth   2  the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.  3  God said "Let there be light"; and there was light4  God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from darkness.  5  God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning,  a first Day. (Genesis I: 1 -5). 14  God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; They shall serve as signs for the set times - the days and the years;  15  and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth." And it was so.  16  God made two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.  17  And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, 18  to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.  19  And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day. (Genesis 1: 14 - 19)

Light is a necessary component to life.  Early man, needing light to survive, used various means to recreate this marvel.  From the earliest times the only source of evening illumination, other than the moon, was the flickering, smouldering fire around which man and his family crouched at night.  And the first portable light; the forerunner of the lamp, was a blazing piece of wood plucked from the fire, perhaps to be used for protection against some foraging animal or used to investigate those eerie, sleep-interrupting sounds that always seem to originate from distant dark corners of the night.


Whether it's an open bonfire or flames contained in a fireplace, fire and its light continues to this day to be a captivating and magical experience. We all delight in its seductive attraction, its warmth and of course its wondrous illumination.  


With man now being able to control fire for heat and light, the development of a proper container to maintain and to carry the flame had to be produced. First, to maintain the flame there needed to be a fuel source and was initially made from utilizing the bodies of dead fish as its stimulate, leading to the understanding that the extraction of oil from fish or other animals for use as the burning agent for light was easy and convenient. 


It then became clear that a specific receptacle had to be found or made to hold the fuel and naturally our ancestors made use of whatever material was suitable - coastal peoples used shells, be it coconut or sea shells; others used hollowed-out stones that provided the well or reservoir to hold the fish oil or animal fat.  Simple as the design was, it became obvious that this type of receptacle was functional and influenced the simple pattern that evolved with the craft of pottery making.


Archaeologists believe that the first manufactured oil lamps were in fact those made of stone. Some carved hollowed-out stones have been found in caves that have been dated to some 12,500 years ago. (Mesolithic Age, Middle Stone Age Period, circa 10,300 - 8000 BCE)


It is more difficult to establish when the first shell-lamps were made, although it is claimed by some Archaeologists that they were in existence more than 6,000 years ago.  (Neolithic Age,  Later Stone Age, c. 8500 - 4500 BCE)


It is also believed that shell-shaped lamps made of alabaster dug up with Sumerian remains of about 2600 BCE were copies of real shell-lamps that had been used in the surrounding areas for centuries.  (Early Bronze Age, Canaanite / Bronze I-IV, c. 3300 - 2000 BCE)


The prevalence of shell-lamps in the Mediterranean area is confirmed by the large number of shell-shaped pottery lamps, many of  them copies of the scallop shell that have been found by Archaeologists.  In addition to those made of pottery and stone, shell-lamps have also been discovered made of  bronze and or lead. 


Early copies of stone-lamps made in pottery, however, are not that easily identifiable but have been dated at approximately 5,000 years.  (Chalcolithic Age; Copper Stone Era, c. 4500 - 3300 BCE)


The development of saucer shaped lamps with a wick floating on top, containing a probable mixture of castor oil and salts, are extremely hard to identify as a lamp as this type of utensil could be used for many different uses such as a drinking cup, a serving dish, a large scoop for transferring liquids or solids or as thought to be, an oil lamp.  A simple saucer, lacking a spout or a lip that is blackened at the edge from a burning wick would not be recognized as a lamp but merely as a bowl to be used as a holding vessel.  We have to assume that this all-purpose bowl was also used to burn oil to light the night.


This however was the evolution of the hand-made oil lamp, from bowl to saucer, from saucer with a spouted nozzle to a closed bowl with spout.  These first manufactured pottery oil lamps; the round bowl-type as described above, appeared during the Chalcolithic Age, c.4500 - 3300 BCE.


Because the climate of this particular area or region was, and is conducive to the growing of olive trees means that there was a readily, renewable source of fuel; olive oil, for burning in the lamp.  R. Aha said: "Israel is likened to an olive tree - a leafy olive tree, fair with goodly fruit (Jeremiah 11: 16).   And the Holy One is likened to a lamp - the lamp of the Lord is the spirit of man (Proverbs 20: 27).  What use is made of oil?  It is put into a lamp, and then the two together give light as though they were one"As thou shalt command the children of Yisra'el, that they bring pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always" (Exodus 27:20);


Hence the Holy One will say to Israel: 'My children, since My light is your light, and your light is My light, let us go together - you and I - and give light to Zion: Arise, give light, for thy light has come.'" (Isaiah 60:1). (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, Piske 21, trans. Braude, p.340). 


