Lamp with birds on a branch

ca. 1st c. CEterracotta, mold-made and red-slipped1 3/16 in. × 3 3/4 in. × 2 11/16 in. (3 cm. × 9.53 cm. × 6.83 cm.)

Gift of Mr. Dana C. Estes, Honorary Degree 1898


This Roman discus lamp features four birds on branches with pomegranate fruit arranged around the filling hole at the center of the discus, the wide concave space where the lamp was filled with oil. This motif was very popular for Cypriot lamps of the first century CE and can be found in many variations. The present example is one of the more elaborate types, with four birds in pairs separated by a pomegranate. Simpler examples of the type often feature only a single bird and lack the fruit. It has been suggested that the potential to connect the iconography with the bird and olive branch of the Biblical flood story is responsible for the popularity of this type of lamp among modern collectors.

As everyday objects that provided lighting from the Bronze Age on, ancient lamps were made of a variety of materials, including stone and various metals, but most were made of clay. Their design ranged from simple, utilitarian objects to ornate and intricate designs fit for ceremonial purposes. Beginning in the Roman period, lamps were commonly produced using molds. The mold-making process enabled the production of hundreds of identical lamps at a time, allowing for the inclusion of decorative elements and figures on even the most affordable lamps. Mold-made lamps like these could be mass-produced cheaply and efficiently, an important innovation as the functional lifespan of lamps was relatively short. Lamps were manufactured locally and readily available at markets across the Roman Mediterranean but may have also been purchased as souvenirs at spectacles and during travels. From the Roman period on, mold-made lamps include a dizzying array of decorative schemes, including mythological figures, athletes and gladiators, and floral and faunal decoration. 

For collectors of the modern era, the ubiquity of lamps in archaeological excavations made them easy to acquire and popular souvenirs among tourists. Their popularity also encouraged a thriving market for lamps looted from ancient sites, and the simplicity of their manufacture (especially compared marble statuary or painted Greek vases) promoted forgeries, not unlike the market that emerged around Tanagra figurines or shabtis in Egypt. Because of their ubiquity, scholarship around lamps has produced a refined typology (this lamp is of the Loeschcke type I) that makes lamps useful in dating archaeological excavations. Most of the lamps in the Estes collection are believed to have been excavated by Alessandro Palma di Cesnola during his time in Cyprus in the late nineteenth century and were probably collected by Dana Estes at one of a series of later sales of the collection in London between 1883 and 1892.

—Sean P. Burrus


1876–8, excavated in Cyprus by Major Alessandro Palma di Cesnola under the patronage of Edwin Henry Lawrence; 1879, Lawrence-Cesnola Collection, London; 1892, purchased by Dana C. Estes at Sotheby, Wilkinson, and Hodge auction, London; acquired by Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 1898, gift of Dana C. Estes.

Dana C. Estes

Maine native Dana C. Estes (1840–1909) was a founding partner of a prominent Boston bookseller and publishing house, Estes & Lauriat (est. 1872), which later operated as Dana Estes & Co. (1898–1909).

Region: Cyprus See all 21
Map of Mediterranean Sea with the Cyprus highlighted.