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.

Comments

  1. Aldo Sappia says:

    Reference to your “Roman oil light” it should not smoke or very, very little. Possibly the wick of kitchen paper is wrong cotton or linen better. The flame must be as close to the oil as possible. that is the reason why it is shaped that way. The olive oil must be of the cheapest quality possible. Virgin or extra virgin oil will not do, too dense. In case of the light being broken while in use it should not burst in flames like a paraffin light as the oil needs to be very hot before catching fire. However fire is fire so be very careful. I have used two of those, one original Roman in bronze, open design, during the war and one with three flames, circa 1750, in brass they both worked perfectly. A. Sappia

    • Fiona Mair says:

      Thanks Aldo – I will try with some ordinary olive oil to see if it smokes less, but overall I was very impressed with how well it burned. Do the bronze lamps get hot when the lamp is burning? Fiona

  2. Hello,
    I am an art teacher who tried this with my middle school classes and they turned out wonderfully. I do have some notes of importance for any teacher who tries this in a classroom setting.

    If you use clay that can be fired, the lamps need to be glazed (including the base) on the outside before using them, if they are not, the lamps will absorb the oil and it will soak through to the base of the pot. This happened to my kids’ projects, so I emptied the oil and went to re-fire them so the students could glaze them. I DO NOT recommend this! The clay absorbed more oil than I anticipated and the lamps started a fire in the kiln. Fortunately it was contained to the kiln and no one was injured, although the smoke was more than the exhaust hood could handle and did cause the building to be evacuated and the fire department called. During school. I am sharing my rather embarrassing mistake in the hopes that others will not make the same errors I did with this project. The students loved it, but the steep learning curve was a little much for me!

    On another note, our lamps got hot around the lip where the wick was as well, I have antique glass oil lamps at home and any area near a flame is just going to be hot. I did experiment with the oil, I used an organic extra virgin olive oil, it did the job – it did have an odor that some of the students liked and some didn’t. It does not flame up if spilled, the flame is just extinguished. Also, we used pieces from an old cotton t-shirt as wicks, it worked and it’s another way of reusing and recycling!

    • My kids made these lamps in a museum workshop (Valkhof, Nijmegen, the Netherlands). They had a kind of rubber moulds from original roman lamps and they worked fine. It was a one hour workshop so they did not fire them, instead the kids were given an aluminium cup (from a tealight candle) and a wick to put inside before assembling so the lamps could be used. I have a little kiln at home so we took the aluminum cup out and worked a little bit on it at home before i fired the piece. I only glazed the inside and poured the clear glaze out of the spout so all essential parts are glazed. It works fine, but i keep it on a little saucer when in use.

  3. i am a student here 2 research 4 the y5 exhibition, and i must say, splendid work whoever contributed to the article.

  4. Thanks, we made these and love them

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