Herodian Oil Lamps--Simple and Efficient
Updated: May 11
A number of First Century CE oil lamps displayed in the Wahl Museum in Jerusalem
Ever since man discovered fire he desired an easy way to light his surroundings at night. Burning torches were not all that reliable, as they dropped embers and created smoke—not ideal for indoor lighting. Eventually sources of fuel were discovered that burned cleaner and were less of a fire hazard. Today we think of kerosene or some petroleum byproduct as an oil that might burn in a lamp. We also know that whale oil was very popular before the 20th century—until whales began to be overhunted. In fact, most any animal fat could be processed and melted to create a reliable burning fuel, it just happens whales had huge volumes of blubber fat that made them profitable for harvesting. But in biblical times whale hunting did not exist in Judea, and most other animals were not a large enough source of fat to meet the demand. So, what did they burn? I wondered this as in the Bible they speak of oil lamps, such as in the ten virgins that needed oil to keep their lamps lit. And oil lamps are found frequently in digs, so it seems everyone owned one. The answer makes a lot of sense—they burned olive oil. Olives were of course harvested all over that part of the world for cooking, and it turns out it burned cleanly and safely as well. If you spilled your lit oil lamp the oil would just smother the flame. It is not combustible enough to be a fire hazard. For this same reason it needs a rather thick and effective wick to pull up the oil from the reservoir for burning. Such oil lamps were present during most of the biblical eras, although their forms changed. At the Wahl Museum I visited in Jerusalem many were on display—some found at the site (see above photo). These have decorations on them and are typical of ones made by Romans and Greeks and sold in Judea. Centuries earlier these clay lamps were simpler in form, made from one clay disk that was cupped and pinched (see photo below). Here the woven cloth or linen wicks laid open in the pinched groove rather than protruding from the hold in the end. The earlier versions were more prone to spills.
A number of First Temple Period (David/Solomon Era) oil lamps displayed at the Wahl Museum, Jerusalem.
In my novel series Cry for Jerusalem the characters are constantly using oil lamps—especially Miriam—who has a tendency to enter dark tunnels. When I was in Jerusalem in 2019, I was interested in seeing if I could purchase a lamp like she would have used. In the last blog I described an antiquities dealer I visited at his store in the Jewish Quarter. I asked him about Herodian era oil lamps, and he said they were common enough that originals were widely for sale. He said “Herodian” was actually the name for that era of lamp, and they were distinguished by their plain appearance—no decorations. This was due to the nationalistic “buy Judean” movement that had arisen among the rebels to not buy Roman or Greek merchandise but only Judean made. Thus, the plain varieties without decoration became popular, and were seen as a sign of patriotism. He had a few for sale and I purchased one for about $200. I have since seen many of these that look remarkably similar on the web for sale for similar prices. You can see they were made by spinning the main bowl on a potter’s wheel, then attaching an arm to hold the wick. (See the photo below). Many of the lamps from this era have handles opposite the wick, but many others like this one, do not. The lamp is small enough to hold in your hand without a handle. A full lamp might have burned for three or four hours. The wicks do not survive the centuries in the ground—they decay. The bottom of this one is plain without any markings. In my novel series Miriam’s lamp has initials inscribed on the bottom indicating the maker. I can hold this one I have in my hand and be amazed that someone else held this nearly two thousand year ago in Judea.
A Herodian oil lamp I purchased from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem in 2019. U.S. dime is for scale.