Woman seated to the right with a wreath; a basket on the right. Attic red-figure alabastron, 500–450 BC. Cabinet des Médailles , CC BY 2.5. Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2010).

An alabastron (or alabastrum; plural: alabastra or alabastrons; from Greek ἀλάβαστρον) is a type of vessel used in the ancient world for the storage of oil, perfumes, or massage oils. The alabastron, of non-Greek origin, was widespread in all the lands of the ancient Mediterranean and in particular in the East and in Egypt. Archaeological evidences show that in these places alabastron was conceived in a different way, often made with materials different from clay such as the original alabaster and painted glass.

The alabastron has ancient and certainly pre-Greek origins; it takes its name from the material (alabaster) with which it was originally produced by the peoples who inhabited Mediterranean Africa from which it then spread to the classical world. Morphologically it is characterized by very small dimensions (which allow you to hold the vessel in one hand), long-limbed and elongated body, absence of handles, and neck narrow enough to allow the liquid to fall drop by drop.

Many specimens also have a flat hem (thus conceived to allow the application of the oils directly on the skin) and a rounded base, without foot, which implied a support structure (sometimes made of precious metals) or two small holes by means of which a string allowed the vessel to be hung. The shape of the alabastron responded to particular needs, similarly to other vessel forms such as the lekythos or the aryballos, so that overall the jar was suitable for containing particularly precious and rare liquids.

From an archaeological point of view there are three main types of alabastron:

  • a conventional form of Corinthian origin, widespread throughout Greece from the second half of the 7th century BC. in the mid-sixth century BC, characterized by an elongated body with a maximum diameter towards the base, continuous profile, no higher than 8/10 cm;
  • an Attic shape, longer (up to 20 cm in height), which was introduced at the end of the 6th century BC. and widespread until the beginning of the IV, in imitation of the Egyptian form, with a distinct neck profile, rounded base, and support structure;
  • a piriform version returned to us above all from the archaeological sites of Etruria and eastern Greece.

On a decorative level, the alabastron follows the natural evolution of Greek decorations clearly adapted to the shape and size of the object which was generally broken down into four horizontal bands subsequently painted. Exemplars finished with precious metals were also found, of extremely fine workmanship, evidently intended for an aristocratic public.

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