Illuminating the Late Mesolithic: Residue Analysis of 'Blubber' Lamps from Northern Europe

Article excerpt


Pottery is traditionally associated with sedentary farming communities that appear across the globe in the wake of the introduction of agriculture. However, in Eurasia, Africa and North America it is now clear that pottery pre-dates agriculture, sometimes by several millennia (Barnett & Hoopes 1995; Jordan & Zvelebil 2009). Identifying the needs that hunter-gatherers and farmers had for pottery containers is challenging. A variety of forros and styles is encountered and pottery vessels operated in social, as well as technological and functional domains. In Europe, clear cases of forager pottery manufacture and use are known in the circum-Baltic region. Whilst large cooking pots were used by late foragers and early farmers in this region, one form of vessel is particularly notable by its presence on late forager sites and its absence on all except perhaps the very earliest farming sites: the oval ceramic bowl (Andersen 2010).

This type of pottery is found in the Mesolithic 'Ertebolle culture' of Denmark and northern Germany from around 5000 cal BC. In a paper entitled 'Blubber lamps in the Ertebolle culture?' Mathiassen (1935) described a number of oval bowls from Danish sites drawing on the analogy of soapstone or ceramic lamps among the Inuit in the Arctic. Describing the interior surface of one Ertebolle bowl as having a "greasy look", Mathiassen concluded that "its appearance is exactly like that of ancient Eskimo blubber lamps of soapstone" (1935: 145) and he suggested that oil from seal or whale was the most likely fuel. Lamps thought to have been used for lighting and fuelled using deer fat were also observed at inland locations particularly among the 'Caribou Eskimo' to the west of the Hudson Bay (Birket-Smith & Calvert 1929).

Although other uses have been suggested (e.g. Hulthen 1977) these distinctive vessels have become known as 'blubber lamps'. The vessels have either rounded or pointed ends and display a great variation in size. The rims are simply rounded by smoothing although some vessels are decorated with fingernail impressions (Andersen 2009, 2010). Experiments conducted by van Diest (1981) using reconstructed vessels lend support to Mathiassen's analogy. Using seal blubber for fuel anda moss wick, one lamp burned for 5.5 hours, while a lamp filled with tallow burned for 4.75 hours. When the vessels were used as lamps, van Diest noted patterns of sooting and burnt deposits consistent with those observed on Ertebolle bowls.

Lipid analysis

The potential of lipid analysis to characterise 'organic residues' and provide assessments of food and non-food products in pottery vessels has emerged as a powerful tool in recent years (see Evershed 2008 for a review). Lipid analysis has been applied to putative lamps from diverse archaeological contexts. Analysis of stone 'lamps' from Upper Palaeolithic cave sites in France (De Beaune 1987: 170), many of which retain evidence of burning, recovered "fatty acids of animal origin (composition similar to that of Suidae or Bovidae)". Other notable applications include the detection of both animal fats and plant oils used to fuel lamps (dated to AD 600-1500) flora Qasr Ibrim, Egypt (Copley et al. 2005); Brassicaceae seed oils in lamps from Antinoe, Egypt, dating to the fifth to seventh centuries AD (Colombini et al. 2005); the presence of beeswax in Minoan conical cups thought to have been used as lamps (Evershed et al. 1997); possible olive oil in Roman to early Byzantine ceramic lamps from Sagalassos, south-west Turkey (Kimpe et al. 2001); bovine/ovine adipose fats in ceramic lamps from Olbia, Ukraine, dating from the fifth century BC to the fourth century AD (Garnier et al. 2009); and ruminant adipose fats in medieval lamps from Leicester, UK (Mottram et al. 1999). Recent investigation of the small 'cups' fashioned from chalk and recovered from excavations at the Late Neolithic/Bronze Age flint mine at Grimes Graves, UK, failed to recover lipid residues and could not confirm whether these vessels had served as lamps (Tanimoto et al. …