The oil lamp continued to evolve from a simple hand moulded process to the more sophisticated potter's wheel manufacture, continuing through to the mass produced, moulded form.


The earliest use of a Shabbat (Sabbath) Light came by-way of the "Mediterranean oil lamp", a clay saucer or bowl with a fold or lip in which the wick floated in oil.  A more sophisticated design type was that of an enclosed version with two lips, one for the oil and one for the wick.  The folds changed into spouts; the light proliferated as the number of spouts increased.


From plain to ornate, the lamp played an important role in every day practical use as well as its use for religious ceremonies.  Every household used a number of these oil lamps to light the evening.  Oil lamps, as explained were in vogue until the eighteenth century and even later. 


The candelabrum (candles) appeared just before the seventeenth century.  Sometimes candlesticks and oil lamps were lighted together, side-by-side.


So important was this item that oil lamps were buried with the dead to comfort the sole and to light the way to the hereafter.  Lamps lit the interior of dark tombs.  Lamps were used to honour the memory of the deceased as well as acting against "evil spirits".  The oil lamp and its light also became an important ritualistic article with the further development of Jewish culture and its religion.


Specific to Judaism, as stated in the Mishnah, was a distinction made between oil lamps for the living and those intended for the dead.  The Mishna reads: "One cannot say a Blessing over a candle or over spices of Idol worshippers. Nor over the candles (that were lit to honour the dead) or the spices (that were used to disguise the smell of the corpse) of the dead.   Neither over the candles or the spices of Idols.  One should not make a blessing over the candle until one can use the light." (Mishnah, Berakhot 8, 6).


The oil lamp and its light now played an important spiritual role in man's life from birth to death and beyond.  The reference to light and the oil lamp is frequently stated in the Bible. In Exodus 27: 20 we read: "And you shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive-oil for the light that a lamp may be set to burn continually".


The menorah (candelabrum) of the Tabernacle is described in Numbers 8: 1-4:  "When you set the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lamp stand (menorah)."  This lamp was probably made of separate oil lamps placed upon the branches of the menorah.  Before the Passover feast, the search for "leaven" was carried out with the help of an oil lamp.


The oil lamp is compared to the soul of man: "The spirit of a man is the lamp of the Lord...."  (Proverbs 20: 27.)  The Hasmoneans as a symbol of an independent Judea used the menorah in the Jerusalem Temple.  The Midrash tells us that not only was Moses granted a higher vision into the workings of the "first light" through the mechanism of the Menorah, he also was given the technical specifications to construct a Menorah on earth: 

"And you shall make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its flowers shall be one piece, its Knops (ornamental knobs), and its flowers shall be one piece with it." 

"And there shall be six branches going out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of one side of it and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side of it; Three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knop and a flower, and three cups made like almond-blossoms on the other branch, a knop and flower; so for the six branches going out of the candlestick." (Exodus 25:31-34). 


The Romans seized this Menorah as booty, after the conquest of Jerusalem and the burning and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  This is depicted in Titus' triumphant procession, on the Arch of Titus in Rome.  This same menorah now serves as the emblem of the State of Israel.


One event, still observed today and every year in Jewish homes, is the festival of Chanukah.  The "Festival of Lights" celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic / Syrian forces around 164 BCE. with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the Lamp.


Legend has it that when the Temple was being cleansed of its pagan influence, the Maccabees found insufficient ritually pure oil for the Eternal Light.  The small vial that was found only contained enough oil for the lamp to burn for one day.  A dilemma for sure for the Temple Priests, especially on such an important event as the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple.  Tradition says that miraculously, the oil lasted eight days until additional oil could be prepared. 


