Lamps have been an important part of life for thousands of years. Ancient houses in the Mediterranean were often dark and somewhat gloomy places, with few windows for natural light. A hearth or brazier could easily handle the heating needs of most households but required a large amount of fuel, produced a large amount of smoke, and could be serious fire hazards. For this reason lamps were used for most of the interior lighting.
Some of the earliest lamps were little more than shallow bowls for holding oil or animal fat, in the Mediterranean olive oil was often used in lamps. Over time these bowls evolved into a small closed vessel with one or more spouts for the wick, a hole for filling, and later a small handle. By enclosing the oil reservoir the lamp makers reduced the risk of spilling and fire when using lamps for interior lighting.
This example from the Classics collection at the Sam Noble Museum is thought to have been made in Cyprus and is an example of a “cocked hat” or shell lamp. This type of lamp provides a pinched opening for a wick to rest and has a shape reminiscent of a sea shell. Cocked hat or shell lamps were made throughout the Mediterranean region for many years. Archaeologists believe that this type of lamp may have been first developed by the Phoenicians in the second millennium BCE and continued to be used until at least the 3rd century BCE by many other groups. Other examples of this type can be found in the Wright Museum of Art, the Spurlock Museum, the British Museum, the Yeshiva University Museum, and others. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]