New light on an ancient lamp

Recently I’ve been working with Dr Sally Waite of Newcastle University on the Kent Collection at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate.This is a large and varied collection of archaeological artefacts from a wide range of locations and cultures, assembled by two generations of the Kent family and bequeathed to Harrogate Council in the 1960s. Most interestingly from my perspective, it includes over a hundred objects from ancient Cyprus. The Kents do not seem to have acquired directly from Cyprus themselves, but to have bought from sales via dealers. They kept a register of their collection, which includes some information about previous owners, making it possible in some cases to trace the history of an object.

Sally and I are currently looking at the objects in the Kent Collection which previously belonged to Thomas Sandwith, the British Vice-Consul on Cyprus from 1865 to 1870. There are six which are recorded as having come from his collection, but the information in the Kents’ register has enabled us to add to this number.The Kent Collection register describes a simple ancient Cypriot lamp as follows:

“Lamp, open type, shallow bowl with flat base, and flat rim pinched abruptly, slit narrow, dia of bowl 3⅜”. Cyprus, Cudworth Collection.”

Cypriot lamp from the Kent collection © Harrogate Museums and Arts, Harrogate Borough Council

Cypriot lamp from the Kent collection
© Harrogate Museums and Arts, Harrogate Borough Council

There are several examples of this type in the British Museum. While its date is difficult to determine without any archaeological context, it probably dates from the 6th to 4th centuries BC.

As discussed in my previous post, Mr Cudworth published a guide to his collection which includes useful information on provenance. Looking at this guide, the lamp that best fits the bill is described as:

“Open lamp, shell pattern, rare (Sandwith Cyprian Collection).”

Cudworth’s term ‘shell pattern’ refers to the theory that this kind of lamp was based on the shape of Terebratula shells, often known as ‘lamp shells’ for this reason (a term that came into use as early as 1787, according to Samuel Pickworth Woodward’s A Manual of the Mollusca). Cudworth states:

“If we have not in the fossilised Terebratula the original design of the early open lamp used for domestic purposes, the coincidence is, at any rate, somewhat remarkable.”

His guide illustrates this point with a woodcut, which bears a marked resemblance to the Kent Collection lamp.
Woodcut of open lamp from the Cudworth Collection.

Woodcut of open lamp from the Cudworth Collection.

Cudworth records the lamp as being from the Sandwith Collection. There were no lamps exhibited at the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, from which many Sandwith objects were acquired by Yorkshire collectors, and it may well have been bought from the saleroom in Sheffield where the pottery was displayed for sale from 1870. No unified catalogue exists of the Sandwith collection (this would be a great project to undertake at some stage), but we have some additional information from Sandwith’s 1877 article on ancient Cypriot pottery in Archaeologia, the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London. This includes a brief description of lamps of this kind:

“It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the better kind of pottery is found in all the tombs. The contrary is the case. Most of the graves contain but two or three common vases, either destitute of pattern or with the simplest designs… A common open lamp (see woodcut) of plain clay, on which no pattern or subject is ever represented, not unfrequently forms a part of the furniture of the deceased’s abode.”

Illustration of lamp from Sandwith's Archaeologia paper.

Illustration of lamp from Sandwith’s Archaeologia paper.

This is so similar to Cudworth’s illustration that I initially thought it was the same woodcut, but on closer examination there are a few small differences. It seems likely that Cudworth was familiar with the Archaeologia  piece, perhaps due to his interest in the Sandwith collection. As Sandwith discusses this kind of lamp in general terms, we can’t go as far as saying that the Kent lamp is the same one illustrated in the Archaeologia paper, but it’s certainly of the same type.

It’s interesting to see the different uses which have been made of this simple lamp by its previous collectors; Sandwith contrasts it with ‘the better kind of pottery’ as a common grave-good, while Cudworth is struck by its similarity to Terebratula shells, presenting this as a possible source of inspiration for its design. Today it is one of the less visually exciting objects surviving from the Kent collection (which includes some spectacular pieces), but it’s given additional interest by what we know of its relatively recent history.


