ANCIENT VESSELS: FORM AND FUNCTION
Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman vessels were each designed with a specific purpose in mind. Though scholars have strived to match known vessels with those depicted on classic vases or mentioned in the literature, many are known today by modern names. Each form served as needed and new generations updated and changed them accordingly.
For aesthetic appeal and to deflect the harsh glare of the sun, Egyptians lined their eyes with kohl – a dark powder featuring blends of crushed antimony, ground burnt almonds, ochre clay, lead and blue-green ores. Early alabaster kohl storage vessels typically featured small, squat, wide-necked bodies, while others featured lids with slits just wide enough to insert delicate application sticks – a design intended to reduce waste. During the New Kingdom, Egyptians produced appealing, narrow, palm tree-like kohl flasks in glass, along with simpler single-tone pots. In December 2021, TimeLine Auctions sold an alluring deep red, finger-length glass kohl pot for $525 plus the buyer’s premium.
Ancient peoples also kept foodstuffs in vessels meant to maintain the quality and quantity of their contents. Ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, apparently served watered wine from small bulbous pitchers featuring single, arched handles and short, anti-spill necks with flared rims. In May 2022, Apollo Art Auctions sold a graceful 2nd- to 4th-century Roman terracotta wine flagon featuring original traces of red slip at its shoulder for $114 plus the buyer’s premium.
Wine and olive oil, two staples of the ancient world, were stored in amphorae, which were terracotta containers featuring tall tapered necks, plump bodies and bowed double-shoulder handles. Small, graceful models, produced for use in ceremonies or formal dining, featured red or black paintings of figures, high glazing, wide mouths and rounded bellies on wide bases.
Unadorned, utilitarian terracotta amphorae often stood atop pointed feet. In addition to providing space for suspended solid particles, these forms allowed sturdy, upright storage when pressed into soft sand or tight, equally convenient storage when transported by land or sea. Though they capably protected goods from the damaging effects of light and air, these cheap vessels were usually destroyed or discarded once emptied. Ancient Resources auctioned a magnificent, extremely well-preserved 3rd- to 2nd-century B.C. Roman seaworthy transport amphora, bearing original marine encrustation, for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2017.
Greek lekythoi (or lekythos in the singular) were terracotta oil flasks with narrow necks, long tapering bodies, small mouths and single looping handles. As with similar vessels, their shape minimized spills and evaporation but eased pouring. While larger lekythoi functioned in religious ceremonies or as funerary offerings, more delicate ones were evidently reserved for personal use to dispense costly, aromatic oils or unguents at baths. In February 2017, Artemis Gallery auctioned an exceptional lekythos depicting horses and riders rendered in black for $1,550 plus the buyer’s premium.
According to images seen on ancient vases and funerary pillars, Greek athletes headed to the baths carried aryballoi (aryballos if singular), little perfume- or oil-filled flasks with narrow necks and broad, flat, spill-reducing lips. Apollo Art Auctions sold a 7th-century B.C. Corinthian ware aryballos featuring overlapping decorative motifs known as fish scales and tear drop rays, which appeared on its mouth and shoulders, for $1,084 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022.
Slender alabastrons – fragile terracotta, glass, and alabaster bottles featuring narrow necks, splayed mouths and tiny decorative handles – also dispensed perfumed oils at ancient baths. In June 2020, Artemis Gallery sold a Greek 5th-century B.C. core-formed, round-base glass beauty adorned with dazzling combed-feather patterned trailing and applied blue handles for $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium. In Imperial Rome, these stylish bathing vessels, known as unguentarium, sometimes featured charming double- or triple-conjoined, free-blown glass vials with contrasting crimped trim.
Ancient vessels not only shed light on the art and culture of past civilizations. They also illuminate the lives of those who relied on them and treasured them.