Ancient Glass Blog of The Allaire Collection

GLASS ARYBALLOI and the bath rituals in Roman times

Posted in Uncategorized by Allaire Collection of Glass on August 27, 2021

ARYBALLOI and the bath rituals in Roman times

Author: Hans van Rossum

English rendering by: Theo Zandbergen

One should not bring the bath oils to the public baths in a glass container as these can break and cause injury. (Derekh Erezt Rabbah ~ 160 – 220 CE)

Roman Bathhouse (Thermae) in Bath (UK)

The above advice by the Jewish scholar was, probably, not so much followed. The glass container undoubtedly referred to the aryballoi. Exactly that type of container was frequently used in the Roman thermal baths. The word thermal stems from thermós, meaning warm. Thermal baths were complexes with warm and cold baths more or less like our modern sauna’s or baths. Massages were also available perhaps using the (fragrant) oils brought from home. The baths were quite important to the Romans. These were not only facilities to get rid of the dirt and grime but, also meeting points for discussions, making deals or debating politics. The baths played an important social and business role. Large complexes have been unearthed like the one in Heerlen in the Netherlands. The largest one in the Low Lands.

The aryballos was during Roman times an inseparable accoutrement for the visitors to the baths. She or he carried the aryballos from home with a small attached handle or with e.g. a bronze chain and stopper. Entering the baths one would at first go to the apodyteria, the respective changerooms for female and male visitors. The smaller baths usually had only one apodyterium and used different opening hours for females and males. The clothes were nicely stored away and the visitor went to the a caldarium. A space with a temperature of approx. 40º C. and a humidity of around 80%. Just like our nowadays sauna’s. The plunge pool was called the alveus. From there one went to the sudatorium, the sweat room. Just like our modern sauna’s. From there one could go to the tepidarium, a room with a moderate temperature. One could also see the masseur handing him the aryballos with the fragrant oils brought from home which could be applied.

The room shown above is to store the clothes nicely away and other one of the bath’s in the Thermae, complex

The masseur would disperse some sand over the oily body followed by cleansing using a strigilis, a scraper made of bronze, steel or glass to finish the cleansing process. The body got a nice smell from the applied oils. To finish off one visited the frigidarium, the cold room. There was enough time in the whole process to socialize. One would get dressed again and go her or his way. This cleansing ritual was followed for quite some centuries and ended somewhere in the 4th century CE, probably due to the influence of Christianity.

Set of two bronze strigils with carrying ring; collection Hans van Rossum. Roman Empire; 1st century AD; H = ca. 20 cm

The thermal baths, like the one in Heerlen, were often part of the Roman fortifications. Those combined facilities often lead to larger settlements and thriving communities. The presence of troops, the fortifications and the security accommodated trade and the development of agriculture and the likes thereof. During the for centuries existing baths in Coriovallum, Heerlen (active link) many a thousand aryballoi have been used by the visitors to the baths. Without a doubt many aryballoi went to pieces, as not all the visitors followed the wise words of Rabbah. However, fortunately many were saved as the happy collectors can attest. As the aryballoi had also a kind of “show-off” function all kinds of forms and shapes developed.

The story behind the aryballos

No known glass form from antiquity equals this flask other than perhaps the oinochoe, a pitcher, sometimes with a so-called cloverleaf spout. The earliest examples of aryballoi go back to the Egypt of the 18th dynasty (1550 – 1292 BCE). The term aryballos was originally used for a ceramic spherical oil jar as of the 7th century BCE. The originally Greek term kept on being used when in the Greek and Hellenistic period the jars were formed thru the glass forming technique called core forming. The description aryballos becomes a generic term for spherical formed (bath) oil containers in Roman times. However, a Roman aryballos can also get different forms and shapes, like semicircular, squat, bi-conical, or even hexagonal. In all cases these containers are called ampulla olearia, or aryballos.

