No other type of ancient Roman glass vessel is so widespread and common a find as the unguentarium (plural: unguentaria). As the name suggests, it was intended as a container for precious liquids, such as scented oils for personal or funerary use, medicinal creams and herbals for culinary use.
This type of vessel’s origins rest in the Hellenistic period and earlier, when roughly spindle shaped containers in ceramic were quite common. With the introduction of glass blowing on a large scale in the first century, AD, glass unguentaria rapidly replaced ceramic containers. Unlike pottery, glass has the advantage of imparting no taste or scent to its contents.
While the basic form — a bulbous lower body, long narrow neck, usually with a constriction somewhere along its length, and a flared rim — is common to all unguentaria, the range of specific forms is tremendous. The example illustrated above is a quite uncommon miniature example.
Visitors to museums, when viewing displays of Roman glass, often ask where the lids or stoppers to these vessels are. In most cases, these were made from organic materials, including tightly wound plant fiber or wood. Examples excavated at Romano-Egyptian sites have been found with these organic materials intact, due to the extremely dry conditions.
There are many excellent sources we could recommend dealing with the ubiquitous unguentarium but here are two, in particular —
* Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass, Volume One, David Whitehouse, Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, 2007. This tremendous work includes 87 fully illustrated and described examples of unguentaria (author uses the term “Toilet Bottles).
* Roman Glass, Reflections of Everyday Life, Stuart J. Fleming, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1997. This is a particularly good source for building an understanding of how these humble glass vessels were actually used in the lives of the ancient Romans.
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