How Ancient Mesopotamians Wired Their Mud Huts for Lighting
Ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq, was the birthplace of many innovations that shaped civilization. One of the most ingenious was how Mesopotamians brought light into their simple mud hut homes. As an aspiring ancient Mesopotamian architect, I was fascinated by this primitive yet effective form of indoor lighting.
Gathering Materials from the Local Environment
The keystone of the Mesopotamian lighting system was bitumen, a tar-like substance that naturally occured in deposits throughout the region. To collect bitumen, I would venture to the banks of the Euphrates River and dig up hunks of the black, sticky material. Reeds were also essential, which grew in thickets along the river's edge. I would cut down tall stalks of the hollow water plants to use as primitive conduits. Clay was easy to acquire from the river's mudflats, which I would mold into simple lamp fixtures. With these basic materials sourced from the local environment, I could fashion simple yet effective lighting for mud hut interiors.
Molding the Lamp Fixtures from Clay
The lamp itself was made by shaping a lump of clay into a shallow bowl, roughly 5-10 cm across and 1-2 cm deep. Small holes would be poked into the edge using a reed stalk to allow oil to be poured in. Once shaped, the wet clay bowl would be set out to dry and harden under the hot Mesopotamian sun, sometimes for days. In my early attempts, I made the mistake of making the lamps too thin, only to have them crack and break when filled with oil. Through trial and error, I learned the right thickness to maintain structural integrity. The dried clay bowl formed a perfect holder for the combustible oil.
Preparing the Light Source from Bitumen and Reeds
With the clay lamp fixtures ready, the next step was preparing the light source itself. Chunks of raw bitumen were heated over a fire to melt the tarry material into thick, viscous oil. The oil was then poured into hollow reed stalks, which acted as primitive wicks. The thin reed wicks soaked up the bitumen oil and provided a slow-burning source of flame. Depending on the length of the reed and the quantity of bitumen, these ancient "wick lamps" could burn for hours at a dim but steady brightness. Too thin of a reed and the flame would consume the wick too quickly. Too wide of a wick and the flame would sputter from lack of capillary draw. The ideal reed wick took much tinkering to perfect.
Installing the Lighting System Inside Mud Huts
Finally, it was time to install this primitive lighting system inside actual Mesopotamian homes. The simple mud hut dwellings had small windows or openings to the outside, letting in minimal daylight. Blocks or platforms were erected to support the clay oil lamps, keeping them elevated within the hut interior. The bitumen wicks were lit, placed into the oil-filled bowls, and the golden glow of firelight illuminated the inside of the hut. Homes often had several of these simple wick lamps burning at once. By cleverly exploiting local materials like bitumen and reeds, the Mesopotamians brought the wonder of indoor lighting to their mud hut abodes! Though rudimentary, this method of harnessing fire for practical lighting was an ingenious Mesopotamian invention.