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The Lamps of Late Antiquity from Rhodes: 3rd–7th Centuries AD

The Lamps of Late Antiquity from Rhodes: 3rd–7th Centuries AD

By Angeliki Katsioti. Pp. ii + 669. Archaeopress, Oxford 2017. £80. ISBN 978-1-78491-746-3 (paper).

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This large publication of mostly Late Antique lamps in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes by a senior member of the local ephorate is a most useful addition to the growing corpus of lychnological studies of Greece and the Aegean. Books on lamps from Isthmia and Thera have recently appeared, and others on those from Late Antique Corinth and Mytilene and a symposium held in Thessaloniki in 2011 are in progress. Katsioti’s tome is one of the most detailed to appear in recent years and will be an asset both to students of lamps generally and to scholars especially interested in the Kleinfunde of late antiquity.

Katsioti presents hundreds of lamps (including many fragments) with detailed references to their findspots where possible and, at times, with contextual evidence. All are illustrated in color, often with top and bottom views. There are a number of excellent profile drawings and illustrations of signatures. The descriptions all include Munsell color numbers.  The book opens with a discussion of the background to the study. Then there follows a useful 20-page discussion of the topography and monuments of the city and the numerous salvage excavations (sometimes in cemeteries) that produced many of the lamps studied. In itself, this part of the book is most valuable for anyone generally interested in ancient Rhodes, especially in the Late Antique period.

Discussion is organized by groupings of lamps, most based on place of origin or imitation and a few on technique or material, as follows: Corinthian (24 total), Cypriote (149), Attic (172), Rhodian (111 plus one mold), Asia Minor (525), Knidian (45), Samian (141), Aegean (34), North African (22), “Unplaced Greek East” (103), wheelmade (2), and copper alloy (2), for a total of 1,330 plus one mold. An introductory essay of several pages accompanies each section and will be a useful starting point for anyone working on lamps from the respective areas.

For each region, Katsioti evaluates and summarizes the current state of research and provides new insights whenever the Rhodian lamps support them. We highlight some of these here. Corinth, by the second century C.E., produced elegant lamps with thin-walled, well-levigated fabrics and original and well-modeled design. These are some of the finest lamps ever made, and they were widely exported around Greece and farther afield. Little recent work, however, has been done on them (except on those from the Sanctuary of Demeter on the slopes of Acrocorinth), and the rich collections of Corinth remain mostly unpublished since Oscar Broneer’s groundbreaking work more than 80 years ago. Katsioti points out that the small number of lamps and fragments found on Rhodes likely indicates chance rather than systematic importation. That process may also be true of the later North African–style lamps, found in equally small numbers on Rhodes.

Cyprus was a major lamp production center in Roman and Early Byzantine times, and its lamps have been studied since the Swedish Cyprus Expedition of the 1930s. It is relatively close to Rhodes, so the presence there of 149 lamps is not surprising in spite of their frequent mediocrity. Katsioti points out the important influence of Corinthian and Attic lamps on the Cypriote industry; her cover image, the first lamp in her catalogue, shows that Cyprus could, at times, produce good-quality lamps in the early third century. She also points out that the quadriga depicted on it and scenes from spectacles that appear on other lamps found on Rhodes reflect the interest the island had in such events.

Attic lamps made their way in considerable number (172) to Rhodes, suggesting extensive contacts in the fourth through seventh centuries C.E. with imports and then copies. Work in the Athenian Agora by Judith Perlzweig 60 years ago, and by Karivieri and Böttger more recently, has made Attic lamps one of the best studied groups of Late Antique lamps in the Mediterranean. They were both imported and copied widely. Katsioti’s discussion of the chronology of these lamps is balanced and sensible, although she points out the Rhodian lamps do not expand our knowledge of the Athenian lamp industry beyond the existing research, especially regarding the date of the introduction of unglazed lamps.

It is not surprising, given Rhodes’ location, that by far the largest number of lamps in Katsioti’s catalogue (525) originate from Asia Minor. Unfortunately, compared to Athens, relatively little work has been done on lamps from that part of the ancient Mediterranean, and proposed date ranges tend to be broad. The Yassi Ada shipwreck has provided a closed context of the mid 620s C.E., but such sites are rare. The presence of so many very late Asia Minor lamps (late sixth through seventh century C.E. seems to indicate important changes in trading patterns in the eastern Aegean. Katsioti’s long introduction in this section is especially useful in pulling together our current state of knowledge and providing an excellent summary of the state of chronological research for the type. There is a rich variety of material among these lamps; unusual are the erotic scenes, sometimes homosexual and without parallel, perhaps from sixth-century C.E. Ephesos. Katsioti identifies some of these lamps as Ephesian in manufacture but observes that many of the Rhodian samples are not Ephesian and leaves open for consideration the likelihood that there were numerous sites that produced lamps in Asia Minor styles.

