Lighting the Ancient World

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Lighting the Ancient World


Until the nineteenth century—ironically, on the eve of the light bulb's invention—methods of lighting remained more or less unchanged since earliest antiquity. Three forms of lighting existed, in order of their appearance: torches, lamps, and candles, all of which used animal fat or, in the case of lamps in the most advanced ancient societies, vegetable oil. Thus people thousands of years ago rolled back the darkness, not only of night, but of remote places far from the Sun.


In the characteristic abode of prehistoric man, the cave, light remained a necessity at all hours, because typically the Sun's illumination did not penetrate the rocky depths of these homes. Though popular belief pictures fire and the wheel as more or less simultaneous discoveries—give or take a few thousand years—in fact the wheel only appeared during historic times, whereas man's use of fire stretches back into the earliest recesses of unwritten history.

Among the relatively more recent uses for fire is cooking; but even when humans still gnawed the raw flesh of animals, they required the warmth and light fire provided. Though warmth would seem somewhat more essential to human sustenance than light, in fact it is likely that both functions emerged at about the same time. Once prehistoric man began using fire for warmth, it would have been a relatively short time before these early ancestors comprehended the power of fire to drive out both darkness and the fierce creatures that came with it.

One major step in prehistoric development was the fashioning of portable lighting technology in the form of torches or rudimentary lamps. Torches were probably made by binding together resinous material from trees, though to some extent this is supposition, since the wood material has not survived. By contrast, many hundreds of prehistoric stone lamps have endured.

Paleolithic humans typically used as lamps either stones with natural depressions, or soft rocks—for example, soapstone or steatite—into which they carved depressions by using harder material. Most of the many hundreds of lamps found by archaeologists at sites in southwestern France are made of either limestone or sandstone. The former was a particularly good choice, since it conducts heat poorly; by contrast, lamps made of sandstone, a good conductor of heat, usually had carved handles to protect the hands of the user.

In addition to stone lamps, cave art at La Moute in France shows pear-shaped lamps made from the heads and horns of an ibex, a large wild goat plentiful in the region at that time. It should be noted in this regard that the very existence of prehistoric art, of which the most famous examples may be found in the Lascaux caves of southern France, illustrates the way that artificial lighting changed the world even in those early years. These splendid frescoes, deep in the recesses of caves and impossibly far from the Sun's light, would never have existed if the peoples of prehistoric times had not developed a reliable means of lighting their caves.


The history of lighting is generally divided into four periods, each of which overlap and that together illustrate the slow pace of change in illumination technology. First was the Primitive, a period that encompasses that of the torches and lamps of prehistoric human beings—though in fact French peasants continued to use the same lighting methods depicted on nearby cave paintings until World War I.

The two more recent stages are Medieval, which saw the development of metal lamps, and the Modern or Invention stage. The latter began with the creation of the glass lantern chimney by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in 1490, culminated with Thomas Edison's (1847-1931) first practical incandescent bulb in 1879, and continues today. Between Primitive and Medieval, however, was the world of ancient Greece and Rome, the Classical stage, that marks the high point of lighting in antiquity. Earlier ancient civilizations, such as that of Egypt, belong to the Primitive era in lighting—before the relatively widespread adoption of the candle and of vegetable oil as fuel.

It is important to recognize that, while the ancient Egyptians were infinitely more advanced than prehistoric peoples in their demonstrated ability with written language, building, and political organization, in some ways they were still living in the Stone Age. Indeed, Egypt during the Old Kingdom (c. 2650-c. 2150 b.c.), the era in which the pyramids were built, was quite literally just out beyond the Stone Age, since the metalworking of the Bronze Age was in its early stages.

