An alabastron /ˌæləˈbæstrən, -ˌtrɒn/ or alabastrum /ˌæləˈbæstrəm/ (plural: alabastra or alabastrons; from Greek ἀλάβαστρον) is a type of vessel used in the ancient world for storing oils, perfumes, or massage oils.
The alabastron has ancient and certainly pre-Greek origins; it takes its name from the material (alabaster) with which it was originally made by the peoples who inhabited Mediterranean Africa, from where it then spread to the classical world. Morphologically, it is characterized by very small dimensions (allowing the vessel to be held in one hand), a long-limbed and elongated body, the absence of handles, and a neck narrow enough to allow the liquid to fall drop by drop.
Many specimens also have a flat rim (designed to allow the oils to be applied directly to the skin) and a rounded base without a foot, which implied a support structure (sometimes made of precious metals) or two small holes through which a string allowed the vessel to be hung. The shape of the alabastron, like that of other vessels such as the lekythos or the aryballos, responded to specific needs, making it suitable for holding particularly precious and rare liquids.
From an archaeological point of view, there are three main types of alabastron:
- a conventional form of Corinthian origin, widespread throughout Greece from the second half of the 7th century B.C. until the middle of the 6th century B.C., characterized by an elongated body with a maximum diameter towards the base, continuous profile, not higher than 8/10 cm;
- an Attic form, longer (up to 20 cm in height), introduced at the end of the 6th century BC and widespread until the beginning of the IV century, in imitation of the Egyptian form, with a distinct neck profile, rounded base and supporting structure;
- a piriform version that has come down to us mainly from the archaeological sites of Etruria and eastern Greece.
Decoratively, the alabastron follows the natural evolution of Greek decoration, clearly adapted to the shape and size of the object, which was generally divided into four horizontal bands that were subsequently painted. There are also examples made of precious metals, of extremely fine workmanship, obviously intended for an aristocratic public.