The only complete example of a Roman lantern to have been found in Britain was discovered in Autumn 2009 by a metal detector user. Danny Mills found the large bronze object whilst scanning a field near Sudbury, and immediately notified the discovery to the Suffolk Archaeological Unit. The find is significant as only fragments of similar lanterns are held at the British Museum, and the closest complete example was excavated in Pompeii. The interest in the lantern even earned it a feature in the BBCseries “Digging for Britain”!
The Roman lantern dates from between 43-300AD, and is similar to a modern hurricane lamp, with the naked flame protected by a thin sheet of horn which would have been scraped and shaped until it was see-through and then wrapped around the bronze frame of the lantern to protect the flame from the elements. As the horn shield is an organic material, it would have rotted away over time and did not survive when the discovery was made. The flame of the lantern would have been ignited by lighting a wick placed in olive oil, held at the base of the lamp, in a similar way as a modern tea light candle.
The lamp, found on land belonging to Mr and Mrs PMillar, has been donated to the Ipswich Museum, where work began immediately to stabilise and protect the fragile lantern from further decay. Of particular note is the chains which the lantern would have been suspended from were still intact, and look and move as any modern chain would rather than corroding into a metal lump over the centuries. Suffolk is known to have been a hot spot for Roman villas and country estates in the 2nd Century AD, and it is thought this lamp could have been used to move between a villa and an outhouse during the dark.
Once the lamp had undergone conservation, it was then observed under microscopes to prepare it for public display. Emma Hogarth, Conservator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums said, It has been a pleasure to work on such a magnificent object. The generosity of Mr and Mrs Miller and the actions of Danny Mills has ensured that it is now on public display and can be enjoyed by all visitors to Ipswich Museum.
The discovery is yet further proof that amazing objects from our cultural heritage still remain undiscovered under our feet, and it is not just archaeologists and museums who play the role in saving our past, but everyone can participate.