The Lights of the Exodus

So what sort of lighting did folks use in Egypt during the New Kingdom? Oddly, most sources say there are few surviving lamps, though many point out this is because lamps then would be ordinary objects and not specialty ones like we have in modern times. But there certainly were lamps. And also torches.


Robins, writing in 1939, concludes that Ancient Egyptian lamps would have had floating wicks and be made of stone or possibly pottery (glass being not an option in that time period). He claims these lamps can be hung, set into a wall recess, placed on a surface, or held, but he doesn’t show how they might be hung.

Broadly speaking, the prototypes of nearly all manufactured lamps are sea-shells and hollowed stones…there is absolutely no evidence of the shell being the origin of such lamps as the ancient Egyptians had during most of their history. The hollowed stone seems a much more likely source…[but] there is no clear evidence that any of the many stone objects found in Egypt were lamps.

There is, nevertheless, a fair amount of evidence that early lamps in Egypt owed nothing to the shell and were of bowl or saucer form…the only likely alternative is that it grew out of the use of ordinary pottery (or stone) household vessels as lamps by providing them with oil and a wick.

Herodotus [writing in 5th century BCE] states that “At Sais…they use lamps in the shape of flat saucers filled with a mixture of oil and salt, on the top of which the wick floats.”…If the lamps of ancient Egypt were of the floating-wick type, without any form of spout, this would account for the difficulty of recognizing them…since the flame floated more or less in the centre of an open bowl there are not necessarily any visible signs of burning.

The Lamps of Ancient Egypt, F. W. Robins, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Dec., 1939), pp. 184-187 (4 pages), Sage Publications, Inc.

Smith discusses at length lamps found in Palestine in the early Iron Age, just after the Exodus, if we wish to follow tradition and say that the Hebrews did migrate from Egypt to Palestine around 1311 BCE.

From the time of the Hebrew settlement through the beginning of the divided monarchy, the period commonly called Iron I, which spanned approximately the years 1200-900 B.C…the only lamp in widespread use in Palestine was a simple wheelmade one [article photo is the same as the photo below]. Archaeologists, seeking a convenient descriptive term, have variously called this a “shell lamp,” “cocked hat lamp,” and “saucer lamp.” The ancient Hebrew…called it by the generic name ner (plural neroth), a word meaning simply “lamp.” [A term also used earlier for celestial bodies.]…

The Hebrews did not invent the saucer lamp, but borrowed it largely unchanged from the Canaanites of the end of the Late Bronze Age, whose ancestors in Syria and Palestine had gradually been developing it since early in the 2nd millennium B.C. Contrary to widespread assumption, the lamp did not arise as an imitation of a shell. Bivalve shells may indeed have been used as lamps in some instances along the Mediterranean coast, as they apparently were upon occasion at Carthage in North Africa, and couch shells were made into lamps (and copied in stone and metal as well) in Mesopotamia as far back as the 3rd millennium B.C., but these practices do not stand in the mainstream of lamp history. The saucer lamp actually developed from the ordinary household bowl, which itself had been used as a lamp during the Early Bronze Age…The development of the saucer lamp through the Middle and Late Bronze Ages consisted mainly of the evolution of the spout into an increasingly large and well-defined feature of the lamp…By virtue of this Canaanite ancestry, Hebrew lamps had cousins in Cyprus, north Africa, Egypt, Malta, Sardinia and elsewhere.

The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times, Robert Houston Smith, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 1-31 (31 pages), The University of Chicago Press.

Saucer Lamp, Ceramic, Wheelmade, Hard sandy ware saucer lamp, mottled brown and light-red surface, smoother, with smoked spout.  Cultural Period: Iron IIA – Iron IIC, Early Date (BCE): 900, Late Date (BCE): 600. Length (cm): 12.7, Width (cm): 13.0, Height (cm): 3.8, Weight (g): 149.5. Holbrook Hall, Pacific School of Religion, Tell en-Nasbeh Collection.