I’ve been researching an ancient Cypriot lamp from the Kent Collection in Harrogate – a fascinating collection, on which much more another time. The lamp was previously owned by William Cudworth (1830-1906), a journalist with the Bradford Observer and a keen local historian and antiquarian, being a founding member of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society. He is best known for his many works on Bradford and the surrounding area, including Worstedopolis: A sketch history of the town and trade of Bradford. He also seems to have tried his hand at translating part of Homer’s Odyssey into English; a man after my own heart.

Portrait of William Cudworth

Portrait of William Cudworth

I was very pleased to discover that William Cudworth had published a monograph on ancient lamps (1893), based on his own collection, and even more pleased to find a second-hand copy. This turned out to be very helpful on the lamp from the Kent Collection, but also helped solve the mystery of another unidentified lamp, an unexpected bonus.


‘Antique Terracotta Lamps’ by William Cudworth

I like the way the publisher has created a generalised air of ‘antiquity’ with the illuminated capital A, and the rather affected ‘Publiʃh’d’. However, I was more struck by the engraved picture of a lamp, with three wicks, a looped handle and two ivy-leaf-shaped projections at the rear. It looked very similar to the lamp in one of the lantern slides made by Henry Crowther, Curator of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society’s Museum, in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Lamp from the cover of 'Antique Terracotta Lamps'

Lamp from the cover of ‘Antique Terracotta Lamps’

Lamp with triple wick. © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Lamp with triple wick.
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

Cudworth’s volume includes a photograph of his lamp, and a description:

Etruscan Lamp from Cudworth's volume, p.8

Etruscan lamp from Cudworth’s volume, p.8

“The large Etruscan specimen in my collection… possesses three projecting nozzles for wicks, which, judging from the openings, must have been of large size and of considerable illuminating power. The lamp is of the solid black paste characteristic of the real Etruscan ware, and is enriched with Bacchic ornamentation in the shape of vine leaves and grapes, with the face of a bacchante, of noble profile. The numerals LVI are inscribed at the base of the lamp. It is a unique specimen, measuring 10 by 10 1/2 inches, and was found in a deposit at Rome. Dr Birch says that this ware exhibits the highest degree of art attained in Italian potteries.”

[Dr Birch = Dr Samuel Birch (1813-1885), Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum.]

Since it is ‘a unique specimen’, I think we can say with some confidence that Henry Crowther’s lantern slide shows the same lamp. It’s worth noting that the colour was added by hand by Mr Crowther’s daughter Violet, and is not necessarily the exact shade of the original lamp. The fact that it is Etruscan does at least explain why I haven’t been able to find any Cypriot parallels! It must have been included in the sequence of Cypriot slides by mistake, whether by Mr Crowther or at a later date.

The question is how this lamp, from the Cudworth collection, came to be photographed by Mr Crowther; but it’s fairly straightforward to conjecture that after Mr Cudworth’s death in 1906 his collection was broken up by bequests and/or sales, and that the Museum of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society took the opportunity to acquire this lamp. The current location of the lamp is unknown, but there is still hope that it may be found again at some point. It’s great to have shed some light on this mysterious image entirely by accident; and to have a further demonstration of how closely interconnected were the circles of antiquarians, curators and collectors of ancient Cyprus.

Mirror, mirror

Emma Bowron, the Conservator at the Leeds City Museum, has now finished conservation work on the University of Leeds ancient Cypriot collection. The final objects to receive her attention were the two bronze mirrors. The first is half of a ‘case’ mirror, probably dating to the Hellenistic/early Roman period. It’s a disc with a raised rim, decorated with concentric circles on the outside.

Bronze case mirror decorated with concentric circles. © University of Leeds

The inside would have been highly polished to create a reflective surface. The other half of the mirror would have had its outer surface polished, and have fitted inside, so the two reflective faces would be in contact for protection and storage. This mirror has cleaned up nicely, with its patina intact, and the raised concentric circles of decoration clearly visible.

