Ointment Jar

The alabaster ointment jar dates to Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1800 BC). Throughout ancient Egyptian history, stone was consistently used in the manufacture of containers. The process of making an object was accomplished through the use of flint chisels, punches, and scrapers. Because of the precision required to create some of the more ornate features of the vessel, the expertise of skilled carvers was necessary for the shaping of necks, rims, and shoulders of many stone vessels.1 Although only a limited number of alabaster workshops have been excavated in Egypt, the vast quantity of alabaster vessels from this region suggest that there was a certain degree of craft specialization within the trade.2 These professional stone workers carved out the inside of vessels using boring tools made of copper. The more bulbous vessels, such as this artifact, were then further hollowed using boring tools that were shaped like figure-eights.3 Most of the tools themselves have not survived in the archaeological record, but reliefs from Old Kingdom tombs depict the basic method of boring with weighted cylindrical tools.4 Often, after the object was created, the surface of the stone was polished using tools made of sandstone in order to reveal the natural colors and designs of the stone.5 Thus, much of the decoration in Egyptian stone vessels came from the natural beauty of the stone itself, rather than painting or other such artificial decoration of objects.6 Stone vessels were not only utilized for everyday purposes by those who were living, but they were also buried with the dead in tombs for use in the afterlife, examples of which have been found in Egypt as well as Palestine.7

Alabaster was a popular material for the production of 8various types of vessels during the Middle Kingdom. While alabaster can refer to either the minerals gypsum or calcite, ancient Egyptian alabaster refers to the mineral calcite (which is harder than gypsum).9 The stone is generally pure white or white with a yellow tint, and it is often banded, as can be seen with this artifact. Ancient quarries for calcite have been found in northern, central, and southern Egypt, and some are still used by stone workers today.10 Although stone working, especially with alabaster, has been conducted for thousands of years in Egypt, it is still possible to date most vessels by type. The collared rim and rounded bottom of this particular alabaster jar is indicative of the style of the Middle Kingdom, which differs from the Old Kingdom design that featured a more pointed bottom.11

1 Denys Stocks, “Stone Vessels and Bead Making,” in Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, ed. Kathryn Bard (New York: Routledge, 1999), 749-50.

2 Thomas Hester and Robert Heizer, Making Stone Vases: Ethnoarchaeological Studies at and Alabaster Workshop in Upper Egypt, Monographic Journals on the Near East, ed. Giorgio Buccellati (Malibu: Undena, 1981), 26.

3 Stocks, “Stone Vessels and Bead Making,” 750.

4 Hester, Making Stone Vases, 27.

5 Stocks, “Stone Vessels and Bead Making,” 750.

6 Arielle P. Kozloff, “Egyptian Stone Vessels in Cleveland,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 73, no. 8 (1986): 337. JSTOR, www.jstor.org.

7 B. Bower, “Ancient Egyptian Outpost Found in Israel,” Science News 150, no. 14 (1996): 215. JSTOR, www.jstor.org.

8 Kozloff, “Egyptian Stone Vessels,” 336.

9 Ibid., 329.

10 Hester, Making Stone Vases, 27.

11 Kozloff, “Egyptian Stone Vessels,” 330.