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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mysterious names of ancient ceramics

As I study ancient history I am always intrigued by the names that have been given to various ceramic vessels that have been recovered from archaeological sites.  Sometimes, the names of objects can be found in ancient sources.  Sometimes the names are given to objects by archaeologists because they resemble other fixtures that have been previously named.  In my translation of the Pompeianarum Antiquitatum Historia I have been a bit flustered by some of the names given objects by 18th and 19th century archaeologists because these names have not carried through to the 21st century or the objects have acquired a more common name since then. So, without accompanying illustrations, I have no idea what the artifacts actually look like. I've purchased texts purporting to be dictionaries of ancient ceramics but even they do not contain the terms I have found.

Anyway, although I have photographed hundreds of Greek ceramics in museums around the world, this morning while searching the Royal Ontario Museum's online database, I encountered the name exaleiptron for the first time. 

According to the Getty Museum, an exaleiptron, takes its name from the Greek word meaning "to anoint." The vase once held scented oil, and a sharply inward-curving lip prevented the precious liquid from spilling. Containers of this type were typically made of clay, but some examples were carved from marble as luxury items for wealthy women. They were used in the home and also deposited in graves.

An Oxford description explains that other names such as kothon or plemochoe are also used to describe these vessels. When I looked up "kothon" I discovered in antiquity it refered to an artificially created harbor basin, especially the circular port facilities of Carthage. During the Third Punic War, a decisive tactic used by the Romans included the sealing off of the "Kothon" with an underwater dam.

I also learned that in the sixth century BCE some exaleiptra (plural) had three feet which may explain why I had never seen the word before as I have actually photographed such vessels but they were referred to by the museums as tripods.  Later examples were designed with a high splaying foot.  Oxford scholars point out that these vessels are often depicted on white-ground lekythoi being carried by women approaching a grave.


This example of an exaleiptron I found at the Royal Ontario Museum is a 6th century BCE Etrusco-Corinthian black-figured wheel-thrown earthenware vessel decorated with a frieze of birds from the Archaic Etruscan period dated to between 600-580 BCE.  It has a subtle "foot" and appears to have been suspended, as indicated by the perforations of the three scroll-like attachments.

1 comment:

Cambrinus said...

More specifically, 'exaleiptron' comes from 'exaleipho' which means 'plaster over' or 'apply oil' (in the gymnasion)' or 'apply make-up'.

'kothon' is, originally, a basic drinking-cup, so is applied by the Greeks to the harbour at Carthage as a joke, or pun.