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Light: Lamps from Antiquity to the Modern Age

18 09 2009
Exhibition at the University Museum opens on 21 September 2009

Lychnology is the subsection of archaeology that specialises in the study of artificial lighting from antiquity to the early modern age. Representatives of this discipline will meet at Heidelberg University for a conference from 21 to 26 September 2009 convened by the International Lychnological Association (ILA). An exhibition entitled “Light!” will open at Heidelberg’s University Museum to coincide with the beginning of the conference. A range of exhibits from primitive Roman oil lamps for the common man to magnificent candelabra for the rich and powerful provides insights into a central topic in human culture. Also on show are precious illumination devices for cultic purposes. Among the exhibits are ancient lamps from the Antiquarium of the electoral residence in Mannheim.

The expression “lychnology” (from Greek lychnos: lamp, candelabrum, light) was coined almost two centuries ago by the Heidelberg archaeologist and ancient studies professor Heinrich Creuzer. The International Lychnological Conference begins with an overview of research work and conference activity on this subject in the last few years. Subsequently the speakers will be discussing technical methods, iconographic issues, various types of lamp (originals and imitations) and regional investigations on Roman clay lamps, with poster presentations to illustrate the subject matter. Some 70 lychnologists from all over the world will attend the conference chaired by Prof. Dr. Reinhard Stupperich of Heidelberg University’s Institute of Classical Archaeology.

The conveners extend a cordial invitation to attend the opening of the conference and exhibition at 6 p.m. on Monday, 21 September 2009. There will be welcoming speeches from the Lord Mayor of Heidelberg, Dr. Eckart Würzner, ILA President Dr. Arja Karivieri of Stockholm University (Sweden) and the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, Prof. Dr. Heinz-Dietrich Löwe. On this occasion there will also be a short lecture on “Roman Lamps from Heidelberg: Indicators of an Energy Crisis” by Heidelberg archaeologist Dr. Andreas Hensen and an introduction to the exhibition by Professor Stupperich.

The exhibition “Light!” illustrates various aspects of the history of artificial lighting, including the various fuels used in the course of the centuries and methods of lighting a fire. The manufacture side will be demonstrated with reference to Roman clay lamps. “Relatively poor people used fairly primitive lamps,” says Dr. Hensen, “whereas splendid, publicly displayed candelabra surrounded the rich and powerful with an aura of luxury, significance and dignity.” At present Dr. Hensen is examining lamps found in one of the biggest Roman cemeteries ever explored in southern Germany. It is located in the Neuenheim district of Heidelberg.

According to Dr. Hensen only very few of the precious and highly ornamental illumination devices used for cultic purposes have come down to us. They are however documented in pictures or described in ancient writings. “In the age of humanism, renewed concern with the technical achievements of antiquity led to the imitation of devices facilitating the operation of oil lamps,” says Dr. Hensen. “Their success stimulated further technological development until the invention of the electric light bulb in the latter part of the 19th century. This opened up entirely new vistas for lighting and illumination.”

The exhibition “Light!” has been prepared by a group of classical, provincial Roman and mediaeval archaeologists in the course of a seminar at Heidelberg University. The presentation designed by students will be on show from 22 September to 5 December 2009 at the University Museum, Grabengasse 1. Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Up to 25 October the exhibition can also be viewed on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In September the opening times are extended to 6 p.m.

For more information on the lychnological conference go to


Prof. Dr. Reinhard Stupperich
Institute of Classical Archaeology
Phone: +49 6221 542514

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