Length: 5.500 inches
Width: 2.750 inches
Room 56: Mesopotamia
Stone lamp in the shape of a shell
From Ur, southern Iraq, about 2400-2200 BC
Decorated with a human-headed bull
This lamp probably dates to a period just before southern Mesopotamia was united in the empire of Agade (Akkad). It was found by the excavator, Leonard Woolley, in the filling of a grave in the cemetery of Ur. It lay in the shaft about a metre above the body but it was not clear whether it had been put there at the time of burial or later. Since the earth had been disturbed by later burials, it was probably placed there later.
Similar vessels were also made from large shells. Stone is not common in southern Mesopotamia, and this object must have have belonged to a wealthy person. The significance of the finely carved human-headed bull is not clear. He may be related to the bull-man which in the art of the second millennium sometimes appears as an attendant of the sun god Shamash.
Analysis of remains in lamps found elsewhere in the Near East suggests that vegetable or fish oil was burnt to provide light. Although often described as a lamp, this vessel was more probably used for pouring libations.
J.E. Reade, Mesopotamia (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)
C.L. Woolley and others, Ur Excavations, vol. II: The R (London, The British Museum Press, 1934)