Glass paste polychrome ointment-holders

Two ointment-holders of polychrome glass paste were found in the Phoenician-Punic necropolis of Sulky, i.e. decorated with multiple colours. These are two Amphoriskos (fig. 1) and Oenochoe-shaped (fig. 2) ointment-holders. They both have an intense blue base which is the natural colour of the glass, and a lively decoration of alternating lines whose colour is obtained by adding other elements to the basic chemical compound, such as iron oxides to obtain yellow, oxide copper for blue and manganese oxide for black.

Both the Amphoriskos (which reproduces a small amphora) and the Oenochoe (which shows a miniaturised version of the ceramic jug used to hold and pour the wine) have been reconstructed from several fragments.

Fig. 1 - Glass paste polychrome Amphoriskos. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).
Fig. 2 - Glass paste polychrome Oenochoe. Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by Unicity S.p.A.).

What were ointment-holders and what were they used for? They were small jars which mirrored a few of the most famous ceramic vase shapes, mainly Greek, which are usually found in the necropolises of Punic culture, and in general, in those of pre-Roman times, throughout the Mediterranean basin. In addition to Oenochoes and to Amphoriskoi, there are also the so-called Aryballoi (fig. 3) and alabaster (fig. 4): the Aryballoi were vessels of small dimensions, intended to contain ointments and oils, and were used mainly by athletes during their training; the alabaster ointment jars were also ointment-holders and this is a rather ancient type of vase, already widespread in Egypt and the Near East.

The finds from the necropolis of Sulky, which date back to the middle of the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., may be also found throughout the Western Punic world, the rest of Sardinia, Carthage, Sicily and Ibiza. A type of ointment-holder with a human figure kneeling in front of a canopy is also documented in Sant’Antioco. This figure, in Egyptian style, dates from the VI-V century B.C. and comes from the Tophet of Sulky (fig. 5).

How were ointment-holders made and how were they decorated? One of the most common techniques for the manufacture envisaged that the core should be moistened and moulded, wrapped in a piece of canvas and fixed to the end of a cane or a rod. Thus prepared, it was immersed in a container of molten glass and rotated on a smooth sheet made of stone or metal so as to obtain a smooth surface. The mouth and foot were then modelled and the handles applied, probably with the use of forceps; the filament decoration was then inserted on the still hot and fluid base, perhaps with the aid of a pointed instrument.

The ointment-holders were luxury items, designed to contain valuable oil and balsamic perfumes and were used in everyday life. For this reason, they were part of the personal grave goods of the deceased and were therefore placed in the tomb with him.

Figs. 3-4 -Aryballos and alabastron from Ibiza (VI-IV century B.C.) (from UBERTI 1988, p. 486;
Fig. 5 - Glass paste unguentarium with human form kneeling before a canopy (from


  • S. MOSCATI, Il mondo punico, Torino 1980.
  • M.L. UBERTI, I vetri in AA. VV., I Fenici, Milano 1988.