Make a Roman oil lamp

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We recently went on a camping holiday which made me think about how different life must have been before there was electric light. It is very hard to do anything once the daylight goes, even with plenty of candles about. So what was it like before electricity was invented?

Oil lamps have been found in many Ancient civilizations and there are many examples of Roman oil lamps. Many of these were made from clay which was set in moulds and then fired. The lamps were often decorated with patterns or pictures like this one in the British Museum, which has a picture of gladiators fighting on it!

We thought it would be a good idea to have a go at making one. It turned out to be quite a difficult thing to do so children might need a bit of adult help at some points.

How to make your own Roman Lamp

You will need:

  • some air drying clay
  • a piece of kitchen towel
  • some olive oil

First make the base of the lamp – take a lump of the clay and roll it out until it about a cm thick. Keeping the bottom of the lamp circular, start pinching up the sides until it start to look like a small circular bowl. Then you can  pinch one side together to make the spout.

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Next tool out another circle to make the lid. Decorate it and make a hole to pour the oil into. We did this using a felt tip pen. Cut the circle to fit the size of the lamp then use plenty of water and stick the two pieces together.

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Attach a small piece of clay to the lamp to make the handle and let the lamp dry out for a couple of days.

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Once it is dry you can try it out! take a piece of kitchen roll the length of the lamp base – roll and twist it into a thin rope. This will be the lamp wick which draws the oil out of the lamp. In Ancient Rome rolled up linen was often used in a similar way.

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Pour some olive oil into the hole in the top of the lamp and wait a while until you can see it  soaking into the wick. You can now light the wick.

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Finished – this is the perfect light to use at a Roman feast.

The only slight problem with our one was the smell. It was slightly stinky when we blew it out , and gave off quite a sooty smoke. It might be worth experimenting with some different kinds of oils or wicks to see if some other vegetable oils are better, but is likely that olive oil was used in many of these lamps. Did the whole of Rome smell like this in the evenings? It would be lovely to know!

But actually I am pretty impressed with this lamp. It burns brightly and evenly and is easy to use. I can imagine slaves in Ancient Rome going round topping up the oil in them each day. It is also a very eco-friendly way of lighting the house – especially if you owned a few olive trees. Just the job if you have a power cut and have run out of candles.

Find out more about this kind of lamp here and see a cute lamp on the BBC’s Roman page here.