African Oil lamps in the Roman city of Sanisera

Oil lamps were the instruments used by Romans to light up many spaces, not only houses but also temples and necropolis, among others. Oil lamps were produced throughout Roman times in pottery workshops, where potters used molds for their manufacture. The main product which was used to light them up was olive oil.

In an other post, written by Martin Horne, we had talked before about about the importance of excavation of the Roman Port City of Sanitja and of the investigation through Sanisera Archaeology Institute.

Fragment of oil lamp’s disk with a Christian cross.

Fragment of oil lamp’s disk with a Christian cross

Depending on the period, oil lamps could have different shapes, sizes and decorative patterns, but they all had the same main parts: a handle, disk (the central part, which had holes to pour the olive oil in the inside), shoulder (the edge of the upper part surrounding the disk) and nozzle (where the wick was placed)

Section of the intact oil lamp found in a trash pit

Section of the intact oil lamp found in a trash pit

In this Roman city of Sanisera (Menorca, Balearic Islands, Spain) many fragments of oil lamps are found every year. Even though we find oil lamps dating between the Early Empire and the Late Antiquity periods, most of the oil lamps recovered during fieldwork date between 400 AD and 600 AD. These oil lamps were all produced in northern Africa (Carthage and surroundings) and are known as Early Christian oil lamps.

Fragment of oil lamp with Christian design

Fragment of oil lamp with Christian design

All of them have an orange varnish in the outside and a channel connecting the disk and the nozzle. In these oil lamps decorative patterns are always found on the disks and shoulders. While the patterns on the shoulders are geometrical (e.g. concentric circles, squares, rhombuses), vegetal (e.g. vine leaves) or zoomorph (e.g. dolphins), the main designs are located on the disk. Those are always related to Christianity and can include diverse options such as crosses, the alpha and the omega (standing for the beginning and the end), saints praying, doves, the holy lamb or the lion. Last year we found an intact oil lamp. It was located inside a trash pit along with other artifacts, such as fine ware pieces and faunal remains.

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