Size & Style

Specimens [from Iron I] were usually from five to six inches in length, though potters sometimes turned larger ones…the kind of clay which was used varied with the locality, but throughout the Iron I period it tended everywhere in Palestine to be coarse with a sprinkling of limestone grits to give it strength…An Iron I lamp was usually fired moderately hard to some drab shade of brown…it was almost never painted or otherwise decorated.

The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times, Robert Houston Smith, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 1-31 (31 pages), The University of Chicago Press.

Wicks & Oil

Wicks were ordinarily made of flax…a wick could presumably be plaited from raw flax with little difficulty, but one could also be improvised from worn-out linen cloth or a number of other substances…the wick was usually allowed to project slightly beyond the edge of the spout. The amount of this projection, along with the size and porosity of the wick, largely determined the size of the flame. The ordinary saucer lamp was intended to hold only one wick, as its single spout indicates. When a householder wanted an especially bright light he could sprinkle some salt into the oil, apparently with the idea that it would clarify the flame. The Greek historian Herodotus noted in the 5th century B.C. that Egyptians fed their lamps on a mixture of oil and salt, and in the early centuries of the Christian era rabbis also knew the practice…G. and C. Charles-Picard, who have performed some experiments with ancient lamps, say that a lamp’s flame is brightened by the addition of a few grains of coarse salt directly to the wick, but in my own experiments with ancient lamps I have been unable to get any satisfactory results by this method….

Many substances could be and were used as fuel for lamps, but the commonest of them was olive oil…[using the] oil of lower quality…Imported oils — sesame oil from Mesopotamia, castor oil from Egypt, or even more exotic substances — may occasionally have been used as lamp fuel…A lamp of moderate size held enough oil for it to burn throughout the night.

The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times, Robert Houston Smith, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 1-31 (31 pages), The University of Chicago Press.

Equipment & Placement

Obviously a householder needed a storage container for the oil supply, but we cannot identify any particular form or size of vessel used for this purpose. He also needed a sharp-pointed instrument with which to adjust the position of the wick from time to time as the lamp burned. Numerous metal and bone objects which might have served such a function have been found in Palestine, but apparently none in clear association with lamps…which suggests that the householder frequently used nothing more than a sliver of wood as a wick-adjuster. Tweezers sometimes may have been used to extinguish a lamp’s flame…Probably not to be included among the items of lamp maintenance is the knife-blade, since lamp wicks did not have to be kept trimmed in order to operate satisfactorily.

Lamps were probably kept most of the time in concave niches in the walls of the house…When the householder put a lamp on a table he probably placed beneath it a bowl, primarily for the purpose of guaranteeing stability to the round-bottomed vessel. Rabbinic literature of many centuries later speaks of this custom, but Iron Age evidence is largely lacking…Iron I lamps are often poorly balanced, tending to tip backward when placed on a flat surface. The lamps cannot have been used in such a position; the lamp-maker seems to have supposed that the lamp would be placed in some kind of concave resting place…on a table, a bowl would most easily meet this need. A bowl beneath the lamp would also have caught any oil which might slowly seep through the lamp, though a well-made specimen did not absorb and exude oil very rapidly. Some scholars have suggested that a lamp was soaked in water prior to each use, or even kept in a saucer filled with water, so that the water would fill the pores of the clay and prevent oil seepage. It is somewhat more likely that users poured a little water into a lamp before they poured in the oil; this would fill the pores of the clay and give the oil a surface upon which to float. [Lamp stands seem to only come later and even the Iron I versions were mostly used in religious spaces.]

The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times, Robert Houston Smith, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 1-31 (31 pages), The University of Chicago Press.

Outdoor Use

Designed as they were for household use, saucer lamps were probably seldom used for nighttime travel, for although their size made them portable their open oil reservoirs permitted the oil to spill easily, and their small, un-protected flames must have been fairly ineffective in open spaces…Lantern-shaped terracotta housing, into which a lamp could be inserted and carried with its nozzle projecting from an opening, was probably known but was not widely used; no Iron Age specimens have yet appeared in Palestine….

The only really effective light for extended travel at night, especially over rugged and unfamiliar ground, would have been that provided by the torch (Hebrew lappid), presumably devised of wood…probably many people did not bother with artificial illumination at all when traveling by night.