The earliest Chanukah lamps do not go back further than the first century C.E. and in no way differ from the simple pear shaped Greco-Roman lamps made out of clay or red-buff pottery typical of that period.   The original Chanukah lamp usually consisted of a single wick; in the days of the Talmud these lamps sometimes had two spouts "to serve two persons".  This dish contained oil with the wicks protruding over the rim of the dish (Mishnah, Shabbat 3b).  As late as the twelfth century, Maimonides maintained that if each household lit one light every night of the festival, it had fulfilled its obligation.  However, "a lamp with two wicks (would) does for two persons" (Rambam, Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Megillah ve-Chanukah 4:1 - 3, 5 - 6,  8 - 12, 14).  It is appropriate for those who wanted to light an additional wick for every night of the festival as we do today, finishing up with eight lights on the eighth night.  Originally the custom was to light an array of eight separate, single-wick lamps.


Since Temple days the festival of Sukkot had associations with the kindling of the seven-branched Menorot: "there were three golden candlesticks with four golden bowls on the top of them and four ladders to each, and four youths drawn from the priestly stock in whose hands were held jars of oil containing one hundred and twenty log (measures), which they poured into the bowls". (Sukkot 51a). 


Wicks prepared out of the worn-out drawers and girdles of the priests were made to float in the oil and the lamps were kindled.  The illumination was so intense that "there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the light of the place of the water drawing.  A woman could sift wheat by the illumination of the place of the water-drawing".  (Sukkot 53a).


The combustion of oil produces energy in the form of light and fire.  In biblical times however, it was the anointing with the oil, and not the crowning of a King that was all-important. The oil symbolized the fuel that illuminates the forehead with an aura of light to determine "God's Chosen One".  In the same way, when we kindle the oil in a lamp - an act of crowning as well as dedication takes place as the flame springs to life.  This symbolism as well as the practical use of the lamp reinforces the overall importance of this object as well as the oil used.


In Jewish traditions the lamp is still used for the celebration and reverence of events such as the Pilgrimage Festivals - Havdalah, High Holidays, Yortzeit and Shabbat.  Since Temple days and even before, light has been enshrined at the very heart of Jewish religious life.  The lamp burns constantly around the world in the Sanctuary of every Synagogue as an "Eternal Flame".  Centred on light, in fact are some of the most sensuous and attractive Jewish rituals.  And it is here that the technicalities of law and the inner illumination of Judaism are at one.


"The Torah is Light, and the mitzvah is a Lamp (or candle)." ( Proverbs 6: 23).  The "Ner" (lamp) is the holder of the light of Torah.  Through physical acts of mitzvoth (religious and moral obligation), the inner light of Torah shines through the body and human personality. 


The mitzvot has the potential to "hold" the light.  "Your Word is a lantern unto my feet and a light to my way." (Psalm 119: 105).


One can see that the Bible is full of many references to the oil lamp for its uses both ritually and symbolicallyIts connection to man both physically and spiritually also plays an important  part in the development of Biblical history.  The light that emulates from the lamp has enabled us to literally see in the dark, to study at night, to keep warm, to cook from and even to dream.


The fact that every household used several lamps, that they were relatively small and sturdy in design, has allowed the Archaeologist to find large numbers of this artefact in tact.  Buried along with other pottery type items the oil lamp is an object, like parts of a jigsaw puzzle, that when pieced together with other finds helps paint a picture of life in ancient times.


The lamp's evolution over the period time-span from 4500 B.C.E. up to 640 C.E. has undergone few design changes reflecting on the general functionality of this object.  


So, from a simple everyday article that was used for a very practical purpose, a poetic quality also sprang forth.  It illuminated man's mind allowing him the ability to dream, to wonder and capture thoughts that helped round out and influence the lives of our early descendants.  There is no doubt that the oil lamp has played an important role in defining the history of the Jews.  Its development and use captivates all who gaze into its burning flame.  It is a tiny beacon that shines like the stars that "lights our life".


The study of lamps,  particularly ancient Jewish oil lamps that this brief focuses on, holds an incredulous fascination for me.  It combines the disciplines of Scientific Archaeology with that of Biblical Archaeology, History, Geography, Chronology, along with wonderful symbolisms.  


Reflecting on the peoples that used these lamps provides me with an almost mystical wonder and unexplainable inner-experience.  Observing and holding an actual artefact, made by man, who used it for a most important and vital function, gives me a true feeling of connection with our ancestors. 


"A lamp is called a lamp, and the soul of man is called a lamp."