The second mirror is larger, broadly circular in shape with a rounded capital and a short straight tang which would have fitted inside a handle or stand, perhaps of ivory or wood. Emma discovered some plant roots preserved in the corroded layer, but nothing else organic, so we can only hazard a guess at what the handle material would have been. The date is hard to determine, since mirrors of this style seem to have been made over a long time; it may perhaps be from the Cypro-Archaic or Cypro-Classical period. This mirror had a bare patch in the patina, probably the result of an earlier cleaning attempt (perhaps when the collection came to Leeds around the turn of the 20th century), since the bronze there is darker than the newly cleaned area.

Bronze mirror with tang for handle - before cleaning. © University of Leeds

Bronze mirror with tang for handle – before cleaning.
© University of Leeds

Bronze mirror with tang for handle - after cleaning. © University of Leeds

Bronze mirror with tang for handle – after cleaning.
© University of Leeds

Emma’s work around the handle has revealed some beautiful engraved decoration, a scroll or volute design with a fan shape in the middle. As the photos above show, this was previously completely hidden beneath a thick layer of corrosion, so it was very exciting to see it emerge. The decoration fits neatly within the rounded capital, with the scroll following the curve of the outer edge. It brings the craftsperson closer to see the elegant design they traced on this mirror; it’s meticulously executed, with a slight unevenness which shows that it was done by hand, lacking the sterile symmetry of a machine-produced design. The decoration emphasises that this mirror was a luxurious item, designed to adorn someone’s living quarters as well as assisting them in adorning themselves.

Detail s

Detail of bronze mirror showing engraved decoration. © University of Leeds

Interestingly, the shape and decoration of this mirror may have a bearing on the question of whether this collection originally came from Amathus. Many mirrors with these rounded capitals and volute-style engraving have been found in tombs at Amathus, although examples are also known from other areas. This particular mirror is near-identical to one in the British Museum which is securely linked to Amathus. As ever, the evidence is inconclusive, but this mirror provides a further clue to the origins of the University of Leeds collection.

A visit to Wakefield

In search of the lost history of the objects mentioned in my previous post, I contacted David Evans at the Wakefield Museum to have a look at the Educational Resource Service accession register. I’m always impressed by the helpfulness of museum professionals in accommodating me and my research, especially since on this visit I had my junior research associate (aged 6 months) along with me.

The Wakefield store is a treasure trove of objects not currently on display in the Museum, including the records of the Educational Resource Service. David also kindly showed me a few ancient Cypriot objects from the ERS which are now in the Wakefield collection, including a medieval jar with beautiful lustrous blue-green glaze, and a lentoid flask with strap handle and just-visible white painted bands of decoration.

Medieval Cypriot jar © Wakefield Museums

Medieval Cypriot jar
© Wakefield Museums

Cypriot lentoid flask © Wakefield Museums

Cypriot lentoid flask
© Wakefield Museums

The accession register turned out to cover a large span of the history of the collection, from 1963 to 1988, and helped to pinpoint the change of title from the School Museum Service to the Educational Resource Service in January 1986. There was also a card index file, which included additional information on some of the items.

Making matches between the objects I’ve found so far, the accession register entries, and the rather opaque (to me) card index system was not straightforward, but I have been able to glean some additional information about the Cypriot objects which formed part of the ERS collection. As Mr Woodward, former Senior Advisor to the ERS, had recalled, some came from the British Museum, presumably duplicates which were passed on without having been accessioned. The BM is recorded as the source of a tempting list of Cypriot artefacts, including a chariot model, but sadly none of them readily identifiable among the objects I’ve seen to date.

Others were purchased from the Folio Society’s ‘Collectors’ Corner’, and later from Charles Ede Ltd., and more from D. Reaney, a dealer in antiquities in Long Eaton in the 1960s. From these records we learn that the lentoid flask was one of three, costing either £14 or £22, and that the blue-green glazed jar was dated to C13th – C14th AD. Unfortunately, there is little solid information linking the extant objects to their dealers, and still less about where they might have originated from.

