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Alabastron (work of art)

Artwork Info

Created
Late Ptolemaic Period, end of second century to first half of first century BCE
Artist
Unknown
Dimensions
4 1/8 inches × 1 5/8 inches (10.5 centimeters × 4.1 centimeters)

Credit

Gift of Mr. George D. Pratt, courtesy of Mrs. Katherine Pendleton Arrington

Object Number
G.50.8.59
Culture
Ancient Egyptian
Classification
Glass
Department
Ancient

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • Alabastra (plural of alabastron) were small vessels made of pottery or glass. They were used to hold oils like perfume or massage oils.
  • This alabastron is made using a glass core forming technique.
  • The core of this vessel was formed with blue glass. It was then decorated with yellow glass threads to create its featherlike design.
  • At the end of the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 BCE), Egypt scaled back on glass production and began importing glassware from nearby regions instead.
  • This alabastron probably comes from Cyprus, where vessels like this one were exported as luxury goods to distant Mediterranean cities.

Learn More

An alabastron is a small type of pottery or glass container, or vessel, used for holding oil. These vessels originated in the 11th century BCE, in ancient Egypt. The vessels were carved from alabaster, a soft mineral or rock that was used for carving. The name alabastron comes from the word alabaster. Most alabastra (plural of alabastron) were similar in shape, with an elongated body that was rounded at the bottom. These types of vessels often featured a lipped opening at the top and small handles on either side of the neck. 

This alabastron was made using a core forming glass technique. A form was made from clay and attached to a rod. Once it was dried and filed into the preferred shape, it was dipped in molten (hot liquid) glass. Glass threads of another color were then wrapped around the vessel and manipulated using tools to create different designs. When the vessel cooled down, it was removed from the rod, and the clay form was removed to create an open space inside the vessel to hold oil.

After mastering many glass-making techniques, Egypt stopped manufacturing glass vessels at the end of the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 BCE). Glass production shifted to the Mediterranean and Near East during this time. Egypt began importing luxury glass vessels, as well as other locally unavailable goods, from other nearby regions.

This pyriform (pear-shaped) alabastron was probably imported from Cyprus, where more than half the known glass alabastra were found. Although most alabastra were found on the island of Cyprus, an alabastron of the same type was found on the Antikythera shipwreck. This indicates that the vessels were exported as luxury goods to neighboring regions.

It is unknown where in Egypt this alabastron was recovered. Studies of alabastra discovered throughout the Mediterranean suggest that this type of vessel was made sometime during the end of the second century to the first half of the first century BCE.

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Images

  • A small, dark-blue glass vessel with yellow designs. The vessel is long with a rounded bottom. It has two small rectangular handles on either side of the neck and a lipped opening.

    Alabastron

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