 (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30B)


Archaeological History and Explanation:


It was the Scandinavians, in the early part of the nineteenth century, who first divided the history of the ancient world into three main divisions: Stone, Bronze, and Iron.  The founder of what was to become the National Museum of Copenhagen, Christian J. Thomsen (1780-1865), first published his classification in 1836 in his "Guide to Scandinavian Antiquities".


His immediate successor, J.J.A. Worsaae (1821-1885), further developed the system by sub-dividing each of the ages, two for the Stone Age, two for the Bronze Age and three for the Iron Age.  As the century progressed, more and more refinement was established, and towards the end of the century, the Montelius system, named after the Swede G.G. Montelius (1843-1921), was generally recognized.  He established that the Scandinavian Bronze Age could be divided into six divisions and the dating established by using the objects found in a closed deposit (either a tomb or a hoard) of a fixed date could then be established for those sites which were not obviously dated by noting such things as technological advances, changes of shape and decorations of an object or their geographical distribution.


When excavating a site, an archaeologist will find a sherd (a piece of pottery) which will enable him or her to state with reasonable certainty that it was from say, the Middle Bronze Age (MB).  He or she may be able to pin it down to any one of the three sub-divisions within that category.  They will know automatically from their college days, the dates for those sub-divisions so that they can immediately put an approximate date on his find.  They might be even luckier and find some dateable object like a scarab from Egypt or even an inscription.  The major problem with excavations or "digs" in the Bible Lands is that there are very, very few inscriptions, and most of the objects, which are dateable, are Egyptian.  Whichever way an archaeologist looks at it therefore, he or she has to often rely on Egyptian dates for dating of their own finds.


The first question one asks is, why is there a division between one time period and the next? How does one know when one period begins and another ends?  In fact the science of stratigraphy is essentially the science of discontinuity.  Some ages were brought to an end by massive catastrophes, which were widespread throughout  the Near and Middle East.


Thus the great French archaeologist, Claude Schaeffer (1898-1982), found destruction layers widespread between the following listed periods. 


All Archaeological Periods are based, to some degree on conventional dates:    


Between Early Bronze II (approx. 3050-2300 BCE. and Early Bronze III) (Development of Urban Centres and Settlements)


End of Early Bronze Age (approx. 2000 BCE.) (The Collapse of Urban              Settlements)


End Mid Bronze Age II(A) (approx. 1750 BCE.)



Early Pottery Explanation:


Terra-cotta pottery was produced in the earliest of the historically recorded settlements all along the Fertile Crescent.  The clay used was abundant and varied, and the early potters had ample resources with which to experiment, create and develop their styles.  As technique and firing methods improved, a great range of shapes evolved.  With the development of the potter's wheel the manufacture of the oil lamp was greatly enhanced.  Of the many daily-use items produced in the ancient world, the terra cotta oil lamp (and the bottle or unguentarium) were perhaps the most useful, consequently, they are of the most frequently found ancient items.  Their basic shapes and of course their use remained unchanged for over  a thousand years. 



Catalogue Explanation:


This is a personal catalogue pertaining to the collection of oil lamps from the land of Israel dating back as far as the Chalcolithic Age and advancing up to and including the Byzantine Era; a study-period spanning about 4,000 years.  This collection has been assembled specifically to demonstrate the evolution of the oil lamp by archaeological time period and to also present different examples of shapes, sizes and styles with-in the same archaeological era. 


All of the catalogued artefacts originate from Israel (Palestine/Canaan) and have been acquired through recognized, reputable and licensed Dealers in Antiquities and carry Certificates of Authenticity.  All of the catalogued items are original, with some of the items restored as noted.  This catalogue represents the culmination of years of research and acquisition producing, in what I believe is, an extraordinary antiquities collection, profiling the various examples of pottery type oil lamps that form a living history.


For ease of reference and understanding I have outlined a concise chronology table featuring the scientific time periods, dates, historical events, historical figures, biblical events, and biblical figures along with the evolution of the oil lamp as it relates to each of the time periods (see page 23).  It also lists the acquisition sources and a bibliography (see page 33 and 75).


This oil lamp collection is also photographed, specified and explained in more detail by era, tying together the historical (Biblical) and archaeological background, pottery associations and is catalogued by evolutionary periods.