Double-bodied Balsamarium

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Yellowish green transparent glass, two tubular phials or compartments made from a single bubble of glass pressed in form on side to form a diaphragm, tapering slightly towards the solid bottom with a pontil mark.

After blowing a single parison, the glassmaker created the two compartments by pinching the glass vertically, so as to form an inner wall: in our example, the two elements seem to be totally separated, while other specimens may contain two similar tubes that communicate at the bottom, by means of a channel. The handles, modeled in glass ribbons of the same color, were made separately: they served to suspend the vessel from a string. The lid, which would have been made of a perishable material (wax, cork, fabric, etc.), is never preserved.

These double-tube flasks are the elaborate and later version (from the 4th century A.D. onwards) of the elongated, cylindrical cosmetic vessels that were very popular from the 1st century: they were intended to store kohl, a black powder used as eye makeup and probably applied, as it is today, on the edge of the eyelids. Already documented in the 3rd millennium B.C., kohl also served as a protection against eye ailments related to the arid or semi-arid climate of the desert.

Such containers exist in many versions (double balsam jars would have contained a substance of two different colors) and were often excavated with small sticks provided with a bulbous end, which were used to take the kohl from the tube and apply it on the eyes: some were made of glass, while the more luxurious examples were made of bronze or carved from bone.

Small sized bottles of various shapes (more or less globular body, tall or low flared neck, ribbed or plain handles, etc.) and blown in different colors (aubergine, blue, yellow, transparent, green, etc.) were very popular from the 1st to the 4th century A.D.: they were part of the most frequently used toiletry tools. Their success certainly encouraged glassworkers to be highly inventive in order to create new versions, even more attractive to the public.

Towards the end of the Hellenistic period, glass definitely supplanted terracotta as a raw material for the manufacture of containers in all areas of daily life: this event, which occurred gradually, shall be regarded as a major technical revolution in antiquity, made easier, in early Roman times, by the invention and quick spread of the blowpipe, and by the conception of furnaces resisting to higher and higher temperatures.

With a versatility like no other known material in Roman times, abundant availability, lightness and ease of use, glass enabled the imitation of a wide range of other materials (especially precious metals), whether in the form, the design or the color. Furthermore, the ancients certainly knew that glass is a chemically neutral substance, what makes it particularly suitable for the storage of cosmetics or pharmaceutical products, as well as food and liquids.

Just about all Roman burials contain clear or greenish glass vessels covered with an iridescent patina due to the action of humidity and air. These flasks, when made in narrow forms, are often called unguentaria or lacrimaria by collectors, but were only used to contain oils and perfumes in the tombs, not to be containers for tears.

The Romans also perfected the art of working figures in relief on the glass vessels with the addition of another layer of glass of a different colour, or one of enamel, along with moulding, cutting or engraving of the glass, with the result that the surfaces of the containers looked like worked cameos.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- ARVEILLER-DULONG, Véronique. NENNA, Marie-Dominique. Les verres antiques au museé du Louvre. Tomo II. Museé du Louvre. 2006.
- FLEMING, Stuart J. Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 1999.

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