"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Lamp in the form of a male head

second half of 4th century AD
Ballana, 290km south of Aswan, Tomb B47, Room 3

This bronze oil lamp was found in tomb B 47 (room 3) in the necropolis of Ballana. The body of the object represents a head of a young man in the round with a pouring hole in the forehead which served to store the oil, and in the place of the neck, the nozzle from where the wick emerged.

The big open eyes, pointed nose, small ears and mouth outlining a very light smile give the character a slight air of haggardness. The curly hair is rendered by an overlap of strands resembling scales but evoking perhaps a frizzy hairstyle. The facial features are nonetheless more of a Mediterranean type. The eyes are encrusted with silver and garnet.

Two other similar lamps were found in tomb 3 of Qustul and at Qasr Ibrim. The plastic lamps with a face (theatre masks, satyrs, African heads) are attested from as early as 3rd century BC, in the Hellenistic period, in metal but mostly earthenware. Further, lamps in the form of “African head” were popular in Roman times.

It is difficult to know if this lamp is an importation or a local interpretation of an Alexandrian model. The use of inlaid stones and precious metals is reminiscent of silver pieces found in the royal tombs of X-Group. Like other objects discovered in royal tombs of Ballana, this lamp presents a major influence of Alexandria, which is widespread in Lower Nubia from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

Oil lamps, made of metal of earthenware, were commonly used for lighting in ancient times. They occur both in the urban and funerary contexts. Objects of everyday life were also pieces of prestige and social markers, as artificial lighting in ancient societies, as it is in recent periods, was a luxury available to only a few.

Torches and lamps to guide mankind, and symbols of hope and of renaissance, were common to a large number of civilizations. They appeared frequently in funerary contexts throughout the Mediterranean basin.

The “illuminations” belong to the same repertoire of religious festivals of Pharaonic Egypt, as evidenced by the large lighted torches at the “Beautiful Festival of the Valley” in Thebes in the New Kingdom, or the “Festival of Light” at Sais, celebrated in honour of the goddess Neith according to Herodotus (Histories II, 62). Other examples also illustrate this continuation in our period. St Lucia, surrounded by a crown of candles remains very popular in Sweden and in France for over 150 years, but according to a tradition that dates back to the 17th century, every night of the “Festival of Lights” on 8th December sees the city of Lyon entirely illuminated, each resident placing coloured “lamps” to express their gratitude to the Virgin Mary.

see also