Nevertheless, I’m now following up these leads to see if the trails can be followed any further back. It’s fascinating to think of the varied lives these objects have led, and what they have meant to their different owners and users along the way.

New discoveries from the Educational Resource Service

Two years ago I mentioned here that I had come across an old catalogue for the Educational Resource Service, which included some ancient Cypriot objects. Very excitingly, a few of these have now come to light at the University, having been long overlooked in storage. They include some Greek pieces, and three which are Cypriot – a stemmed bowl, an amphora, and this fantastic horse and rider.

Horse and rider figurine © University of Leeds

Horse and rider figurine
© University of Leeds

To me, this represents some of the best qualities of ancient Cypriot art. The modelling is very impressionistic, even crude, but it has an indefinable energy and vigour. I love the way the horse is leaning backwards, as though pulling up suddenly from a headlong charge.

Horse and rider figurine © University of Leeds

Horse and rider figurine
© University of Leeds

The rider’s pose, with right hand raised, is fairly unusual; it’s probably meant to represent some kind of martial gesture, and he may once have held a spear made of a different material. The horse’s harness and tack are elaborate, and include a fringed breastplate which may represent a ‘fly apron’, attested in images of horses in warfare from the Near East (Crouwel J. and Tatton-Brown V., ‘Ridden horses in Iron Age Cyprus’, RDAC 1988).

There are numerous examples of ancient Cypriot horse and rider figurines, some from tombs but many known to be from sanctuaries, where they would have been votive offerings. Unfortunately contextual information, including findspot, is largely lacking for these ERS objects at the moment, though I have hopes of uncovering a little more.

The objects’ recent history, as art objects for temporary loan to schools, is made evident by their presentation – mounted on plinths (sadly, probably glued down) and wired into Perspex boxes, contained within custom-fitted wooden cases labelled with ERS codes and descriptions.

Case for ERS objects

Case for ERS objects

The Cypriot objects formed part of a wider collection on Ancient Greece, also incorporating modern replicas and ‘backdrop’ photographs on boards – see the sample layout from the ERS catalogue below, with the horse and rider on the left. I wonder whether their distinctively Cypriot heritage was understood by the schools that borrowed them and the pupils that viewed them?

Illustration from ERS catalogue

Illustration from ERS catalogue

The Educational Resource Service began as the West Riding School Museum Service in the 1940s, which was led by Sir Alec Clegg, Director of Education, and reached its full potential steered by Eric Woodward as Senior Advisor between 1956 and 1985. You can read more about its history on Natalie Bradbury’s ‘Pictures for Schools’ blog here. It must have been a wonderful resource for local schools, a treasure trove of inspiring objects arriving regularly in their custom-made travelling cases. Eric Woodward was kind enough to discuss the Cypriot objects with me, and recalls that they may have been British Museum duplicates, or acquired at auction. It’s quite possible that pieces such as this could have been picked up at a relatively low price. The figurine and amphora have both been broken and repaired; this damage may have been part of their history in schools, or may have made them more affordable to buy for the collection.

Much of the information about their earlier history is probably lost now, but I have a few leads to follow up. Wakefield Museum have the original ERS accession register in their archives, which I shall consult. They also have a couple of further Cypriot pieces from the collection (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Bichrome krater or the jug to the rear of the illustration below).

Illustration from ERS catalogue

Illustration from ERS catalogue

What comes next for these ERS objects at Leeds is not yet clear. Perhaps a life outside the Perspex, and on display?

Through a glass (less) darkly

I made another visit to Emma at the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre to see how the glass from the University of Leeds collection is coming along. It’s certainly much easier to see the underlying condition and colours of the glass, now that the dirt of the last hundred years has been removed! In Emma’s view, the glass had been cleaned when first excavated, so any interesting content residues had probably been lost at that stage. What remained was black, sooty dirt – a reminder of the air quality in industrial cities such as Leeds at the turn of the 19th century, when this collection arrived in Yorkshire.