Aryballos, collection Elisabeth & Theo Zandbergen. Roman Empire; second part 1st century CE; H = 7.6, D = 4.7 cm; W = 25 g

The early free blown examples come into existence in the 1st century CE from glass production centers in the Eastern Mediterranean region in the coastal areas of Syria and Palestine. These can be recognized by their relatively long necks and handles made of a glass thread in a contrasting color. As far as known there are almost no intact objects or fragments unearthed in the Syrian-Palestine region. The assumption is therefore that the mono-, bicolored and polychrome aryballoi were made for export to the other areas in the Roman empire which were dotted with thermal baths. In that early period, one should mainly think of the settlements and cities around the Dalmatian coast. That’s also the area where finds have been reported of early type aryballoi especially the polychrome ones. The same can be said for Northern Italy and the bordering areas, for Switzerland, Vindonissa and Locarno, Pompei, the Aegean area, the Crimea and other areas in Asia-Minor. From this one could conclude that in Northern Italy and neighboring regions manufacturing centers were active producing at least the polychrome variation of the early aryballoi. One could postulate that those manufacturing centers could very well have been created by Syrian immigrants during the first half of the 1st century CE. Immigration is of all times. These colorful variants were created let’s say from the years 20 to 30 of the 1st century with the summit around 50 CE. This production would rather quickly end around 70 CE.  After this period, hardly any polychrome glass was produced. That could very well have been caused by the invention of the metal blow pipe and the very much simplified methods in glass working and a form of standardization thereof. It’s also quite possible that the polychrome glass got out of fashion. Yes, all times have trends, so also in that period one could steal the show with something new like a “bling” aryballos.

Applied glass colors

Splashed aryballos, collection Hans van Rossum. Eastern Mediterranean or Italy; 1st century CE; H = 6.5, D = 4.5 cm W = 26 g.

Concerning the colors of the early forms of free blown aryballoi one could state that many of those were in cobalt blue and amber colors. Sometimes in combination with opaque white embellishments. Much rarer are the aryballoi in the so called splashed-glass manner. This splashed glass either in bi-chrome or polychrome, is created by placing differently colored glass chips on the marver, a perfectly flat piece of stone, and rolling the hot glob of glass over those chips by which these chips become part of the total mass. The glass mass is than further blown out into the form and size chosen by the glassmaker followed by another rolling on the marver. One really could show off with such a colorful aryballos.

With the evolving techniques fully utilizing the potential of the metal blow pipe, the form of the aryballoi and the colors thereof got more or less standardized. Most of the objects were made in bluish-green glass. This color is more or less the result of the used ingredients and the impurities in those like iron-oxide in the used sand. Anyway, a certain blue-green color can be indicative for a specific production region. Glass objects manufactured in the Rhineland do have a somewhat different and typical bluish-hue called in German “blaulichgrün”. That bluish-green color is a variant on the more common bluish-green color of roman glass originating from the Eastern Mediterranean area. Glassmakers discovered already early on the possibility to decolorize glass by using ie. manganese. However, that was in that time a cumbersome process. Despite of it, many glassworkers in the workshops in Cologne and Alexandria used that technique. The extra effort could be minimized by using extremely pure sands like the quartz sands. However, it should be stipulated that very few of those colorless glass objects survived. The early glassmakers also discovered that adding metals to the mix of ingredients resulted in different colors. Adding silver giving a yellowish hue to the end product. Or, the addition of cobalt giving a strong bluish color. Yes, the core formed aryballoi have most of the time a strong bluish color in the base material. The other (vibrant) colors are just marvered. For aryballoi of later date formed with the metal blow pipe technique the bluish color is quite rare. The University of Pennsylvania Museum has a very rare opaque blue aryballos with white handles and a decoration of ground rings in the corpus of the object. Especially the first part of the 1st century CE is characterized by the use of a variety of different colors. However, as that century progresses less vibrant colors become en vogue. One sees the simple bluish-green and later on the yellow-green (olive color) emerge. For the Rhineland the previously mentioned typical bluish-green objects stay to be the prevailing color.

Differently shaped aryballoi

The thick walled aryballoi have most of the time a spherical shape, but many other forms are known. As mentioned before, squat, bi-conical and even hexagonal forms are known. The dimensions vary also quite extensively. In the Bonn area aryballoi have been found with a height of 21- 24 mm.

