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How Romans lit up their lives: Highlights of West Berks Museum collection

From Cyprus to Wickham, oil lamps were one of the most common household items

Trish Lee

Trish Lee

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886663

In lockdown, we miss our wonderful West Berkshire Museum says arts editor TRISH LEE. On the bright side, it does give us more time to take a closer look at some of their treasures. In this series, museum staff choose some of the fascinating pieces in the collection

 

OIL lamps were one of the most common household items in the Roman period and West Berkshire Museum has several examples, some of which are currently on display. They were used domestically for indoor and outdoor
illumination, but also had uses outside the household, such as for lighting up taverns, arenas, theatres and temples, to which they were brought as votive offerings as well. Lamps were often buried in tombs with other personal items like pottery and jewellery.

Olive oil was the most popular fuel, but other oils could be used, such as animal fat, sesame oil and grape-seed oil. Because olive oil was scarce and expensive to import into Britain, these lamps were less abundant here than in other parts of the Roman Empire. The wicks were usually made of linen cloth, papyrus – a type of grass – or other fibrous material. The central disc on the top of the lamps was often
decorated with motifs or scenes from mythology, religion, gladiator fights, chariot races, everyday life and animals.

Roman lamps were mostly made of pottery, but some were made of bronze, such as this example in the museum’s collection, other metals, stone or even glass. The bronze lamp pictured above, in particular, has an interesting story as it is believed to have come from the Roman cemetery found in Newbury in 1856 by workers on the site near where Sainsbury’s now stands.
Records from the time state that hundreds of skeletons and a number of cremations were found. Initially, it was believed that these were the remains of Civil War soldiers. However, other artefacts were discovered at the site which have been dated to the 2nd or 3rd century AD. The first mention of the site being Roman was in the Reading Chronicle on March 1, 1856. The finds included a small terracotta amphora, two glass bottles and Samian ware pottery. The potters’ marks on the Samian ware identified it as originating from central Gaul. Potters’ marks are sometimes found on Roman lamps as well.

The names or marks of the workers or workshops that produced the lamps are usually stamped underneath them and almost acted as a trademark or advertisement. Finding lamps with makers’ marks or certain types of decoration can be useful for dating archaeological sites, if the dates those workshops were active is also known. For example, although there are none in the collection, lamps with the mark of three crossed palm branches bound together were made in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. One lamp that is in the museum’s collection, not illustrated here, was found in Northbrook Street, Newbury, and
is signed ‘EVCARPI’. This is believed to be the sign of Eucarpus, an Italian maker whose products were popular in the Rhineland and are examples of what are sometimes known today as Firmalampen (‘factory lamps’), as they were mass produced.

Bronze lamps were more expensive than clay lamps and could be melted down to make other objects, which makes them rarer archaeological finds. The value of a lamp was also increased if it had relief decoration, like the examples above collected from Cyprus, in the museum’s collection. However, like the Firmalampen, most lamps were mass produced using a two-part mould and then fired in a kiln, like the one found at Wickham House, Berkshire, which made it easy to standardise production on a massive scale. This meant the majority of Roman lamps were fairly cheap to buy and were the ‘throw-away’ products of their time.

Researched and written by museum volunteer Emily Wells and assistant archaeologist, West Berkshire Council, Beth Asbury.
Images courtesy of West Berkshire Museum

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