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Precious Oils and Cosmetics

Greek perfumes and cosmetics have long since evaporated or turned to dust, leaving behind only written references to their importance and the containers that once held them. From Homer's day forward, precious oils, perfumes, cosmetic powders, eye shadows, skin glosses and paints, beauty unguents, and even hair dyes seem to have been in near universal use. Export and sale of these items formed an important part of trade around the Mediterranean. During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, overseas markets were dominated by Corinthian, Rhodian and East Greek perfume flasks and cosmetic containers, including aryballoi, alabastra, pyxides and other small specialized shapes. Cosmetic unguents were imported into Greece in containers carved from the Red Sea Tridacna shell. In the 6th and 5th centuries, with the export market taken over by Attic products, toilet oil was dispensed in flasks called lekythoi. The pelike was used to store scented oils or perfumes in bulk. In the Classical period perfumes continued to be shipped abroad, probably in bulk containers, and then retailed in terracotta aryballoi and alabastra. Cored glass vessels began to make their appearance at the same time, in shapes adapted from terracotta containers.

Ram-shaped Rhodian Aryballos ca. 650 BC
Rhodes, Siana Cemetery MS 3494
Perfume and scented oil containers occur in either animal or human-headed shapes in Greek ceramics of many periods.
H. 8.0; L. 14.5; W. 4.5 cm. UM neg. 90561-2

Middle Corinthian Aryballos ca. 595-570 BC
By the Platt Painter
On loan, Philadelphia Museum of Art L-64-532
H. 13.3; Dia. 12.5 cm

Attic Red Figure Pelike ca. 480 BC
MS 399
This distinctive shape, characterized by a sagging belly and broad neck, is a variation of the familiar amphora. To judge from the scenes painted on pelikai found in other collections, pots like these were used for, among other things, stocking perfume in shops selling perfumes.
H. 29.6; Dia. 20.0 cm. UM neg. S8-120581.

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