Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

"Ancient" Bronze Lamp

During the time of the Roman Empire, artisans created objects for both practical use and to show one’s wealth. Functional lamps were made out of clay and bronze, with bronze being a highly specialized material that was not mass-produced. This type of lamp would have been a unique piece made using the lost-wax casting method. The industry for bronze artifacts was much smaller but included larger objects that were sold as luxury goods, whereas the clay industry mass produced lamps that could be used by many. In the height of the Roman Empire, Roman influence had expanded around the Mediterranean and beyond, participating in trade with many different cultures reaching as far as the Indian subcontinent. Through this trade and influence of foreign peoples on the Romans, different cultural styles were blended together by artisans.

A lamp almost identical to this one was found in Pong Tuk, Thailand (Siam), which indicates the vast distances that some of these objects could travel. It is unlikely, however, that this lamp was made specifically for the Southeast Asian peoples, due to its mostly Roman style. Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine it being traded to merchants, who then brought it to the area that is now Yemen in the second century CE. From there it could have been traded to merchants on their way to India, and after some time, perhaps hundreds of years later, traded between two rich families into the area of Pong Tuk. It would have been lost to the ages until it was dug up by archeologists in the early twentieth century.

The object that is displayed here is most likely not an authentic Roman lamp, but a very good reproduction. The lamp itself resembles the one found at Pong Tuk in such detail that it is unlikely to be an original second century work. The Pong Tuk lamp has been featured in many different catalogues and is an extremely popular piece from the Pong Tuk excavations; it is therefore likely that artisans would want to reproduce it for profit.  Confirmation for the identification of this object as a copy is found on the bottom of the lamp, which lacks the square hole used to affix the lamp to a stand.  The patina achieved by the artisan would have been possible using a number of chemical techniques and then burying the piece underground for some time to develop an earthy and dirty look, causing people to believe that the piece was an original from the second century CE. 

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