Thematic exhibition

Ancient lamps

Lighting the ancient world
Lamp with relief decoration of Ares, signed 'ΟΚΤΑΒΙΟΥ'CC BY-NC 4.0
Ministry of Culture and Sports - Directorate for the Administration of the National Archive of Monuments

The oil lamp is the longest-lived artificial lighting technology in the world. In Greece, it made its appearance in the Paleolithic era, made of stone, bones or shells. It consisted of two parts, the body (filled with oil or fat) and the beaker where the wick was placed. The first clay lamps were made on a potters wheel and looked like pig ears, in the shape of a saucer with "pinched" corners to support the wick. Artisans later began to work with molds - a faster technique that allowed mass production - and were now able to introduce all kinds of intricate decorations. During the Hellenistic period, lamps began to be more than just household items. They are decorated with ornate anthropomorphic or zoomorphic handles or come in bizarre shapes, almost like ancient forerunners of the fidget spinner.

Artificial lighting technologies did not evolve significantly with the passage from ancient to Byzantine times: the use of lamps remained widespread, while the most important innovation of the time was the glass oil lamps, which were made possible by placing the wick in the center. Ornate lamps adorned the interiors of luxury homes and churches, as the ecclesiastical uses of lamps were many. Lamp-divination was also widespread. The soothsayer, meditating by looking at the flame, came into a hypnotic ecstasy and received the oracles via the light.

Starting in 1780, the Argand lamp quickly replaced other oil lamps. It was in turn replaced by the kerosene lamp in about 1850.

The lamp, the discreet companion of countless writers from antiquity to the 18th century, has been personified many times in literature and is also featured in myths and oral traditions, such as the genie of the lamp that grants its liberator three wishes. The sensuality of the soft small flame that flickers, the fact that the lamp is present and illuminates our personal and intimate moments , the shadows it creates that stimulate the imagination, are aspects of the charm that this simple object has exerted throughout time- a charm, which the modern eye will probably never fully appreciate.

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