This shape of pottery vase, an aryballos, is characterised by its relatively small globular body, short narrow neck, and mouth with a flat wide lip. Its form is related to its function: to hold perfumed oils and unguents - expensive goods - which could be poured in a slow trickle due to the small aperture of the mouth. The discoid form of the mouth was also ideal to help spread the perfumed oil over the skin. According to Galen, the prominent physician and surgeon of Ancient Greece, it was advisable for athletes to start their warm-up with a light wiping of the skin with linen cloths before applying the perfumed oil, so that the latter would penetrate more deeply into the skin.

This typology of vase had its origin in Corinth, the city on the isthmus that joins the Peloponnese to continental Greece. Centuries later this type would be copied in Attic workshops. In Corinth, the master potters imitated the design of those perfume flasks made of coloured glass which were in use among the highest social classes, so as to be able to offer a more economical version. The spherical or globular aryballoi were exported all over the Mediterranean basin, and totally dominated the trade in small vases with the exception of some coming from the eastern Greek regions. Archaeologists claim that, already in the proto-Corinthian period (720-630 BC), artisans had developed the black-figure technique, using incisions and purple colour to emphasize certain details (Metropolitan Museum of New York n. 41.162.164). This innovative technique implied a differentiation in their art, as in Athens at that time the more abstract geometric motifs were still dominant.

In Corinth the beautiful aryballoi were developed in forms such as hedgehogs, birds, soldiers’ heads and feet, etc. (Louvre Museum n. CA 931 y CA 1737). This city was, without doubt, the first to dominate the market in miniature vases whose production was destined for a more sophisticated public. As can be seen from Greek pottery and the reliefs on stelae, an aryballos was generally held or tied by a cord or ribbon to the athlete’s body or was hung from the wall of a gymnasium along with the strigil and the sponge, the usual utensils for the hygiene of athletes. (Metropolitan Museum of Archaeology, New York, 1986.322.1).

This aryballos, of a larger size than common, has a globular body very slightly flattened in the lower part, with a flat, circular foot to give greater stability to the vessel. A handle in the form of a tape runs from the shoulders to the mouth. This element is present in all those vessels meant to contain oils and perfumes, such as the lekythos, alabastron and askos. Decoration in black and reddish tones is present over a bright beige surface. Stylized radiating petals in black can be seen on the mouth, around the neck and the base, while the edge of the lip is decorated with thick black dots. Two pairs of black bands circle the vessel on the shoulders, and between them, frame four lines of overlapping scales in red and black. The body of the vase below this is decorated with a frieze showing two antithetically arranged felines and between them, a large bird with its wings spread out wide. Small black rosettes fill the spaces between the figures and the decorative bands, in a style clearly of oriental origin.

The iconography of animals facing or confronting each other comes from Mesopotamia, where these were distributed symmetrically flanking a “sacred” tree or “tree of life” (Sumerian seal, 3000 BC, private collection). However, in Greece the artists experimented with motifs, reinterpreting them, reworking them and repeating again and again a succession of animals and monsters, along with rosettes of diverse sizes occupying almost all the field of composition, and thus annulling the sense of open space. The extremely ornamental images evoke the exotic, fertile and balmy world from which the perfumes came. At the same time, the lion, with its squared snout (Istanbul Museum of Archaeology s/n, s. IX a. C.), brings to mind the Syrian and Neo-Hittite models. This decorative resource is present on numerous vases of the period (see parallels in the Museum of Thebes), especially those found in Etruscan tombs, given that the presence of potters and Greek painters in the Italian Peninsula from the 7th century BC has been documented. Their influence will be seen in later pottery and sculpture (Etruscan National Museum, Tarquinia RC 3313). Given the excellent state of preservation of this example, it is possible that this aryballos had a funerary function.


- ALEXANDRIDOU, A. The Early Black-figured Pottery of Attika in Context (c. 630-570 a. C.). Leiden. 2011. fig. 28.
- AMYX, D. A. Y LAWRENCE, P. Studies in Archaic Corinthian Vase Painting. Hesperia. 1996. vol. 28.
- ARAVANTINOS, V. The Archaeological Museum of Thebes. Olkos Publisher. 2010. p. 180-1.
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- DVIR, A. The Aryballos as an Example: The Corinthian Aryballos as a Mirror of the Artistic Connections Between the East and the West in the 8th to the 6th centuries BC: An Artistic Analysis. BAR. 2011.
- GARCÍA BELLIDO, A. Los hallazgos griegos en España. 1936. p. 109 / Nº 48/ Lám. LXXIV.
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- TRÍAS RUBÍES, G. Cerámicas griegas de la Península Ibérica. 1967-8. p. 436/ Lám. CXCII.
- URE, P.N. Aryballoi & Figurines from Rhitsona in Boeotia. An Account of the Early Archaic Pottery and the Figurines, Archaic and Classical, with Supplementary Lists of the Finds of Glass, Beads, and Metal, from Excavations made by R.M. Burrows and P.N.Ure in 1907, 1908, 1909 and by P.N. and A.D. Ure in 1921 and 1922, Cambridge. 1934.

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