The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times, Robert Houston Smith, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 1-31 (31 pages), The University of Chicago Press.


While the idea of a lantern is simple—just a way to carry a lamp or a candle for outdoor use—they didn’t seem to be used in the Western world until at least the Common Era, much later than the dates we’re looking at. The earliest lanterns in the world may be candle frames and paper lanterns from the Han Dynasty of China, but even these aren’t around before around 104 BCE.


While technically anything with a wick is a candle, I’m excluding from this section anything that instead counts as a lamp. Candles have a distinct advantage over lamps. Lamps use a liquid flammable material for the wicks and candles use a solid one (which might drip but generally doesn’t spill). Most people do define candles as having solid fuel, but a lot of the historical sources out there (even the more academic ones but especially the ones that aren’t) will mix up wicked lamps with candles.

Candles were first mentioned in Biblical times, as early as the tenth century BCE. These early candles were made of wicks stuck into containers filled with a flammable material. The first dipped candles were made by the Romans from rendered animal fat called tallow…In the 1500’s, beeswax was introduced as an alternative to tallow…All candles were made by dipping until the 1400’s, when a French inventor introduced molds for taper candles….Wicking can be made from almost any kind of fiber; one of the most common in early days was loosely spun cotton.

Candles, 1000 BCE (Candles, Roman, 500 BCE). Smith College History of Science: Museum of Ancient Inventions.

If we’re looking at a wax or tallow candle, something reasonably solid to set your wick in, the earliest example appears to be around 500 BCE, though the Smith College source also implies 1000 BCE. But many other sources put the Roman use of dipped tallow candles at 100 BCE or a tad earlier. Either way, this is too late for our purposes.


In ancient Egypt, torches were widely used, both for daily life uses and also for different rituals…Webster’s Dictionary, which agrees with the Oxford Dictionary, defines “torch” as “A light or luminary formed of some combustible substance, as resinous wood, twisted tow soaked in tallow, generally carried in the hand.”  Torches or tapers are known from the representations on the walls of New Kingdom tombs and temples, the commonest type was made of a strip of linen folded double at half its length and twisted…then soaked in fat, such a torch could be held in the hand or mounted on ritual holders which sometimes took the form of Nile god or n emblems. In the second half of Dynasty 18 (Thotmosis IV onward ), this form was supplemented by a sort of cresset, a large rhomboidal lump of fat moulded around the top of a stick, with the lower end of the stick serving as a handle, the lump of fat acquired a flat-based conical shape before the end of the dynasty, retained that form throughout the Ramesside period…

The Torches in Graeco-Roman Egypt: The Ritual and Practical uses, Dr. Manal Mahmoud Abdel Hamid (Lecturer in the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels, Guidance Dep., Alexandria University).

So, yes, torches. In the New Kingdom. Other sources put the origin of torches much earlier than that.


A cheaper and less sophisticated type of torch. In Victorian English, rushlights were a common way for poorer people to light their homes. They were cheap and fairly easy to make but also messy and dripped grease. One length would burn for 30-60 minutes. They required a holder, so the rush could burn while pointed downward at 45°.

In the summer, when the common rushes of marshy ground were at their full growth, they were collected by women and children. The rush is of very simple structure, white pith inside and a skin of tough green peel. The rushes were peeled, all but a narrow strip, which was left to strengthen the pith, and were hung up in bunches to dry. Fat of any kind was collected, though fat from salted meat was avoided if possible. It was melted in boat-shaped grease-pans that stood on their three short legs in the hot ashes in front of the fire. They were of cast-iron; made on purpose. The bunches, each of about a dozen peeled rushes, were drawn through the grease and then put aside to dry.

Rushlight: How the Country Poor Lit Their Homes (1904), Gertrude Jekyll.  The Victorian Web.

The Atlantic puts Egyptian invention of rushlights at 3000 BCE, other sources say 5000-3000 BCE. Either way, they existed in our desired time and place. As did copious amounts of animal fat.

Rushlight in a holder.


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