In the summer of 1998 I was working at the Lake Ledro museum in northern Italy, which houses artefacts from the Bronze Age lakeside settlement site there. The museum director invited me to look over ceramic objects in their collection and make some replicas for their exhibition.
Three of these objects were labelled 'sieves of conical bellied forms, described as milk boilers or cheese moulds'. Closer inspection, however, showed that they had been repeatedly in contact with intense heat. One indeed was almost vitrified on the inside, like a bronze smelting crucible. Were these things really cheese moulds?
Initially I thought the objects could have been some kind of lantern top, used out of doors during windy conditions. So I made replcias of the objects to try out the idea. For this, I needed fuel for the lantern top.
For many years I have been doing research on lighting sources in prehistoric Europe. I thought that a fat or wax soaked rush fire would be the most effective fuel.
Rush lights are well known from 19th century Britain. The soft rush or Juncus was peeled of almost all of its outer skin, leaving a thin strip of green to give it stability. This was dipped into fat or wax and left to dry. Bundles of these rushes were dipped together to form primitive candles.
However, if the rushes were peeled entirely, then dipped in the fat or wax, a more versatile light could be made. If a small light was required, an incense type of pot could be filled with the dipped rushes to make a small yet mobile bright light. If, however, a brighter light was needed, a large bowl could be filled with rushes, and its light was then as bright as a car headlight. It took an hour and a half to produce 15g of white pith, which, dipped into either beef or lamb fat or beeswax, weighed 350g.
The lantern top idea was tested at an open day at the Lake Ledro museum. Bundles of wax-soaked rushes were piled onto a plate and lit, and I put one of the 'cheese moulds' on top. The effect was quite extraordinary. A tall pencil like flame rose from the centre of the pot in much the same way as from a Bunsen burner in a laboratory. Another pot was tested, and the flame rose to 20cm high with air rushing in through the holes in the side. The flame was controlled and steady: would not such a controlled flame be ideal for jewellers soldering fine metalwork - and possibly also enamelling?
Later that year at Biskupin in Poland, the Bronze Age display there had an almost identical ceramic, again described as a cheese mould. Further enquiries found others in Sweden, Lithuania, Hungary and Bavaria. An analysis of the pot from Hungary, so far unpublished, mentions traces of animal fats. Furthermore, beeswax was used as a lighting fuel in lamps from late Minoan Crete.
Returning to Britain, E. Cecil Curwen illustrated something similar from Bow Hill, Kingley Vale, near Chichester in The Archaeology of Sussex in 1932. He thought that it 'looks like the cover or guard for a lamp' - not a bad guess. Ironically by the 1954 second edition of his book he had changed his mind: the object might 'have been used for pressing the whey out of the curd in making cheese'.
The next step was to try out the replicas. Of four examples of different shape and size from Ledro, three worked well. Two could hold 25g of soaked rushes, a third 15g. They were then lit from the top, but although the flames reached 20cm high, after about five minutes the flames were finding it difficult to keep going, due to the packed rushes inhibiting the airflow through the sides. Raised on a few broken potsherds, however, the flames returned with increasing velocity. One flame became wider, measuring 3cm across, and the 25g of rushes kept it going for 15 minutes. The second flame reached 32cm in height, and the burning time was 16 minutes. The third pot, with only 15g of soaked rushes, had a flame 25cm high and burnt for 13 minutes.
The fourth Ledro pot was a strange funnel shaped object, rather different from the other three. It's capacity was only 5g, and when the flame was lit, it did not come out of the top and the fire went out - after smoking profusely. The original use of Ledro 4 was clearly different.
A replica of the Biskupin pot worked well. In size and shape it was similar to a Swedish example from Goteborge. Its capacity was 35g or soaked rushes, when lit the flame was 30cm high and the burning time was 25 minutes. When a small piece of stone was placed on top of the vent, the flame reduced to a barely sustainable level. When the stone was removed, the flame returned.
Cliff Dreamers (Podcast)
A magical stoneage adventure novel written and presented by archaeologist/author Jacqui Wood. Full of mysticism, adventure, coming of age and humour. Set 6000 years ago in northern Europe.