It was baffling to archaeologists when no evidence of lamps was discovered in their Egyptian excavations. All other societies had obvious lamps, if only a bowl with a groove for the wick. Herodotus was an eyewitness to Egyptian lighting, and he furnishes the explanation. An Egyptian lamp was a bowl no different from any other, which was filled with salt and oil. The granular salt supported the wick on top while preventing the oil from spilling too readily. There were no olive trees in Egypt, so the fuel was the oil pressed from castor beans (also described by Herodotus), which burnt well but gave off a strong smell. These lamps were left burning all night around houses during the festival of lamps, in addition to their normal use as domestic lighting. They have modern descendants in night lamps where the wick is supported by a float, and in certain ceremonial lamps. These lamps, quite understandably, can easily leave no identifiable remains. The hieroglyphs in the title may represent lamps. The first is heb, called "alabaster bowl" and meaning festival. A translucent alabaster bowl would make an attractive lamp. The second is the same with a canopy and flame, used as a determinative for festival. the glyph and its association with festivals is compelling. The third may be a metal beaker with flame, and the last a bowl with wick.
To see if such a lamp is practical, I made one from readily available materials. I used a Pyrex bowl 80 mm in diameter and 50 mm high, which I filled with coarse salt, the kind sold for making ice-cream (the least I could get was 10 lb, enough for fifty lamps), and poured in Canola oil until the salt was saturated, perhaps 25 ml. If you want to be more authentic, you could use Castor oil, and see if it stank as Herodotus says it did. I drilled a small hole in the center of a piece of wood 30 mm square and 4 mm thick, through which I inserted a piece of ordinary twine, 2mm diameter and 200 mm long, as a wick. Actually, I put the wick in the cup before the salt, but this was not the correct way to do it. The wooden square lay on the surface of the salt. When I could see the wick was saturated with oil, I lighted it. It burned with a small, steady flame for over three hours, consuming a visible amount of the oil. When it went out, I made a wick by rolling up some cotton jersey, drilled a larger hole, inserted the wick, and then used a probe to push it into the center of the salt, seeing that the salt was well packed around it. I put a drop of oil on it to speed things up, and lighted the new wick. As I write, it is still burning with a small conical flame, slowly using up oil. This small lamp could easily burn all night.
Egyptians would probably not have used textile wicks. Reeds, papyrus, and palm provide fibre that would be very suitable for a wick, and a little experimentation would find out which was best. The pierced wick holder seems essential, but could be replaced by a pottery or stone piece for more permanence. As it is, the wood only chars a little. In some modern lamps, the wick actually does float on the oil, but this does not mean the Egyptian wicks had to float. Herodotus never says that the wick floats, just that it is on the surface. The salt gives the lamp a remarkably steady feel, holds the oil, and supports the wick. Of course, it can be used over and over. All in all, a very practical answer to lighting.
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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 16 July 1999