earthenware oil lamp
Roman oil lamp
  • Material – Earthenware
  • Place of Origin – Europe
  • Date – 1st-2nd century CE; deposited in
    c. 1617-1624 James Fort contexts
  • Location – Collections

Sherds of this artifact were recovered from the Blacksmith Shop/Bakery (Structure 183), Pit 6, and Pit 16. The fragments were mended together to reveal a one of a kind find: a Roman oil lamp belonging to a type known as Firmalampen (or “factory”) lamp. It is the oldest artifact of European origin in the Jamestown collection. Romans made this style of lamp in a two-piece mold in the 1st or 2nd century C.E in workshops throughout Italy and Roman provinces in Europe and exported them to Roman Britain. The lamp is made of calcareous clay and covered on the exterior with a gray slip. It originally had a handle but that fragment has not yet been recovered. It may have been manufactured in Gaul, however this is yet to be confirmed through comparative trace-element analyses.

The thick walls of the vessel indicate that the lamp arrived intact with a Jamestown settler. It is small and the lack of charring on the interior is a sign that it was never used, suggesting that its original use may have been as an apotropaic object placed in a Roman person’s grave to light the way to the afterlife. Roman oil lamps were popular items in gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosity in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It may have come to Jamestown with an antiquarian or as a family heirloom.


Fabric: The fabric is a very light buff-colored calcium carbonate-rich chalky clay.

Glaze: Unglazed, but washed with a thin grayish-colored slip on the exterior.

Decoration: Undecorated.

Form: This oil lamp is the only form in the Jamestown collection.

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Bailey, Donald M. (1988) Catalogue of the Lamps in the British Museum III: Roman Provincial Lamps. British Museum Publications, London.

Dietz, Karlheinz, Udo Osterhaus, Sabine Rieckhoff-Pauli, Konrad Spindler (1979) Regensburg zur Römerzeit. Verlag Freidrich Pustet, Regensburg.

Lapp, Eric (2017) Encountering Photoamulets and the Use of Apotropaic Light in Late Antiquity. In The Oxford Handbook of Light in Archaeology, Costas Papadopoulos and Holley Moyes, editors. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198788218.013.18

Lapp, Eric and Nicoli, Joe (2013) Exploring 3D modeling, fingerprint extraction, and other scanning applications for ancient clay oil lamps. Science Direct 1(2): 34-44. DOI:

Straube, Beverly (2008) A Roman Oil Lamp Illuminates Seventeenth-Century Jamestown. In Ceramics in America, Robert Hunter, editor. University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, Hanover, NH.