We can now see clearly the bluey-green glass of this unguent bottle, broken at the neck. One of the qualities of glass is that it’s near-impossible to tell whether breakages are ancient or modern, but it’s quite likely that the neck was broken in antiquity so the contents could be poured.

Unguent bottle after cleaning © University of Leeds

Unguent bottle after cleaning
© University of Leeds

It’s also possible to make out the air bubbles trapped in the base of this candlestick vase, an indication of its method of manufacture. This might be considered a flaw, but I prefer the view expressed by J.H. Middleton in The Engraved Gems of Classical Times:

‘A great deal of the superior beauty of ancient glass is due to the presence of these minute air-bubbles, each of which catches the light and radiates it out from the body of the glass, thus making it internally luminous, not merely transparent.’

Air bubbles in base of candlestick vase © University of Leeds

Air bubbles in base of candlestick vase
© University of Leeds

The objects also show the effects of their long burial in the earth. Surface layers are peeling away from the base of the second candlestick vase (delamination).

Base of candlestick vase showing delamination. © University of Leeds

Base of candlestick vase showing delamination.
© University of Leeds

This produces an iridescent effect, as can be seen in this tubular glass bottle.

Bottle with iridescent surface © University of Leeds

Bottle with iridescent surface
© University of Leeds

This is because alkali are leached from the glass, the rate depending on the warmth and acidity of the soil it is buried in. Silica is also lost, though in lesser quantities than alkali. This means that thin layers of silica are left behind, creating an opalescent appearance and increasing the opacity of the glass. (For a fuller explanation, see S.P. Koob, Conservation and Care of Glass Objects). These layers of weathering form part of the objects’ history, and help to tell the story of their journey from manufacture to use, burial, and eventual excavation.

How to look 3,000 years younger

One of the most exciting outcomes of my research into the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection is the opportunity to give the objects some conservatorial TLC. They have now been transferred to the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, where Emma Bowron, the Museum’s Conservator, is based. This has the added advantage of keeping them safely out of the way while the Department of Classics moves home over the summer, to join our colleagues in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies in the Michael Sadler building.

Emma has now cleaned several of the ceramics, and I’m really pleased with the results. The colours of the clay and paint have come up clean and bright, and give a much better sense of what they must have looked like when newly made. Emma’s achieved these results using a steam cleaner, and it’s amazing how the accumulated dirt of centuries has lifted away.

Steam cleaner used by Emma to clean ceramics

Steam cleaner used by Emma to clean ceramics

The delicate banding on this alabastron is much more evident now, and it’s easy to see how the craftsperson who made it has worked with the features of the natural material to enhance its rounded shape with rings of colour.

Alabastron after cleaning © University of Leeds

Alabastron after cleaning
© University of Leeds

These two plates, which were already striking, are even more so after cleaning. Their colours are fresh and bright, and the difference in the base colour of the plates is much more obvious.

Plate after cleaning © University of Leeds

Plate after cleaning
© University of Leeds

Plate after cleaning © University of Leeds

Plate after cleaning
© University of Leeds

One issue which I hadn’t anticipated is that the cleaning has revealed the restoration work done on some of the objects, such as the second plate above and this Punic jug, where the white infills are now clearly visible.

Punic jug after cleaning © University of Leeds

Punic jug after cleaning
© University of Leeds

This raises the question of whether to paint the infills to mask the restoration, or to leave it as it is (or to add a new layer of grime to make the issue go away!). On balance, I think I prefer to leave the jug as it is. There is no surface decoration that the repairs might detract from in aesthetic terms; on the contrary, they are part of its history and it seems right that they are visible.

There are still some strange accretions on some of the objects, which look as though they have been lying in water at some point. Emma commented that these look like accretions from seawater, which is intriguing, as it’s not at all clear when or how this might have happened. This is one part of their history which will have to remain unknown.

Jug with accretions © University of Leeds

Jug with accretions
© University of Leeds

The next step is to clean the glass objects, which I’m really excited about. Further photos to follow!