Oil lamps have been used for thousands of years to light tombs, homes, temples, etc. for religious and domestic purposes. Saucer lamps with lamp stands, have been found in ritual contexts in the Bucheum at Armant (Mond and Myers 1934,89, 135).
As in most countries, the earliest oil lamps seem to have been open containers, often natural objects such as sea-shells. Later, special containers were made. These could be very simple in shape like the saucer oil lamps depicted below. Such lamps have been found in various countries, not just Egypt, and several date to the 6th century AD or later (for similar items see Smith 1964).
AB65 Saucer oil lamp from Abydos, Graeco Roman
To avoid the spillage of oil, oil lamps began to be made in the form of closed containers, though obviously with a hole for a wick and a place through which oil could be added. Sometimes these lamps were elaborately decorated with mythological figures.
W2028 Enclosed oil lamp
While animal fat could be used to light oil lamps, several vegetable oils were also available to the ancient Egyptians (Serpico and White 2000). Castor oil seems to have been the most common. The oil would presumably have seeped through the pores in clay. This could be prevented by adding water to the lamp and indeed Petrie speaks of a demotic text where this appears to be suggested (Smith 1964, 8-9). Herodotus writing in the 5th century BC said that the Egyptians fed their lamps on a mixture of oil and salt (History 2.62). Smith (1964, 6) states that while a brighter flame may be obtained by putting salt on the wick, adding it to the oil does not seem to produce any effect.
Forbes, R.J. 1966. Studies in Ancient Technology, Leiden pages 146ff.
Mond, R. and Myers, O.H. 1934. The Bucheum, London, 89, 135.
Murray, M. A. 1949. The Splendour that was Egypt, New York.
Serpico, M. and White, R. 2000. Oil, fat and wax. In Nicholson, P.T. and Shaw, I. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge, 390-429.
Smith, R.H. 1964, The Household Lamps of Palestine in Old Testament Times In The Biblical Archaeologist, 27, 2-31.