Miniature aryballos, collection Hans van Rossum. Probably Cologne; 1st century CE; H = 3.2 cm, D = 2.4 cm; W = 14 g

Perhaps these miniatures were additional grave gifts with a more symbolic meaning. Because this kind of format is kind of impractical for use in the thermal baths. A height of 50 mm’s is quite normal. The museums of Tongeren (Belgium), Amiens (France) and the French Departement SeineMaritieme show many examples of these. The most common height of the aryballoi is between 60 and 80 mm. However, objects of much larger size, up to 200 mm are known

Changed shapes and sizes

The color of the used glass was not the only thing that changed with the introduction of the metal blow pipe in the second half of the 1st century CE and the following standardization and mass production of aryballoi. The aryballoi could now, just like the jars and bottles, be blown in larger sizes because larger paraisons could be taken with the use of the metal blow pipe. This development can be seen from the 2nd and 3rd century CE when much larger aryballoi were formed. These were both heavy and medium walled. Up to now it’s not clear what these larger ones were used for. Carrying such a large object around was certainly a challenge and not particularly elegant. These larger aryballoi could have been used as storage vessels to form a stock in the public baths or, used in private baths in the large estates. An additional benefit of being able to take on a larger paraison was that now thicker walled aryballoi could be made lessening the chance of damage or breakage.

Hexagonal aryballos, collection Hans van Rossum. Found in Cologne; late 1st early 2nd C. H = 11.8 cm, D = 4.7 cm; W = 132 g.

The most exceptional form variant of the aryballos is the hexagonal one. While it seems that the description “aryballos” for this shape is not the proper one, the trade jargon (still) uses it. According to the literature only a very few hexagonal aryballoi have been found and in most cases the site of find was in the Western part of the Empire. Besides the matching hexagons there is a difference in appearance. There is a clear distinction between the compact type and a taller and more slender form. Besides the form also the way the hexagonal variant is made differs from all other aryballoi. The last ones are free blown while the body of the hexagonal ones is blown in a mold to establish the characteristic form while the neck and spout are free formed. The last (known) form variation on the aryballos is the ring type. This is basically a round form derived from the standard type but then produced as a kind of “pilgrim flask”, also called a lentoid form, with in the middle of the body a circular passage, giving the flask its ring form. The faultless forming of such “passage”, is a quite complex technique requiring top craftsmanship of the glassmaker. It is quite possible that the ring type aryballos is the result of experimentation by a local glassmaker trying to create an appealing new form using techniques unique to him. As he, or why not she, was quite successful with this new form it seems that quite a market developed for this new “fashion” model as shown by several finds of this special type. The other noticeable quality of this aryballos model is the color. Not a bluish-green but in many cases a light olive green or a pale yellowish color. Known finds of this type are from France and Germany and present in the museums of Lyon, Amiens, Cologne, Trier and Frankfurt.

Forming the mouths and handles

Different ways and means for forming the mouth of the aryballos are available. In a number of cases, mainly with the early examples, the mouth was folded in the form of a triangle. To accomplish this the glass was first outwardly extended than sloped upwards and folded inwards. The typical somewhat heightened “triangle” form is specific for production in the 1st century CE. Another mouth form is called a collar-rim. The rim was first folded outwards, and downwards followed by upwards and again inwards folding. In the so-called collar rim one can see that this form is a kind of imitation of earthenware current in that period. The ceramists of Pergamon in Asia-Minor used that form of collar rim extensively in their earthenware. The least complicated way to form the mouth of an aryballos was to finish it simply and smooth. The glass mass was at first horizontally worked outwards followed by folding it inwards again. After re-heating the mouth was further smoothed. Much of our knowledge about the areas of origin of the aryballoi is based on the differently executed mouths. Much of the knowledge about the area of origin, based on the differently executed mouths and ears or handles, we thank to the scientific study (1987) by Sorokina. The way the handles were made relates directly to the period in which the objects were made and their respective areas of origin. To note, the handles of the early and thin walled aryballoi were made by using a thick glass thread fixed to the shoulder of the object, pulled up to the rim than turned downwards and folded to be fixed to the neck of the object. This way of doing is more or less like the way the handles were formed and attached for the core formed ones in the Hellenistic period. Sometimes the handles were made of the same color as the glass for the body known as monochrome. In other cases the glass for the handles was of a contrasting color known as, like mentioned earlier, bi-chrome.

After the deployment of the metal blow pipe, probably during the second part of the first century CE, the aryballoi got not only heavier and larger, but got differently formed handles. For example, free standing circular handles placed on the shoulder so not touching the neck at all. Others were attached to the shoulder and connected to the mouth. Others were formed like the silhouette of a dolphin, hence the name dolphin handles. This dolphin shape points to production in the North-Western part of the Roman Empire and more specific to workshops in Cologne or the area around Cologne. The majority of the aryballoi has two handles, however, others are known with three or four handles. The latter are quite rare.

