Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – by Roman lamplight

On the shortest day of the year it seems appropriate to think of sources of light. We have the ability to turn night into day but it wasn’t so for our early ancestors. For the Romans, artificial light came in the form of oil-lamps or candles, or occasionally lanterns. In Britain oil-lamps were rare, because of the expense of shipping in olive oil from Gaul, Spain or Africa. It’s therefore good to be able to report that a complete example, found at the Dunkirt Barn Roman villa site, had a narrow escape. Peter Stone takes up the story.

The lucky lamp

The lucky lamp – the raised bump at the back is probably the vestige of a handle and the smaller bumps at the sides, echoes of decoration.

Some years ago I was working as a volunteer on Barry Cunliffe’s excavation at Dunkirt Barn. Along with two or three others I found myself assigned to an area close to the site of the winged corridor villa, where we were instructed to trowel off what appeared to be infill from the 19th century excavations. Wearying of this task my near neighbour decided to take a mattock into his hands and vigorously attack his area. At about the third or fourth stroke an object suddenly flew into the air and landed several metres away. On investigation it proved to be a complete Roman lamp. The down-stroke of the mattock must have been just a few centimetres from completely destroying it but it survived intact and is one of the best finds from the site.

The Dunkirt Barn Roman villa - a general view of the excavations

The Dunkirt Barn Roman villa – a general view of the excavations

The lamp would have been made in the second century AD or later, and is a copy of a ‘factory lamp’ (firmalampe), so called because the originals were mass-produced, bearing a stamp identifying a particular manufacturer. This lamp has no such mark on its base and although many were made in Gaul and the German provinces, some were made in Britain, notably the Verulamium area. Such lamps would have been fuelled by olive oil imported from the Mediterranean.

Not every excavated find has such a fortuitous life [confesses Peter]. I went on to volunteer for Dave Allen at Basing House and was delighted to find a complete clay tobacco pipe. A few years later, however, I was working in the Chilcomb stores when, during a sorting task, the same pipe came to light. Overwhelmed at being reunited with it I raised my hand to take it from a fellow worker only to knock it from her hand with the result that it is no longer a complete pipe. Sic transit gloria mundi.

(We stuck it back together – Dave).

Further reading: Cunliffe & Poole (2008) The Danebury Environs Roman Programme, Vol 2, Part 7, Dunkirt Barn.

A2005.50, archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone

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