Roman mouse lamp in Manchester Museum collection (accession number 40647)
Regular readers of this Blog will no doubt recall that mice have sometimes featured in the posts. It is a great pleasure to host a guest contribution by student Greg M. who recently studied a Roman lamp with a depiction of a mouse in Manchester Museum’s collection. He kindly agreed to write this up as a post for the Ancient Worlds Blog:-
I was given the opportunity by my Sixth form College to undertake an Extended Project, or EPQ, on any topic I liked. Naturally I turned to the Manchester Museum for inspiration.
Having contacted the Museum’s Curator of Archaeology, Bryan Sitch, I was pointed towards a small, intriguing object. Nestled within the museum’s vast array of ancient artefacts, lies an ancient oil lamp with a small mouse design appearing on its surface. This lamp entered the Museum in the early 1900s, having been collected by a Victorian architect and antiquarian named William Sharp Ogden (1844-1926). The lamp arrived with little associated information card, offering little precise evidence of its history, provenance or age.
The Curator, Bryan Sitch, suggested I research both the lamp itself, so as to contribute to the Museum’s records, and also the cultural significance of mice in antiquity. While I anticipated the occasional source of mouse-related information, I found myself increasingly confronted by a complex and fascinating cultural assemblage, including Egyptian comics, satirical literature and Roman Republican anti-decadence legislation!
I sought to learn more about the role of oil lamps in the ancient world, when and where the lamp was made and the role of mice in ancient culture.
For thousands of years, oil lamps provided a key source of light for those who wished to extend the hours of daylight. Oil lamps provided a compact, portable and customisable light source that was to be found in homes, tombs and businesses across the ancient world. With the arrival of mould production in 3/4th Century BC Greece, factories around the Mediterranean began to churn out a massive range of lamp designs. The cost of using these lamps, however, limited their use. According to Diocletian’s Edict of 301 AD, an anti-inflationary fixing of prices, a litre of oil was the equivalent of 20 pence, compared to 14 pence for a teacher’s monthly wage. Therefore lamps were a luxurious, but widespread part of Ancient life.
Having ordered the hefty Royal Ontario Catalogue of Ancient Lamps through the public library system, I discovered that the Manchester lamp closely resembles those produced in Northern Africa. The Manchester lamp’s form closely mirrors those produced at ancient Tunisian lamp manufacturing sites. Furthermore, the chronological development of lamp design, with the emergence and development of the ‘fat type’, suggests the Manchester lamp dates from the 3rd Century AD.
Detail of mouse on lamp. The curl behind the mouse is the handle of the lamp.
While many lamps are often designed with standard ancient images, such as a posing Hercules, I found that flexible production created a huge variety of designs. The small mouse, pictured drinking oil, on the Manchester lamp initially seemed a strange choice of image for decoration. However, I found mice to be a key part of ancient culture.
The 2nd Century AD Roman ‘Messy floor mosaic’, now held by the Vatican, contains an extensive scene of gluttony, with scattered food and a mouse nibbling the remains. This image suggests the Manchester lamp may be a similar satirical reflection on Roman voracity, or perhaps it’s just to be regarded as a cute image, or an ironic prediction of might happen to the oil in the lamp.
Messy floor mosaic in the Vatican
In addition to consuming food, mice could be food themselves. While Mary Beard’s ‘dormouse test’ suggests that the longer you wait for edible dormouse to appear in a banquet re-enactment, the greater its accuracy, they were certainly part of the elite diet. Greedy Roman nobles would fatten up prized specimens in a ‘Glirarium’, before serving them glazed with honey. The aristocratic taste for dormice led to Imperial censors banning their consumption in 117 AD.
Vessel for raising doormice
When you think of Ancient Greek epics, Homer’s noble and fearsome warriors spring to mind. In the 3rd Century BC epic, the ‘Batrachomyomachia’, however, the warriors are mice attacking a hoard of frogs. In this parody, ‘Crumb snatcher’ is killed by ‘puff jaw’ and war ensues. This epic, which was apparently painted on tavern walls, strikes at a surprisingly common theme in literature, mice warriors. On an Egyptian papyrus from 1150 BC, an army of mice launch an offensive against a citadel of cats. This suggests that the parodying of generally austere war imagery enabled a cultural exploration of war, and it also suggests that mice were a seen in a sympathetic light. Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, commented that this image was a fairly common ‘inversion’ of the real world that is sometimes shown on playful or Satirical ostraca, on which the powerful cat is made to be subservient to the mouse.
Mice storming the city of the cats on an Egyptian papyrus
In the story of the ‘Town Mouse and Country Mouse’, Horace extends one of Aesop’s fables, exploring the relative merits of rural and urban living. Again mice are used as a harmless and charming tool to make a point, with the traditional rugged values of the countryside triumphing over urban sophistication.
By exploring, at great depth, such a seemingly small but highly specific object, I have gained an enormous amount. In addition to my understanding of the Manchester lamp’s cultural and historical role, my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of ancient history. By scratching the surface of this tiny strand of inquiry, I uncovered a host of possible questions and answers and had a lot of fun in the process.
Thanks to Greg for writing about this charming object in the archaeology collection.