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Bushcraft lamps and survival torches.

Posted by Leigh Robinson on

Have you ever wondered how our ancestors got through those long, dark winter nights during the stone age? Was it just a case of sitting by the fire until bedtime, then falling asleep? 

Objects described as lamps appear in the late Upper Paleolithic 50,000 – 10,000 years ago. We have been making our own lighting for a very long time. It turns out that our ancestors methods of lighting were sophisticated. It wasn't just a case of carrying a flaming log around. Below are the types of lamps they used and their progressive development.

Types of primitive lamps

Open circuit lamps are unaltered slabs of rock with a natural depression. Fuel runs off through the crevices in the rock.

Closed circuit lamps have carved depressions to contain fuel run off.

Carved handle, closed circuit lamps have bowl shaped fuel chambers but are more finely finished and have formed extensions for easier handling. Burn marks indicate the wick was placed away from the handle. A great design for heat conducting material like sandstone. Limestone conducts poorly and doesn’t need a handle.


Stone. Natural depressions.

Carved depressions. Soapstone, limestone, mud, siltstone.

Pecked depressions. Granite, eroded quartzite, sandstone.

Vesicular basalt, other medium grained stones.

Fired ceramics. Either formal vessals or curved fragments of vessels.

Wet clay or mud vessels.

Marine, fresh water shells.

Bone. Skull caps, long bone fragments.

Flammable materials such as gourds, wooden bowls, cocnut shells, etc can be used if lined with sand, clay, etc and flame is kept away from the rim.


Vegetable oil, olive oil. Burns much cleaner and less smoke than animal fats.

Animal fat

Animal oil (rendered fat)



Pine pitch (serious burn risk)

Rawhide glue, pre heated by fire.

Bees wax pre heated by fire.

Fatwood. Just light and use as candle.


Twisted/corded wicks. Add something like cattail as a boost.

Juniper or other inner bark of trees. Considerable archaeological evidence for use of juniper wicks exists.

Lump wicks – mosses and lichens

Dried herbivore dung

Cattails and other plant downs

Rolled, dried mullein leaves

Elder, Mullein cores. Soft rush.


Only have a bit of the wick in the fuel or it will soak up the fuel into the wick, removing the fuel reserve.

Lamps and torches

Cattail seed head wick, oil reservoir, length of bamboo as the lamp holder.

Cattail Bamboo torch

Clay lamp. 4,000 BC.

Tinderbundle buffed up, compressed down and soaked in pine pitch. Put in a clay lamp, lasts 45 mins and can be blown to flame from an ember.

Bark with tinder. Tied up with cordage to make a torch.

Birch bark folded and secured by green stick.

Rush lights. Tall mature stems 1 foot in length. Peel away outer part at one end to hold pith together. Dry and immerse in fuel that does not evaporate. Use grease, fats and oils.

The Lascaux Oil Lamps

Lascaux Lamp

Around 17,000 years ago the cave of Lascaux, France was painted by the light of oil burning lamps. The lamp measures 83/4 long by 43/16 wide and 11/4 thick. Tallow is carried and added to the lamp to provide more fuel. Made from red sandstone and excavated in the cave of Lascaux, France. Fill the reservoir with any oil and light a plant fibre wick.

Pottery oil lamps

Indian clay oil lamp

The first manufactured red pottery oil lamps appeared in the Chalcolithic (copper) age 4,500 – 3,300 BC. They were of the round type bowl.

Kudlik lamp used by Arctic peoples. Made of soapstone using blubber as fuel.

Kudlik lamp


Practicing Primitive: A handbook of aboriginal skills. Steve M Watts. Primitive oil lamp components pp175

Primitive Technology II: Ancestral Skills. David Wescott. pp204 - 210. And

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