Knidos was a major production center of lamps and some fine pottery in Hellenistic and Roman times; by the end of the first century C.E., the well-known Romanesis shop had been active for a generation. Few lamps have been published from excavations there apart from those excavated by Charles Newton, which D.M. Bailey presented in his magisterial four-volume work on lamps in the British Museum. There was no contextual evidence available, but many certainly came from the local sanctuary of Demeter. The excavations there remain mostly unpublished.  To extend our knowledge of Knidian production throughout the Late Antique, Katsioti has identified a number of lamps and fragments that relate closely in fabric to the earlier finer-quality lamps and which support production well into the fifth century C.E. Of special interest are a number of Knidian terracotta statuettes of Egyptian gods with lamps on top. They possibly come from pre–World War II Italian excavations on Nisyros and have no secure provenance.

It is interesting to see so many lamps (141) of the “Samian” type, a term that is currently used to describe a group of lamps with a fairly consistent shape and style, even though we do not have archaeological evidence that this type of lamp was manufactured there. Most date to the late sixth into the seventh century C.E. While some were certainly found on Samos, the type (as the author says) is known at other sites and some of the lamps have fabric affinities with Ephesian products but may also be prevalent at sites with unpublished lamps, such as Smyrna. Much work remains to be done on this predominantly seventh-century type, and hopefully further scientific testing of fabrics will establish with relative certainty the provenance of various lamps of this type.

The  “Aegean” (34) and “Unplaced Greek East” (103) categories are two areas where our researches must continue to refine the style and scope of island lamp production locales. Though some lamps of the type do not appear in repetitive quantity, others in these categories appear to be widely copied, not only in Asia Minor and the islands, but also on mainland Greece. The distinctive “Aegean” type is well represented in a Late Antique cemetery on Thera and appears in small quantities on numerous other islands, but so far without evidence for a manufacturing locus.

Among the unplaced lamps, Katsioti includes the small number of imitations of North African lamps and fragments (22) in the Rhodes collection; she also has a separate section on the actual North African imports. This quantity is more interesting than first appears, because there have been very few such lamps found in the Aegean islands. Four are Hayes Type I, mid fourth to early fifth century C.E., and 17 are the later “classic” Type II, very popular in mainland Greece, generally imitating much smaller numbers of imported lamps. At Mytilene, for example, there are none and at nearby Lemnos only two or three. From all of modern Turkey, we have only found a handful from across museums and excavations in the country.

There is certainly much research still to be done on these lamps, and Katsioti’s summary will provide scholars with an excellent base on which to expand their efforts, though, as always, surprises will emerge from time to time (e.g., the discovery of molds for sixth- to seventh-century Syro-Palestinian lamps a few years ago on Naxos, a type previously found no farther west than Anemurium in Cilicia). 

Katsioti concludes her catalogue of terracotta lamps with two wheelmade lamps in the collection that, based on their context, may predate her terminus of 700 C.E. Indeed, they do not seem very common in Greece and the islands in late antiquity (although they exist in some numbers at Asia Minor sites such as Anemurium and elsewhere in Cilicia but are typically later in date than the sixth century). Both of the Rhodes examples are from the same cemetery and are dated possibly to the sixth century.

Relatively few bronze lamps survive from archaeological excavations, although there are hundreds in private and museum collections and on the market; so it is not surprising to find only two in the Rhodes museum. One of the few omissions in the extensive bibliography is Atasoy’s 2005 publication of the bronze lamps in the Istanbul archaeological museum, which includes some from Rhodes found before 1912. Others, found when Rhodes was an Italian colony (1912–1947), have disappeared.

The final section of the book presents neutron activation and X-ray fluorescence studies of a selection of lamps, something that Bailey did decades ago for the British Museum lamps. Few scholars have followed his example, but Katsioti’s study may encourage others to expand this sampling, which will allow lamps to be placed with more confidence within the larger region of western Asia Minor.

All in all, this volume is one of the best lamp studies produced in recent decades. Unfortunately, many images are dark or are small and lack clarity. The profile drawings are excellent, but drawings of the figured disk scenes and a disk motif index would have been great enhancements for those interested in iconography. The author opted to number the lamps within the 12 groups in the catalogue rather than consecutively, which is less convenient for referencing.

With such a successful initial effort in lychnological research, we hope that the author may turn her attention now to the many earlier Greek and Roman lamps that likely reside in Rhodes.

Hector Williams    
University of British Columbia

Karen S. Garnett
Morgan Hills, California

Book Review of The Lamps of Late Antiquity from Rhodes: 3rd–7th Centuries AD, by Angeliki Katsioti

Reviewed by Hector Williams and Karen Garnett

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Williams

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