Sprucing it up

The majority of the spherical heavy walled aryballoi were without any decoration. Exceptions excluded. Some of the aryballoi from the northern coasts of the Black Sea were provided with horizontal grooves ground into the corpus at defined spacing and pattern.

In karanis (Egypy) some aryballoi were unearthed with ground grooves in the body, however, these are made of clear translucent glass. Other decorations are known like using glass threads wound around the body of the object.

These aryballoi are generally found in the North-Western part of the Roman Empire and could refer to production centers in Cologne. From that same region objects are known where the glass thread forming the (dolphin) handles progresses downwards on the body of the object. To get, in a number of cases, an extra decorative effect that lower part has been pinched with a set of pliers giving a ribbed impression. The aryballoi formed in a mold to get a pattern on the body are quite rare. One unique example is known having a diamond pattern.

Sealing the aryballoi

The mouth of the aryballos can be plugged or sealed. Most of the time a bronze stopper was used or another kind of a plug. The stoppers were often connected to a bronze link chain. The aryballos could be carried along by attaching a cord or a metal chain, but also with a nicely formed bronze handle.

Most of the time bronze rings connected the carrying accoutrements to the handles. In many cases the metal elements have corroded away but, there are still objects having a well preserved part or all the accoutrements.

A totally different way to seal the aryballos was by plugging the mouth with a wad of a white substance, either bee wax or gypsum, as was more or less common for bottles and jugs. A “funny” example is the aryballos shown here.

Aryballos, collection Hans van Rossum. Probably the Northern Black Sea Region, 2nd – 3rd century CE; H = 9,6 cm; D = 7,8 cm; W = 68 g.

The bee wax or gypsum was not particularly neatly applied but like a great lump slumped over the spout. The previous owner of this aryballos was not aware of using different materials to seal aryballoi. He assumed that the content of the aryballos had, in the grave, a kind of uncontrolled chemical reaction, forming this irregular glob. In his opinion this reaction had formed the kind of chalky plug. After he tried to remove this “flaw” he noticed that the spout was already cracked in antiquity. To deal with the sealing problem the original Roman owner packed the whole in a large blob of bee wax or gypsum. Further scientific research has to give the answer to the question if this blob is bee wax or gypsum. Another remarkable detail with this aryballos is the way the handles have been attached. In all up to now known cases the glassmaker attached the glass thread first to the shoulder pulling it upwards, folding it and attaching it to the neck or the mouth. The glass thread starts in that case quite sizeable on the shoulder and “thins” when it’s pulled up. With this aryballos the glassmaker also started out in the traditional way but, probably, the glass blob did not fuse on the shoulder. Subsequently he or she started to work after that incident in the reverse way and attached the glass thread first to the neck. Thereafter he, or again she, finished his or her work more or less in the traditional manner folding the glass thread and re-attaching it to the left glass blob on the shoulder. The above described process could, in a Sherlock Holmes way, be researched from the observation that the glass thread on the top side is thick and thins out to the shoulder. In this way shortcomings in the production like not fusing or developing cracks, and the masterly repairs by the glassmaker, can be discovered.

To conclude: let’s sprinkle some sand, to finish this article

The thermal baths played also an important role in the day to day doings of the people in the times of the Roman Empire. Sand was a cleansing medium in the baths but is also the main ingredient for making glass. The baths also functioned as a kind of neighborhood center were people could gossip, exchange the most recent news, or play board games. Not to say that plots could be developed around politics or politicians. Who says that the baths didn’t play a role in many plots around the impeachment of a reigning emperor or the succession thereof? One sees what a role small objects like aryballoi can have in history.

Below are more aryballoi as part of the several of the Dutch collections and an American glass collector

Collection Aad van den Born

Aryballos, Roman Empire; 2nd century CE; H = 7.3 cm, D = 6.4 cm; W = 73 g.

Collection Elisabeth & Theo Zandbergen

Collection Annelies Bos-Pette

Aryballos, Roman Empire, probably Gaul; 1st-2nd century CE; H = 5.0 cm, D = 4.8 cm; W = 36 g

Windmill Collection

Collection Joop van der Groen

Collection Arie Dekker

Collection Nico Bijnsdorp

Collection Hans van Rossum

Allaire Collection

One Response

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  1. wynkin said, on November 9, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Some real beauties!

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