Forging Cultural Meaning from Roman Lamps in University Collections (20 min)


Alison Rittershaus, Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University


Ceramic Roman lamps are one of the most represented classes of material in university collections of antiquities. Common, portable, and iconographically potent, lamps were popular collectibles among the donors, often professors, who built institutional collections in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mixed in with genuine specimens in these collections are a significant number of reproductions, pastiches, and forgeries, often accompanied by spotty documentation regarding their origins. While some museums have published these collections (such as the Getty Villa and the British Museum), more often they languish in storage, a largely untapped resource for learning about the ancient world and its reception. This paper discusses what these collections reveal about the values that drove the antiquities market during a time of great growth in American educational institutions, and what their stories can teach us about both the circulation of genuine lamps in the ancient Mediterranean and the history of archaeological study of the region.

This paper begins with a discussion of the object biographies of two examples of forged Roman lamps in the small collection of Mediterranean antiquities held by the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, before broadening out to compare trends in the characteristics of both genuine and fake Roman lamps that entered other collections up until approximately 1960, when bequests from collectors active during the period under study begin to ebb. It considers the interaction between the contextual (e.g., educational) and aesthetic values that drove collectors and the market forces that shaped popularly faked iconographic categories and forms. In closing, it proposes resonances between the production and circulation of ceramic lamps in antiquity and the distribution and collecting of lamps as both curiosities and illustrative antiquities in the early histories of departmental and university museum collections.