Safety Lamp

This lamp was found in Lascaux in the area known as the Well. It is an area of the cave that sometimes has dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide. Norbert Aujoulat said that the level can exceed 6%¹. Prolonged exposure to carbon dioxide at more than 6% could result in unconsciousness and death2. The bowl of the lamp contained carbonized fragments of juniper and coniferous wood3. In their experiments with copies of ice age lamps, de Beaune and White, found that ‘juniper wicks are never completely consumed by the flame’4. That is exactly what would be required in a safety lamp. The flame would be extinguished by a deterioration in the air quality, and not because the wick was exhausted.

So what does the lamp say?

Image: Norbert Aujoulat MCC-CNP: Annotation: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Norbert Aujoulat MCC-CNP: Annotation: Lynn Fawcett

The lamp would be carried by the handle with the bowl furthest away from the body. This gives us the correct orientation for the inscription. The handle is divided into two by a straight line, which indicates two possible states and two possible courses of ‘action’. On the right hand side there is an example of reduplication. The character ha, meaning oxygen is repeated twice. In other words, the air quality is good, and it follows that the ‘action’ required is to do nothing. On the left hand side, we see the character bīng, meaning carbon dioxide. For the action required I have chosen, leave in order to breathe. The second action character is ha. It is the same character as oxygen, but for the action, we might want to give it a slightly different meaning. The first action character is interesting. I couldn’t find any examples of it as a standalone character. It is comprised of two yì 丿 for movement. My interpretation is that it represents someone who is right side dominant stepping backwards to leave (the left foot goes back first, so that if necessary you can defend yourself with your right arm).

Author's Note

I have spent a long time puzzling over how best to translate the glyphs on this oil lamp. There are several different images on the web, and the symbols look slightly different on each image. In the end, I chose the image and translation above. Whilst some might disagree with my choices, I think the key point is that this may be the oldest known safety lamp in the World.


Image Credit: Lamp of rose-coloured sandstone: Norbert Aujoulat MCC-CNP, 2004: Lascaux, le geste, l’espace et le temps, Paris, Le Seuil:


1. and 3. Lighting: Norbert Aujoulat MCC-CNP, 2004: Lascaux, le geste, l’espace et le temps, Paris, Le Seuil:

2. Effects of CO2 on Humans: Garry K. Smith, 1997: Carbon Dioxide, Caves and You:

4. Ice Age Lamps: Sophie A. De Beaune and Randall White, March 1993: Scientific American: