Insula VI.I Pompeii - its glass and small finds

A noticeable feature of the VI.1 assemblage was the volume of small bottles, often known as unguentaria, which were recovered. These would have held perfumes and cosmetics, and it is likely they were also used by doctors and pharmacists to hold their supplies.  As it is very unlikely that the bulk of the pottery from the VI.1 excavations will ever be studied or published, the opportunity was taken to include the ceramic ones in the small finds and vessel glass study. It was not possible to include all that were probably found as much of the pottery has never been sorted. The ones that were available allowed some interesting patterns in perfume use across the insula and through time to emerge. As well as the perfume bottles other items used in personal toilet and by doctors were found and a few are also considered here.

 

Two types of ceramic unguent bottles were recovered. The earlier type is generally known as a fusiform unguent bottle, globular ones come into use in the Augustan period. It is clear that as the first century AD progressed little bottles in glass were increasingly preferred.

Core-formed glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Core-formed glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Ceramic fusiform ungentaria from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Globular ceramic unguentaria from Insula VI.1 Pompeii

A fusiform ceramic unguent bottle from an Augusto-Neronian context in the Shrine. (Catalogue no. 3.73).

A globular ceramic unguent bottle from an unphased deposit in the sidewalk by the Porta Ecolano. (Catalogue no. 3.81).

Photographs: David Griffiths

A very small number of a fragments from core-formed glass vessels were recovered. This technique was used to produce perfume bottles in the later centuries BC. These fragments attest to trade links to the eastern Mediterranean during that time.  Above (left) from a pre-Sullan siege context in the Inn (Catalogue no. 3.1); (right) from a first century  BC context in the Casa delle Vestali. (Catalogue no. 3.3). (Photographs Mike Baxter).

Roman blown glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman blown glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii

A tubular unguent bottle with a sheared rim (Catalogue no. 3.49). This and the example to the right came from eruption level contexts in the Triclinium.

An ovoid unguent bottle with a rolled rim (Catalogue no. 3.53). Most of the unguent bottles found were made of blue/green glass like this example. (Photograph: Hilary Cool)

Roman blown glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii

A deep blue globular glass unguent bottle with opaque white marvered decoration from a post earthquake context within the Triclinium. (Catalogue no. 3.4).

The discovery of how to blow glass occurred in the mid first century BC and revolutionised the vessel industry. For the first time it was possible to produce small perfume containers cheaply and in large numbers. This can be seen in the VI.1 assemblage where the first century AD layers are full of fragments from these sorts of bottles. In the eruption layer glass assemblage studied by Scatozza Höricht such bottles are also the commonest vessel type by far. Ironically the best preserved ones from VI.1 are not typical of the majority which consisted of tubular forms with sheared rims.

As well as the pottery and glass unguent bottles there were also ones made of alabaster. Pliny the Elder noted that unguents kept best in alabaster vessels, and these were very possibly at the luxury end of the market. The residues of perfume found in an alabaster vessel in a grave belonging to the second century BC at Chiusi, for example, was found to have an oil from a plant of the Moringa family. This would have been an exotic and no doubt costly import from Africa or Asia. Interestingly fragments from 11 different alabaster vessels were recovered from the excavations VI.1. This is a large number given that alabaster vessels have been recorded relatively rarely at Pompeii before.

Through time within the insula a steady rise in the number of unguent bottle fragments can be seen. As these are the remnants of packaging this is telling us there is a great increase in the demand for perfume from the Augustan period onwards. There are various concentrations of the fragments within different plots of the insula. A noticeable one is in the Triclinium during the last two decades or so of the town’s life. This was an open air dining room with an altar for making offerings. It would have been the scene of many convivial dining parties where perfume would have been an essential ingredient both for making offerings to the overseeing deities and as part of the dining ritual itself. This probably explains the numbers of unguent bottles found.

 

At an early stage of writing the final report on the small finds and vessel glass I wrote a paper exploring the use of these little bottles within the insula for a volume in memory of an old friend. As with many festschrifts this has still to be published. It can be read here. Be warned it isn’t the final version, of the story as the phasing within the insula changed slightly as work progressed, but it tells the broad story. The final story, of course, is in the 2016 volume.

 

 

Roman alabaster amphorisk from Insula VI.1 Pompeii

A miniature alabaster amphorisk found in an Augusto-Neronian context in the Vestals Bar (Catalogue no. 3.82). (Photo: Mike Baxter)

Postcard depicting perfume manufacture House of the Vettii, Pompei

The scene from the Casa del Vettii depicting cupids manufacturing, bottling and selling perfume.

Taken from an album for tourists published by Richter & C. Napoli in or before 1945.

Some other items used in toilet, pharmacy and surgery

Just as the little bottles could be used interchangeably to store substances for personal toiletries, for pharmacy and for medicine, there was also a class of utensils made in copper alloy that could have interchangeable uses.  Within the VI.1 assemblage they occur in far smaller numbers than the little bottles and do not show any particular concentration spatially.

 

Roman blunt dissector from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman tweezers from Insula VI.1 Pompeii

The only piece of medical equipment that can be securely identified is a scalpel and blunt dissector from a modern (i.e. eruption level) deposit in the Bar Acisculus (see above). Surgeons had sets of separate iron scalpels and copper alloy blunt dissectors which they could combine by slotting the two elements together. This way the surgeon would always have the right sized implement for different operations. The one from Acisculus was clearly lost with a scalpel in place as the slot in the dissector is filled with iron corrosion. The rest of the blade has long since disintegrated. (Catalogue no. 4.28).

The set of tweezers above are typical examples of the sort in use in Campania at the time of the eruption (Catalogue no. 4.10).  This example came from an unphased context in the Workshop, but a second very similar set came from an Augusto-Neronian deposit within the Bar of Phoebus (Catalogue no. 4.11). Note that the ends are straight. These were epilation or general household purpose tweezers. They were not a surgeon’s set of forceps as those have incurved ends that can grip more securely.

Roman cosmetic spoon from Insula VI.1 Pompeii

The copper alloy cosmetic spoon to the left is a true multi-function utensil as it could have been used to extract cosmetics and unguents and medicines from small bottles. This example came from a Tiberian-Neronian context in the Inn. (Catalogue no. 4.20)

Contents copyright H.E.M. Cool and M.J. Baxter 2016

Ceramic fusiform ungentaria from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Globular ceramic unguentaria from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Core-formed glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Core-formed glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman blown glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman blown glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman blown glass unguent bottle from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman alabaster amphorisk from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Postcard depicting perfume manufacture House of the Vettii, Pompei
Roman blunt dissector from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman tweezers from Insula VI.1 Pompeii
Roman cosmetic spoon from Insula VI.1 Pompeii