Material Remnants as Cultural Signifiers: A Roman Lamp – Practical or Sacral Object?

By Philip L. Tite

As an historian who studies ancient religious traditions, I am constantly concerned about how we evaluate and use our sources. Although source analysis tends to be seen as a key component in first order data collection (and redescription), I have found that looking at the treatment of sources at the third order stage of scholarly critique, or reflexivity, is extremely insightful. Scholarly presuppositions and prejudices (to evoke Bultmann’s classic essay) typically are elucidated when we begin to explore the way researchers use sources. In New Testament studies, for example, I have observed a canonical bias that results in non-canonical works simply being ignored or studied only for their impact on biblical exegesis. The fact that scholarly output on those early Christian texts within the canon far outweighs publications and dissertations on those texts outside the canon is a clear result and indication of such biases. Non-canonical works that have some bearing upon New Testament texts or issues (such as historical Jesus research), however, are given better coverage in academic work; thus, once again we are seeing non-historical concerns bearing upon the use of first- and second-century materials that are so vital for the historian.

Disciplinary biases are not limited to textual sources, or to canonical (or sacred) texts. Nor are presuppositions only a result of a dichotomous perspective emerging from confessional agendas. When I completed my doctoral thesis in 2005, which focused on the social and moral rhetoric of a set of Coptic texts from the Valentinian tradition, I quickly realized that I also carried a bias in my work. My bias was a preference given to textual sources, with only a nod offered toward material sources for the cultures I was studying. Marrying someone trained in Roman archaeology was undoubtedly the reason I began to expand my horizons. (Though I must also give credit to Peter Richardson’s influence when I studied under him in Toronto.) I began to dabble with archaeology, throwing myself into a close analysis of a set of fourth-century mosaics found in Dorset (the Frampton mosaics). I discovered that remnants of material culture offered me a very tactile connection to the real people that I loved to study. I felt the same thrill of such a “connection” that I continue to feel every time I work on ancient letters. It’s as if I’m touching the past, getting as close to “time travel” as a scholar possibly can. As my wife, Colleen, puts it, we are studying “real live dead people” (her specialty is osteoarchaeology, so this statement is quite literal!).

Beyond a purely aesthetic pleasure gained from a voyeuristic trip to a museum, antique store, or archives, material remains can offer us substantial insights into the study of religious phenomena, whether such remains are historical or are in current cultural use. An example came to mind when we unpacked a Roman lamp that I had purchased several years ago when we lived in Oxford (see Figure 1). The lamp lacks any provenance, though likely it was fished out of the Thames near London and sold to an antique store. Such items are common in the UK; items that do not serve archaeological work, and thus end up being cute novelty items for collectors or tourists. This lamp in particular caught my attention due to the presence of a Chi-Ro. The dealer had estimated a first century dating. At the time I questioned this dating for a Romano-British item with clear Christian iconography and the dealer soon re-dated the lamp to the second century with a question mark. In discussing this lamp with a colleague in Oregon, a dating of upwards to the sixth century is possible (my guess was fourth or fifth century, with a preference for the former due to the strong Christian elements that we find in images during this period among the elite).

Figure 1: Roman lamp with Chi-Ro. Image supplied by author

From a religious studies perspective, the lamp is fascinating. As a lamp, it was designed to serve a very common purpose: to offer light when combined with a wick and oil. As such, it could be relegated to the junk heap of the mundane, the trivial, or the quaint. Yet there is a discursive act attached to this otherwise common item. Specifically, with the Christian monogram (which was not uncommon in fourth-century Romano-British Christian iconography) the lamp evokes, or signifies, a transmundane or sacral quality that collapses the practical function of the lamp with a personal (and, by extension, a social) identity of either, or perhaps both, the artisan who crafted this lamp and the individual who evidently purchased this lamp at some point in late antiquity. Although what that identity might have been is not easily retrievable (was the person or persons identifying with a Christian self-perception or was he or she tapping into a politically correct acknowledgement of Constantine’s rise to power?), what I love about this little item is that it demonstrates processes of identity formation, specifically within the intersection of the practical and sacral, rather than reinforcing a separation of the “religious” and the “non-religious” – a separation that has become common in public discourse since the Enlightenment, where, especially in the United States, “religion” has been defined as belonging the private rather than the public sphere (even though recent scholarship has highlighted that this private/public division has served instead to support the continued public role of “religion” in Western contexts).

The lamp reminds me that a private/public dichotomy, along with a sacred/profane distinction, obscures our analytical work on those cultural dynamics that tend to fall under the problematic category “religion”. This is an item that likely served a practical, everyday function but with an artistic quality that could evoke or reinforce an identity adopted by the owner (by socialization or/and personal volition). Not only are modern understandings of “religion” disconnected to ancient contexts, they are also problematic for explaining modern “religious” phenomena, especially if we dismantle the false distinction between high and low culture. The lamp is not an artistic marvel (there are numerous lamps that are similar from late antiquity), but it does have an artistic quality that would have been part of the life of at least one “real live dead person”. As someone studying religion as part of the humanities and social sciences, rather than as a divine science, it is getting in touch with such “real live dead people” that I strive for in order to understand and explain as part of a particular cultural context.

How might we as scholars or students within the humanities, especially those of us with strong textual preferences, better engage, and more importantly intersect, the wide range of sources that are at our disposal? Rather than allowing our disciplinary prejudices to limit our cultural analyses, perhaps we need to engage in greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. At the very least, such collaboration may illuminate our theoretical and methodological blind spots, while offering us fresh tools for our work.

As this example of one small lamp demonstrates, there is much more at work in religious identity and practice than textual or material analysis alone can indicate. The challenge then is: how can we, as scholars of this broad (and perhaps problematic?) category “religion” strive to incorporate little instances of daily religious life like this one into our analyses of the discursive processes at play within the lives of the people we are studying?


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One Response to Material Remnants as Cultural Signifiers: A Roman Lamp – Practical or Sacral Object?

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