Shedding Light on the Layers of a Lamp: Creation, Production, and Symbolism at Tell en-Nasbeh
1798 Scenic Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709
“A lamp is not merely that which gives light; it is the quintessence of cheer
and security which, on a larger scale, the sun radiates upon the world”
~Smith, “The Household Lamp of Palestine in Old Testament Times,” 1964
To truly appreciate the multifaceted nature of the lamp in antiquity, one must look past its unassuming size and relative simplicity, and consider instead its less conspicuous layers of creation, functionality, and symbolism. In a world that could not depend on electricity and far-reaching lighting systems, humans had two natural light sources, the sun and fire. While the sun provided an excellent light source for outdoor activities during the daytime, lamps allowed for work to be done both after sunset and in enclosed spaces, therein profoundly altering and manipulating the natural environment for the benefit of humans. This invaluable ability resulted in the production and use of lamps in almost all regions and time periods during antiquity. Yet like any modern commodity, lamps changed throughout time and place as a result of increasing technologies, wavering fashions, and changing environments.
From an archaeological perspective, this consistent use and development of the lamp through place and time makes it a very useful means of dating stratigraphic levels at a single site and between different sites in a similar region. Archaeologists can also learn a lot about the activity areas of an ancient site based on the specific findspots of lamps. Lastly, lamps offer incomparable insight into the varying levels of artistic skills and production in antiquity. Yet, at a deeper level, lamps also attest to the importance of cultural style and to the connection tangible objects can have with ideological and spiritual beliefs within a specific culture and social group.
All of these facets of the lamp are evinced by the archaeological and textual remains from Tell en-Nasbeh, and neighboring regions: from the physical objects themselves, to associated tools and materials used in their creation, and even the textual materials produced by the culture to whom they belonged. There was not a single area or mindset of ancient life at Tell en-Nasbeh that was not in some way lit, whether visually or spiritually, by the flame of a lamp.
This show is the product of the joint venture between the Badè Museum and the Doug Adams Gallery, entitled Mining the Collection, in which the Badè Museum curators work with a resident artist at the Doug Adams Gallery to explore the Tell en-Nasbeh collection together, sharing a variety of ideas and concepts, and creating two exhibits that revolve around a shared interest in a particular aspect of the collection. The Doug Adams Gallery exhibit is entitled "Dimensions of Dark," featuring the work of Cathy Richardson.