From the Collections: An erotic oil lamp (Zakaria Enzminger)


Objects and artifacts, far from being inanimate creations, exert an agency imbued by their creators depending on the purpose of the creation. These can have multiple functions, be it for symbolic or practical use, or a combination of both depending on the circumstances of the objects usage, and how exactly its representation is interpreted. Materials such as gold and silver are deemed precious, yet functionally are less valuable than copper or steel in their practical usage. Similarly, symbols of kingship and religion, such as saintly relics, affirm legitimacy and exert agency far beyond the material value of the objects, and such value changes overtime with shifts in cultural and material perceptions. For the purpose of this blog, I will be using a simple terracotta oil lamp as an example of an artifact reflecting cultural values and norms of its context. This will include a brief description of the object, and how the matter, form and aesthetics of the object reflect the cultural milieu of its use.

The lamp is a small object, made to fit in the hand of a human. It measures around 3cm in width, and 4 cm in length, and the shape is circular, interrupted at one end by a spout from which the flame would exude. The central depression allows for the holders thumb to grip the object, and avoid close contact with the naked flame.

The object is made of a very coarse pottery that has elements of air bubbles and impurities within the fabric. This may indicate that it was very simply made in large quantities, and was most probably an affordable everyday item. The walls of the materials are also uneven in some places (thickness of the material is not even along the entire object). This could indicate that it was made in a hurry, without recourse to a detailed overview of quality. The uniformity of shape, and the depression at the top points to its origin from a mould, another indicator of perhaps its large scale production since moulds could easily be remade.

Fig 2Stylistically speaking, certain features distinguish the oil lamp. The object contains two concentric circles, one on top and the other on the bottom. These could have been added for aesthetic purposes, but on the bottom it seems to balance the object. Around the top circles (a pair), there are decorations of two types: two smaller circles, and ribbon shapes along the middle edge. Perhaps the most notable feature of the artifact is the graphic erotic scene depicted in the middle depression of the lamp. It shows a much worn scene of two figures copulating, though it is difficult to see any specific features indicating the figures sex. The functional aspect of this imprint (perhaps made by a stamp used before the firing) is that the raised ridges offer a better means of gripping the lamp, which may have been its purpose. This seems to be dated approximately to 1st-2nd century, and was of Roman origin especially since the erotic scene was widely re-used, thus indicative of its popularity.

The functional aspect of the lamp goes without saying, especially when electrical lighting was not available. The most common type of fuel used in such objects in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE would have been olive or vegetal oil, animal fat, or perhaps even unrefined petroleum. The objects coarse material and plain appearance, although possibly an outcome of poor conservation, indicate it was popularly available to a large swath of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Most interestingly, the lurid erotic scene depicted in the lamps central depression may reflect attitudes at the time, such as a more open acceptance of sexuality in the public sphere, although it could quite possibly have been meant as a private item. It was an extremely functional object, was easily replicable, replaceable, and was designed to appeal to popular tastes both aesthetically and in the simplicity of its design.