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Alabastron, Greek, 4th - 3rd century B.C.E., Glass
(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2003.193)Alabastron, Greek, 4th - 3rd century B.C.E., Glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2003.193)

A flask

This type of narrow, elongated flask was used in ancient Greece to hold scented oil. It's called an alabastron, after an earlier Egyptian type made from alabaster. It was not made by inflating glass, but rather by core forming—wrapping hot molten glass around a temporary earthenware shape. The surface pattern is called "combing," a wavy or feathery effect created by applying trails of molten glass of a contrasting color to the vessel's body, then dragging at right angles with a pointed tool.

These were made for the highest echelons of ancient society. It had a stopper to keep the contents inside. A glass rod would have been dipped into the vessel to remove the contents and dab it on your throat or your wrists. Many of the vessels that have survived from antiquity have little handles that were attached on the shoulders, and these could be suspended, We know from representations in Athenian vase painting that vessels like these could be worn off your belt at the waist or suspended from your wrist.

A bowl for wine

Bowl with knobs, Greek, 3rd - 2nd century B.C.E., glass
(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2003.215)Bowl with knobs, Greek, 3rd - 2nd century B.C.E., glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2003.215)

In the ancient Greek world, wine was drunk from bowls like this one. The ancient Greeks didn't drink their wine neat, as we say, they actually diluted it with water because it was much stronger than the wine that we drink today. This bowl doesn't really have a flat base, or a foot, to sit it on. So once you had finished, you had to turn it upside down, and rest it on its rim. This upside-down position showcases the bowl's petal-shaped knobs and decorative ridges. Glass at this time, in the third and second century B.C.E., was very much considered a luxury object. Bowls like this were for those who could afford luxury materials, like silver, and gold. In a Greek household, this bowl would likely have been reserved for the man of the house. These were vessel shapes that were used at drinking parties; only men went to these drinking parties. Women were not included. But often times a piece like this would stay in a family for generations as an heirloom, and many of these pieces survive today because they were placed in tombs as grave gifts for the deceased.

Opaque white feeder flask, Unknown, Late Hellenistic or Roman, 1st century C.E., Glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2003.Opaque white feeder flask, Unknown, Late Hellenistic or Roman, 1st century C.E., Glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2003.

Feeder flask for oil

What's unusual about this flask is that it has a spout emerging from the shoulder. And you can see, if you look closely at that spout, that it actually has a very narrow opening. The spout was probably used to pour oil into oil lamps. When this piece was made,  in the first century B.C.E. or C.E., glass was beginning to replace clay and metal vessels in households. A vessel like this was in the kitchen of a typical middle-class Roman household. This flask was created by inflating glass at the end of a blowpipe. The discovery of glass blowing-in the first century B.C.E. made glass cheaper and much more widely available. Opaque glass vessels were also extremely fashionable. To achieve the opaque effect, the glassmaker added lead to the hot glass as it was being made. One of the things that opaque glass vessels do—and particularly a piece like this that has darker stripes in the glass—is to imitate another material. It may be that the glassmaker who made this little flask was intending to imitate a stone vessel.

Cameo Glass Skyphos, Roman, c. 25 B.C.E. - 25 C.E., cameo glass
(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 84.AF.85)Cameo Glass Skyphos, Roman, c. 25 B.C.E. - 25 C.E., cameo glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 84.AF.85)

Cameo glass skyphos

These blue-and-white, cameo-glass objects are among the rarest objects in the Antiquities Collection. Only about thirty Roman cameo-glass vessels survive intact today. The two-handled drinking cup is called a skyphos, and likely held perfume. Cameo glassmakers carved away an opaque, white layer to expose the cobalt-blue glass underneath. The glass maker began with a gather of the blue glass (a gather is a gob of molten glass), and blew into the blow pipe to inflate the glass. Once he had some air in the gather, he dipped it into white glass and made sure that it adhered to the blue glass. This is a very complicated procedure, because the glasses must be at very similar temperatures. Then the glassmaker put his blow pipe back into the glass furnace to reheat the glass, and started inflating it again until he got it more or less the size of vessel he wanted.

Snake-Thread Flask, Roman, 3rd century C.E., glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 96.AF.56)Snake-Thread Flask, Roman, 3rd century C.E., glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 96.AF.56)

Decanter with snake-thread

The Romans loved glass for its practical as well as decorative uses. This beautifully preserved decanter is a fine example of the virtually colorless glass that came to dominate the market by the 3rd century C.E.. When it was made, the flask's surface would have been shiny and highly polished. Its dull appearance now is the result of age and weathering. The flat, opaque, blue and white glass ribbons that trail around the bulbous body of the flask are known as "snake-thread." This practice of trailing on glass strands was a common Roman decorative technique. But the distinctive blue and white snake-thread pattern on this vessel was common to only two areas: one near Cologne, in modern Germany. And the other, in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. This flask probably comes from the east. The 'flower and bird' motif of flattened leaves spreading out from twisting stems is an eastern provinces design. The cross hatching definition on the leaves, rather than simple lines, also points to the flask's eastern origins.

Mold-blown Head flask, Roman, 4th - 5th century C.E., glass
(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2004.44)Mold-blown Head Flask, Roman, 4th - 5th century C.E., glass (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa, 2004.44)

Head Flask

Shaped as the head of a young man, this vessel is known as a "head flask." Head flasks were extremely popular in ancient Rome and have a long history. Making vessels shaped as heads is something that has been practiced for millennia. With its long neck and slightly flared mouth, the flask was probably used to hold and pour liquid. Over the centuries, the object's appearance has changed. If you look closely at the neck of this flask and the right side of the head, you can see a flaky layer on the surface that has a rainbow-like appearance. This is called iridescence and it is a side effect of the glass as it ages and weathers. It is something that inspired modern glassmakers like Tiffany, when he was making his stained glass, lamps, and other vessels.