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 p74  Alabastrum

Unsigned article on p74 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ALABASTRUM and ALABASTER (ἀλάβαστρον, ἀλάβαστρος), a box or vase for holding perfumes and ointments; so called because they were originally made of alabaster, of which the variety, called onyx-alabaster, was usually employed for this purpose (Plin. H. N. XIII.2 s3, XXXVI.8 s12). They were, however, subsequently made of other materials, as, for instance, gold (χρύσεια ἀλάβαστρα). Such vases are first mentioned by Herodotus (III.20), who speaks of an "alabaster-box of perfumed ointment" (μύρου ἀλάβαστρον), as one of the presents sent by Cambyses to the Ethiopian king; and after his time they occur both in Greek and Roman writers (Aristoph. Acharn. 1053; Aelian, V. H. XII.18; Martial, XI.8; Matth. xxvi.7; Mark, xiv.3; Luke, vii.37). These vessels were of a tapering shape, and very often had a long narrow neck, which was sealed; so that when the woman in the Gospels is said to break the alabaster-box of ointment for the purpose of anointing Christ, it appears probable that she only broke the extremity of the neck, which was thus closed.

[image ALT: A small finger-shaped glass bottle with a flanged mouth, made of opaque glass of varicolored horizontal zigzag bands.]

Roman banded glass alabastron from Numidia.

The article should have mentioned that the materials most commonly used for alabastra and other types of perfume vials were ceramic — you can see a particularly interesting one from the 5c B.C. elsewhere onsite — and especially glass. That in turn makes the Gospel story completely comprehensible: the woman's vial was in fact a glass ampule, which had been filled with perfume, then sealed by heating its mouth and pinching it shut.

For a different take on the Gospel account, see the article Alabastron at Livius.Org, which includes 14 good photos of alabastra from various places in the Roman world (most of which are glass or ceramic).

Musée national Cirta, Constantine (Algeria).
Photo © Livius.Org | Jona Lendering, by kind permission.

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Page updated: 24 Sep 20