I have previously written on Roman perfume bottles and the importance of glass in the Roman Empire. Perfume was also central to ancient Greek life. It was so popular that the politician Solon temporarily banned the use of it to prevent an economic crisis. It was at the center of hospitality, wealth, status, daily life and even philosophy. It was seen as erotic, mystical and spiritual. It was linked to beauty which was inextricably linked with divinity. The origins of perfume and perfumery are interwoven with Greek mythology. In Homeric tradition, the Olympian gods taught perfumery to people. The color and scent of the rose is attributed to events surrounding Venus and Cupid. Lekuthos were used for liquid perfume and were slim elegant glass bottles. Aryballes were used for oils and unguents. Alabastron perfume bottles were highly prized, mainly among women and it was common for the craftsmen to brand the bottles to mark their craftsmanship, making them even more collectable. Even so, terracotta vessels, metal or alabaster were the most common materials for scented oil. The exquisite perfume vessel shown above is a exaleiptron (an older name was plemochoa) used for storing large amounts of perfume, possibly for washing and anointing the feet of visitors. The exaleiptron has religious significance in that it was used during the Eleusinian Mysteries when, on the last day they filled two plemochoai and set them up one to the east, one to the west, and then overturned them, saying mystic words as they did so. They were also used as grave goods.
An exaleiptron was used to hold perfumed oil, either as part of a woman's toilette or as a grave offering. This function is reflected in the shape of the vessel, which had a sharply inward-curving lip in order to prevent the precious oil from spilling. The form takes its name for the Greek verb meaning “to anoint.” This vase is an unusual marble example of the form; most surviving examples are made of terracotta. These marble vases may have been luxury versions of the terracotta form, and this exaleiptron is one of the earliest marble examples known. This exaleiptron is composed of four separately-made elements: the stem, body, shoulder, and lid. Marble vessels were carved on lathes, and lathe marks are still visible on this vase on the underside of the body and the interior of the bowl.
By the 15th century BC extensive glass production was occurring in Western Asia, Crete and Egypt and the Mycenaean Greek term ku-wa-no-wo-ko meaning “worker of lapis lazuli and glass” (written in Linear b syllabic script) is attested. It is thought the techniques and recipes required for the initial fusing of glass from raw materials was a closely guarded technological secret reserved for the large palace industries of powerful states. During the Hellenistic period many new techniques of glass production were introduced and glass began to be used to make larger pieces, notably table wares. Techniques developed during this period include 'slumping' viscous (but not fully molten) glass over a mold in order to form a dish and 'millefiori' (meaning 'thousand flowers') technique, where canes of multi-colored glass were sliced and the slices arranged together and fused in a mold to create a mosaic-like effect.
An alabastron is a container for perfumed oil that takes its name from alabaster, the material from which the original Egyptian examples were made. Greek artists adopted the Egyptian alabastron's shape in the 600s B.C. but made the vessel in a variety of materials. The Athenians appeared to have used the term lekythos to refer to any small oil bottle. The lekythos was used for anointing dead bodies of unmarried men and many lekythoi are found in tombs. The images on lekythoi were often depictions of daily activities or rituals. Because they are so often used in funerary situations, they may also depict funerary rites, a scene of loss, or a sense of departure as a form of funerary art. Faience is made from quartz silicate, which produces a glass-like glazed surface when fired. A glazed material related to glass, faience originated in Egypt as one of the first synthetic materials created by man. Made from quartz sand combined with water and clay, faience was formed in a mold and produced its shiny surface when fired in a kiln.
Both the form and the material of this faience alabastron ultimately derive from Egypt. The body is decorated with stripes and narrow bands of patterns in blue and brown against a white background. The mouth and foot are decorated with a rosette. The lack of figural decoration is unusual. The white faience of this vessel is also rare and may have been meant to mimic the appearance of ivory or alabaster. The alabastron was made in three pieces: the mouth and foot were molded, and the body was formed on a potter's wheel.
Back-to-back heads of a woman and a snarling lion form the body of this small faience aryballos, or oil vessel. The mouth of the vessel and a small handle emerge from the top of the heads. The original bright turquoise blue color of this faience has faded over time, but traces remain in the eyes of the figures and on the woman's earrings. Although the vessel's material has its origins in Egypt, the form of the vase is Greek. Aryballoi served as containers for scented oils and perfumes and frequently took the form of miniature sculptures. In the 500s B.C., faience aryballoi were popular in the Greek settlements along the coast of modern Turkey and their combination of Greek and Egyptian elements demonstrates the cross-cultural connections of the eastern Mediterranean in this period.
Located near a narrow bridge of land with natural harbors facing east and west, Corinth was the major port of trade in Greece for most of the Archaic period (700–480 B.C.). Its scented oil was widely exported around the Mediterranean in terracotta containers that survive today in the thousands. In the late 600s BC, Corinthian pottery was widely exported throughout the Mediterranean, and the most common type of Corinthian shape was the aryballos. A vessel designed for holding perfumed oils, an aryballos could not hold much liquid. The narrow neck and large disk mouth made it easier to pour this precious commodity slowly, without spillage. Corinthian potters invented the black-figure technique of vase-painting, and most but not all of their pottery was decorated with figural scenes.
In the period from 650 to 640 BC, a time that scholars call Late Proto-Corinthian, potters also decorated vases with simple patterns such as those seen here: a tongue pattern on the shoulder and base and a scale pattern on the body. These patterns were frequently used as secondary decoration on vases with figural scenes. The scales were drawn with a compass, and the centering points are still visible.
Pomegranates with their many seeds and blood-red juice were a symbol of life and fertility for the Greeks. Closely connected with Persephone, the goddess of the Underworld, pomegranates were also considered appropriate gifts for the dead, perhaps signifying a new life for the deceased. Embellished with black-figure decoration, this vase reproduces the slightly lobed shape of the fruit.
A small group of five stylistically related vases represents the surviving work of one workshop, or possibly even one painter. As with most Greek vase-painters, the artists are not known by name but are distinguished only by their stylistic traits. The Fighting Rams Group takes its name from a scene on an aryballos now in the Berlin Museum. The group worked in the city of Corinth from about 670 to 630 B.C. They decorated small vessels with bands of animal and floral decoration. Although their vases are not so elaborate as many painted by other contemporary artists, these simple vases represent a trend in Corinthian vase-painting in the mid-600s B.C. On its aryballoi, the Fighting Rams Group favored compositions of animals facing one another as if about to fight, hence the name of this workshop.
An amphoriskos is a small to very small version of the amphora, with two handles, and a pointed base. Both this form of aryballos and amphoriskos were often used to hold oils and perfumes. Athletes used perfume after exercise for medicinal purposes in the form of balms and unguent oils. This is an early recognition of the possible therapeutic and healing properties that are reminiscent of attitudes towards aromatherapy and aromacology in modern times. Scented oils were often depicted in vase paintings as being used by athletes bathing. In these depictions, the vessel is sometimes attached by a strap to the athlete's wrist or is hung by this strap from a peg on the wall as in the example above.
I found this chart that summarizes the many shapes of Greek Pottery. I hope you have found these beautiful flasks something to remember; I know I will.
Cosmic Significance of the Plemochoe: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1061979?uid=3739256&uid=2460338175&uid=2460337935&uid=2&uid=4&uid=83&uid=63&sid=21103330291681
Roman Perfume Plant: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131009100109.htm
Perfumes in Ancient Greece: http://www.basenotes.net/threads/214582-Perfumes-in-Ancient-Greece
Beazley Classical Art: http://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/shapes/closed.htm