With the emergence of metal tools in the Bronze Age and even more so the Iron Age, which began c. 1200, came the development of the cresset, a bronze basket of wrought iron into which resinous material—pine knots and rich pieces of hardwood—could be placed. This was the case in parts of Europe and other regions heavy with tree growth; but the Egyptians, possessing few trees, had to burn animal greases, and instead of a wrought-iron basket, the typical light fixture in a pharaoh's palace was a wrought-iron bowl. (As would be the case centuries later with the Greeks and Romans, the material from which lamps were made—metal for the wealthy, clay for the poor—served to distinguish classes.)

At various times, the fat of seals, horses, cattle, and fish was used to fuel lamps. (Whale oil, by contrast, entered widespread use only during the nineteenth century.) Primitive humans sometimes lit entire animals—for example, the storm petrel, a bird heavy in fat—to provide light. Even without such cruel excesses, however, animal fat made for a smoky, dangerous, foul-smelling fire.

Though archaeologists in France have found a 20,000-year-old lamp with vegetablefiber residue inside, the use of vegetable oils for lighting did not take hold until Greek and especially Roman times. The favored variety of fuel among Romans was olive oil with a little salt that dried the oil and helped make the light brighter. Animal oils remained in use, however, among the poor, whose homes often reeked with the odor of castor oil or fish oil. Because virtually all fuels came from edible sources, times of famine usually meant times of darkness as well.

As with the use of vegetable oils, the development of the candle dates to earliest antiquity, but the ancient use of candles only became common—that is, among the richest citizens—in Rome. In its use of animal fat, the candle seems a return to an earlier stage, but the hardened tallow of candles made for a much more stable, relatively safer fuel than the oil of lamps.

Common to candles and lamps was the wick, made of fibers that burned slowly. In a lamp, the wick draws in the liquid fuel, which becomes gas as it burned, and the burning carbon at the end of the wick produces light. With a candle, the heat from the flame at the end of the wick liquefies wax near the wick's base. Capillary action draws the liquid wax upward, where the heat vaporizes it, and the combustion of the vapor produces light.

Even as the wealthiest Romans burned candles or vegetable oil in bronze lamps, and the poorest lit their homes with fish oil in lamps of clay or terra cotta, soldiers and others in need of portable lighting continued to use torches of resinous wood. This was also the case in classical Greece, as one can surmise from a reference in Thucydides (c. 471-401 b.c.) to the use of a torch in burning down the temple of Hera at Argos.

Etruscan tomb paintings at Orvieto, Italy, depict candles, and indeed a piece of candle from the first century a.d. was found by archaeologists at the French town of Vaison. Notable references to candles in classical writing include a description of candle-making by Pliny (c. a.d. 23-79), as well as these lines form On the City of Rome by Juvenal (fl. first century a.d.): "...led home only by the Moon / or a small candle, whose wick I tend with care...."

References to lamps, of course, are far more plentiful, as are examples of lamps found in archaeological digs—for instance, at Pompeii, where 90 decorated lamps were preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in a.d. 79. Juvenal and Pliny both wrote about lamps, the latter noting that "the wicks made from fibers of the castor plant give a brilliantly clear flame, but the oil burns with a dull light because it is much too thick." Furthermore, there are the many passages in the New Testament that mention lamps: perhaps the most well-known reference to lighting in ancient literature is Jesus's admonition that "no one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar...." (Luke 8:16, NIV).


Further Reading


Faraday, Michael. The Chemical History of a Candle (reprint of 1861 volume). Atlanta: Cherokee, 1993.

Forbes, R. J. Studies in Ancient Technology. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1955.

Phillips, Gordon. Seven Centuries of Light: The Tallow Chandlers Company. Cambridge, England: Granta Editions, 1999.

Internet Sites

"An Appreciation of Early Lighting." Cir-Kit Concepts. (November 16, 2000).

McElreath, Elizabeth F., and Regina Webster. "Artificial Light in Ancient Rome." University of North Carolina. (November 16, 2000).

Pressley, Benjamin. "Conquering the Darkness: Primitive Lighting Methods." (November 16, 2000).