This Egyptian red glass kohl pot realized £460 (about $525) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

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.

A Roman terracotta wine or water flagon featuring traces of red slip at its shoulder and on its foot ring earned £100 (about $114) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Apollo Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

This extremely well-preserved Roman transport amphora dating to the 3rd-2nd century B.C. and featuring extensive marine encrustation achieved $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2017. Image courtesy of Ancient Resource Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

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.

A small, exceptional Greek lekythos (oil flask) depicting horses and riders and dating to circa the late 6th to early 5th century B.C. realized $1,550 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2017. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

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. 

This Corinthian ware aryballos from Greece, dating to circa 650 B.C., features black and red figures and overlapping scales with rays on its shoulder and around its mouth. It brought £950 (about $1,084) plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of Apollo Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

A circa-5th-century B.C. Greek core-form alabastron boasts a glass body adorned with white and tangerine combed feather-patterned trailing with linear white trails encircling its ends and applied translucent cobalt blue trail handles. It achieved $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

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.