An Ancient Unguentarium

The glass-making method inspired Louis Comfort Tiffany

Thank you for sending me an image of your piece of ancient Roman glass. It is called an unguentarium, a word describing a small glass vial or bottle used in ancient Rome and Greece. Unguentariums are fascinating because not only were they a commonly used product in their day, but also they have a romanticized story as well.

Unguentariums were hand-blown on a pipe, pulled with a slight lip, and came in several different sizes and forms. As they were so plentifully found in archeological digs, we know they were used both for funereal purposes as well as regular household use. Essentially, these ancient artifacts represent today's modern plastic packaging. Evidence suggests that glass unguentariums held ointments, oils, perfumes and cosmetics, amongst many other items.

Because many unguentariums were also found in ancient cemeteries, and they seem somewhat impractical in form, it is romanticized that they were used as tear-catchers for mourning loved ones. However, the general thought today in analyzing the ancient contents is that this idea is just a myth.

These ancient glass vessels have an iridescent-like quality that manifests itself over time. This rainbow-like quality to the glass was not planned by the artisans in the period, but instead developed over many years. The weathering of the glass over time, as well as the leaching of some of its properties, created a thin film-like layer that refracts the light in a beautiful way.

In the late 19th century the famous glass artisan and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was familiar with the beauty of this ancient glass, set about to emulate the iridescent quality and created a beautiful line of Favrile art glass, which is still highly sought after today.

Ancient artifacts are wonderful to collect and do not necessarily have to cost a fortune. We have a nice selection on view in at our shop with prices ranging from under $100 to many thousands. Your unguentarium is a nice example in good condition and I would estimate it at $500.

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