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.