Fuel for Thought? Beeswax in Lamps and Conical Cups from Late Minoan Crete

By Evershed, Richard P.; Vaughan, Sarah J. et al. | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Fuel for Thought? Beeswax in Lamps and Conical Cups from Late Minoan Crete


Evershed, Richard P., Vaughan, Sarah J., Dudd, Stephanie N., Soles, Jeffrey S., Antiquity


What was burned in lamps in the prehistoric Mediterranean? Olive oil, as one would first suppose? Analysis of absorbed lipids preserved in the fabric of lamps and conical cups from the Minean site of Mochlos in eastern Crete shows for the first time that beeswax was used as an illuminant.

The development of portable and controllable sources of illumination would have represented a major technological advance, with cultural and economic advantages arising from the extension of the effective length of a working day and an expansion in the range of areas which could be used routinely for human activities, e.g. craft workshops, food preparation areas, etc. However, with the exception of the re[atively few examples of Palaeolithic stone lamps (de Baune & White 1993), there is scant direct evidence for the methods of illumination used by early man.

With the introduction of pottery in the Neolithic period came the technology for manufacturing specialized vessels in quantity for use as lamps. Rare in Neolithic contexts, lamps begin to appear with some regularity in the Early Bronze Age, particularly in the Aegean, and increasingly throughout succeeding periods (Warren 1969: 49-60; Mercando 1975: 15-167; Eitam 1987). An Early Cycladic grave on Naxos included two vessels identified as lamps, and an 'oil jug'. The fuel for the lamps was presumed to be olive oil, a conjecture supported by early but scarce palaeoethnobotanical evidence for contemporary exploitation of olives (Renfrew 1972: 285-7). At Early Minean II Myrtos on Crete (c. 2900-2300 BC) lamps carved from stone or manufactured from pottery came from contexts associated with religious, ritual, domestic and industrial activities (Warren 1972: 54-6,137). Minean terracotta and stone lamps, common in Crete from Middle Minean I (c. 2000 BC) onwards, reflect increased settlement evidence from that date (Warren 1969: 49-60).

While it has been supposed that olive oil would have been the fuel burned in prehistoric lamps (Renfrew 1972: 286-7; Bowyer 1972: 33031; Condamin e! el. 1976: 201; Davaras 1976: 173; Blonde 1983: 37-8; Hadjisayvas 1992: 115; Blitzer 1993: 166), evidence of this has remained inferential and circumstantial. Records from the Classical and Roman periods document the use of olive oil in lamps (see discussions in Eitam 1987; Howland 1958: 7-8, 119), and from references to olive oil in the earlier Linear B tablets (Ventris & Chadwick 1973; Shelmerdine 1985: 19, 23) are taken to reflect widespread olive exploitation. The limited palynological evidence from Bronze Age Greece also is taken as showing that olive oil was produced in sufficient abundance during the Minean period to represent a surplus agricultural commodity, and therefore available for its additional and extensive use as an illuminant (Renfrew 1972: 286-7; Amouretti & Brun 1993; Manning 1994: 231; cf. Lehmann 1992: 54).

The apparent coincidence of olive exploitation with the appearance of lamps in the Aegean led to the theory of the development of Early Bronze Age cultures and population expansion being directly related to the ability to exploit the fruit and the oil of the olive (Halstead 1994: 209). Other oils and animal fats could well have been used for illuminant fuel (Runnels & Hansen 1986: 305; Hamilakis 1996: 21); many other natural materials available in Minoan times which could have served as efficient lamp fuels (various animal tallows, other plant oils, mastics, bitumens, various natural waxes) are discussed in a variety of ancient records, and have been analysed from occasional surviving surface residues (Lucas 1989; Knapp 1990; Mills & White 1994).

We report here the results of an investigation of an assemblage of ceramic lamps and conical cups used as lamps during the Late Minoan I period (c. 1600-1450 BC) at the settlement ef Mochlos on the north coast of east Crete (Soles & Davaras 1996:190 and plate 53) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. …

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