Lascaux: The First Lamp
Although fire has blazed in hearths and flared from pine torches for half a million years, the earliest known stone lamps — fashioned by Ice Age humans during the Pleistocene — are no more than forty thousand years old. Their quiet flames shone more weakly than those of our candles, but they were cleaner than torchwood and easier to guard and tend. Often the lamps were merely unworked flat slabs of limestone, or limestone with natural cavities for the nubs of tallow — animal fat — that had to be replenished every hour. Some were roughly carved and their reservoirs carefully shaped with sloping sides so that the melted fat could be poured off without drowning the lichen, moss, or juniper wicks. Since limestone is a poor conductor of heat, there’d have been no need to carve a handle: people could hold the lamp in the palm of their hands. Except that the cups are charred, they could be mistaken for small mortars or grinding stones.
Archaeologists have discovered such stone lamps overturned near open hearths and among cooking tools and spearpoints in shallow rock shelters. They’ve also unearthed them far from settlements, deep in the caves of what is currently southern France, caves that are now famous — La Mouthe, Lascaux — for there isn’t anything more beautiful than what Ice Age humans made by such light. Eighteen thousand years ago, while above them herds funneled through valleys on their way to the plains near the coast, people ventured far beyond the reach of day — working their way down stone corridors and twisting through narrows — to draw from memory on the limestone walls and ceilings. Sometimes their works extend higher than human reach: a man would have had to stand on scaffolding or upon a rock protruding from a wall to make marks with his hands and with bristles dipped in manganese and iron oxide. More often, the artist held the pigment in his mouth and blew it onto the cave wall to make a mark. He also blew through hollowed-out bones. Concentrated marks one after another produced the sturdy outline of an animal, while a more diffuse spray colored a flank or back. In places details are certain and fine. Elsewhere the marks are suggestive: four streaks make a cat’s head. At times the contours of the wall stand for the back of a horse, a small protuberance for an eye. The artists understood how to place a leg or draw the turn of a head to create a sense of visual depth in their work.
In the chambers of Lascaux, black and brilliant animals swirl, eddy, and flow toward the deepest reaches of the cave: Galloping horses and horses superimposed on horses, a great red and black horse, a horse with a turned-back foot, a horse rolling on the ground, traces of a painted equid. A black stag, swimming stags, a fallen stag, a stag with thirteen arrows. A great stag and horse with merged outlines. A headless equid drawn in red. Two bison, the head of a bison, the head and horns of a cow, a red cow painted on the ceiling. The solitary head of a bull in the Hall of the Bulls. Panel of the Musk Ox, Panel of the Ibexes, Niche of the Felines. Wounded, grazing, fleeing, young: "The iconography of this cave," said archaeologist Norbert Aujoulat, "is, above all, a fantastic ode to life." Everything was contingent on the herds: food and clothing (needles and awls were carved from bones, while tendons provided thread and binding), as well the tallow in the lamps.
There’s no evidence that Ice Age humans used more than a handful of lamps as they drew, and if carbon dioxide had built up in the chamber — as it often does in the still air of deep limestone caves — they might have had trouble keeping even their few lamps lit. It’s likely they saw only a small portion of their work at any one time, that it receded in darkness behind them and lay in shadow above them: "Achieving full and accurate color perception of the cave images along a five-meter-long panel," notes French archaeologist Sophie de Beaune, "would require 150 lamps, each of them placed 50 centimeters from the cave wall." So the artists couldn’t have perceived the reds, yellows, and blacks of their own marks as clearly as we moderns can under the incessant glare of electric bulbs or in contemporary color photographs of the friezes and panels.
To reach the farthest chamber of Lascaux, it’s likely a man had to snuff out his light, lower himself down a shaft with a rope made of twisted fibers, and then rekindle his lamp in the dark so as to draw the woolly rhinoceros, the half horse, and the raging bison there. A long spear transfixes that bison, and entrails pour from its side. Beneath its front hooves lies the one painted man in all of Lascaux: prone, spindly, wounded, disguised behind a bird mask. And below him, until its discovery in 1960, lay a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone. It differs from the others in more than the nature of the stone and its shape. (The handle was essential because sandstone conducts heat efficiently, and it would have been impossible to hold the lamp without it.) The lamp possesses a refined beauty: its maker created a perfectly symmetrical bowl, polished the sandstone smooth, and incised the handle with chevrons. Perhaps it was used for ceremonies, though that can’t entirely be known. Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination.
Light as it would be for ages to come: light, its limits, and then the dark. Over time, lamps were fashioned out of shells, then pottery shaped like shells or slippers, and there were gradual improvements in the design: some bear turned-over lips on their terra cotta cups, which prevented spills. The cloth or rope wicks lay horizontally within wick channels shaped like thick spouts — perhaps suggested by the flutes of shells — which helped the oil to climb the wick and keep the flame steady. Ancient Greek and Roman lamps had enclosed reservoirs, which protected the oil from dirt or flies and guaranteed a little safety, but the flame itself was unguarded by glass.
It is believed that the Romans might have fashioned the first beeswax candles, which gave a fragrant, clear, steady flame and burned so evenly they were eventually used to divide time into hours. The ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great wished to "render to God, with a good heart, the fourth part of the service of his body and of his mind, both by day and by night." So as to tell accurate time in the dark or in the rain, he ordered that beeswax equal to seventy-two pence in weight be made into six candles, each twelve inches long. He needed to prevent drafts from affecting the burning time of the candles, for "the violence of the winds blew too much upon them . . . day and night without ceasing through the doors of the churches and the windows, and the chinks and holes in the woodwork, and the many rifts in the walls, and the thin tents." To do so, he "ordered a lantern to be well made of wood and ox-horn, for the horns of oxen, when white and planed down to a thin sheet, are as clear as glass. . . . And when this device had been so executed, six candles, one after another, burned for twenty-four hours without intermission, neither too quickly or too slowly. And when they went out others were lighted."
Rare and costly beeswax was long the province only of the Roman Catholic Church and the wealthy. Most other people depended on fat they pressed or rendered from animals, fish, or vegetation near at hand: manatees, alligators, whales, sheep, oxen, bison, deer, bears, coconuts, cottonseed, rapeseed, and olives, the chosen oil...