An oil lamp is an object used to produce light continuously for a period of time using an oil-based fuel source. The use of oil lamps began thousands of years ago and is continued to this day, although not commonly anymore. Often associated with stories about genies, rubbing the lamp in which a genie would live was said to summon it.
Oil lamps are a form of lighting, and were used as an alternative to candles before the use of electric lights. Starting in 1780 the Argand lamp quickly replaced other oil lamps still in their basic ancient form. These were, in turn, replaced by the kerosene lamp in about 1850. In small towns and rural areas these continued in use well into the 20th century, until such areas were finally electrified, and light bulbs could be used for lighting.
Most modern lamps (such as fueled lanterns) have been replaced with gas-based or petroleum-based fuels to operate when emergency non-electric light is required. As such, oil lamps of today are primarily used for the particular ambience they produce, or in rituals and religious ceremonies.
Lamps of the Ancient Mediterranean can be divided into six major categories
Wheel made: This category includes Greek and Egyptian lamps that date before the 3rd century BCE. They are characterized by simple, little or no decoration, and a wide pour hole, a lack of handles, and a pierced or unpierced lug. Pierced lugs occurred briefly between 4th and 3rd century BCE. Unpierced lugs continued until 1st century BCE.
Volute, Early Imperial: With volutes extending from their nozzles, these lamps were predominately produced in Italy during the Early Roman period. They have a wide discus, a narrow shoulder and no handle, elaborate imagery and artistic finishing, and a wide range of patterns of decoration.
High Imperial: These are late Roman. The shoulder is wider and the discus is smaller with fewer decorations. These lamps have handles and short plain nozzles, and less artistic finishing.
Frog: This is a regional style lamp exclusively produced in Egypt and found in the regions around it, between c. 100 and 300 CE. The frog, (Heqet), is an Egyptian fertility symbol.
African Red Slip lamps were made in North Africa, but widely exported, and decorated in a red slip. They date from the 2nd to the 7th century CE and comprise a wide variety of shapes including a flat, heavily decorated shoulder with a small and relatively shallow discus. Their decoration is either non-religious, Christian or Jewish. Grooves run from the nozzle back to the pouring hole and it is hypothesized that this is to take back spilled oil. These lamps often have more than one pour-hole.
Slipper lamps are oval shaped and found mainly in the Levant. They were produced between the 3rd to 9th centuries CE. Decorations include vine scrolls, palm wreaths, and Greek letters.
Factory lamps: Also called Firmalampen (from German), these are universal in distribution and simple in appearance. They have a channeled nozzle, plain discus, and 2 or 3 bumps on the shoulder. Initially made in factories in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, they were exported to all Roman provinces. The vast majority have been stamped on the bottom to identify the manufacturer.