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Unguentarium. A terracotta vessel form and other related vessels in the Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine Mediterranean

May 17, 2018

DESEM, Rectorate Building of the Dokuz Eylül University
DEÜ Rektörlük Binası, Cumhuriyet Bulv. No.: 144, Alsancak
Izmir, TR-35210 Turkey

Call for Papers Deadline: March 1, 2018

The Izmir Center of the Archaeology of Western Anatolia (EKVAM) is glad to inform you that an international symposium on unguentarium, a terracotta vessel form in the Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine Mediterranean, will take place on May 17-18, 2017 at the Dokuz Eylül University (DEU) in Izmir, Turkey. An unguentarium (plural “unguentaria”) is a small ceramic or glass bottle, found in relatively large quantities in the entire Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria and Egypt to France, where they were produced between the early Hellenistic and early Medieval periods. The terracotta version of this form is a typically narrow-necked vessel shape, topped with a slender neck and a thin-lipped rim. The base of these vessels can be in some cases rounded or fusiform — in which case it is not self-standing — or flat-bottomed. Its shape was changed in several periods, but especially during the mid second century B.C. Beside the common term unguentarium, which is a modern invitation, this vessel type was also called as “balsamare”, “ampulle”, “lacramarium” or “flacon” etc.
During the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods the main function of these vessels was to keep perfumed oils and cosmetic lotions fresh. In recent years some chemical analyses done within these objects yielded the evidence that the unguentarium was mainly used to hold scented “holy” oils, unguents and perfumes. Beside this use it was also utilised for other religious purposes, especially as a votive object at tombs.
During the early Byzantine period the form and the function of unguentaria was changed radically. It became a fusiform flask in shape, with a short tubular mouth marked off from the body by a slight ridge, tapering to a roughly truncated point. The characteristics of these containers, which were first presented by J. W. Hayes in detail in 1971, are very distinctive: they are wheel-made, hard fired, with a thick, sturdy body and with a well smoothed and quite plain surface. A further exotic feature of these vessels is that they occasionally bear a small stamp, generally early Byzantine monograms. What these unguentaria contained is not satisfactorily answered yet.
So far the study of this vessel form has been overlooked whereas there is still a huge amount of unpublished material from excavations, field surveys and museums in the entire Mediterranean. In this symposium we only focus on terracotta unguentaria between c. mid fourth century B.C. and mid sixth century A.D., and attempt to set out a comprehensive model for the study of terracotta unguentaria, including their definition, typology, chronology, contexts, function, regional characteristics, and distribution patterns in the whole Mediterranean geographies, including whole eastern Mediterranean, Roman provinces in the western Mediterranean, north of Alps (Germania and Britannia etc.) and north Africa. It is also our intention to create a complete bibliography of previous publications on terracotta unguentaria.
We warmly invite contributions by scholars and graduate students from a variety of disciplines related to this terracotta vessel form. Intended to bring together scholars of Greek, Roman and Byzantine ceramic archaeology to discuss a range of issues concerning this vessel’s characteristics, this symposium should be an excellent opportunity to increase our knowledge about this form. The following theme groups are the main questions of the symposium which are prescriptive:

– Terracotta unguentaria from archaeological field projects, museums and private collections,
– Ancient Greek and Latin textual sources on unguentaria,
– Typological evolution of terracotta unguentaria,
– Transitional typological and functional features between lekythoi, amphoriskoi etc. and unguentaria during the late Classical-early Hellenistic period,
– Similar vessel forms in the ancient Near East and their relations to Greek unguentaria,
– What ancient Greeks and Romans thought about afterlife? Terracotta unguentaria in the Mediterranean funerary contexts (a session proposed by Dr Cristian Anton Găzdac),
– Domestic and commercial contents of terracotta unguentaria: Perfumes, unguents and other commodities and their trade through terracotta unguentaria (i.e. terracotta unguentaria as means of networking),
– Related vessels in the regards of their function,
– Relations of Hellenistic and Roman terracotta unguentaria to glass, metal and marble unguentaria,
– Major production centers of terracotta unguentaria in Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine periods,
– Roman terracotta unguentaria in the eastern and western Mediterranean, and their differences,
– Hellenistic and Roman gravestones and other iconographic media depicting unguentaria,
– Early Byzantine unguentarium as an eulogical object for pilgrim?,
– Monograms on early Byzantine unguentaria,
– Relations between early Byzantine terracotta unguentaria and some historical events,
– Reasons for its abrupt termination in the mid seventh century A.D.,
– Exceptional finds of terracotta unguentaria in Graeco-Roman fashion after the seventh century A.D.,
– Miscellanea.

On these themes and questions, all disciplines, approaches and methods susceptible to bring some progress to our current knowledge are of course welcome: classical archaeology, Byzantine archaeology, archaeometry, petrography, history of art, ancient history, sigillography and cultural anthropology etc. Archaeometric papers related to unguentarium research are most welcome. English is the official language of the symposium.
The symposium is free of charge. Unfortunately the symposium organization cannot undertake expenses of participants’ accommodation, travel, post-symposium excursion, the booklet of symposium abstracts and publication of the proceedings. It will take place at the Burgundy Hall of DESEM in the Chancellery Building of DEU in Alsancak, Izmir. A local archaeological journal is planned as a special issue containing the symposium’s abstracts which will also be made available on the website. The proceedings of the symposium will be published in 2020. We will make the required hotel reservations as soon as we know the exact number of participants. The approximate cost for the accommodation per night + breakfast will be 25 €. A post-symposium excursion is planned on May 19-21 to Lesbos, Greece through Ayvalık. For the participants who cannot travel to Izmir, we will arrange a video-conference facility through Skype. There are several low-cost flight companies (Pegasus, Sunexpress, Onur Air, Easyjet, Eurowings etc.) which operate direct flights to Izmir from several locations. The dates of our symposium have been regulated for those who are also planning to participate to the meetings in Cologne/Bonn, Germany, entitled “19th international congress of classical archaeology” and is taking place on May 22-26, 2018, and in Turkey, entitled „40th Turkish symposium of archaeological excavations, surveys and archaeometry” and is taking place on May 28-June 1, 2018.
The EKVAM has organized several international archaeological meetings under the series of Colloquia Anatolica et Aegaea, Congressus internationales Smyrnenses and continues to organize these annual scientific meetings in Izmir regularly every third week of each May (a list of past meetings and their publications in the series of Colloquia Anatolica et Aegaea, Acta congressus communis omnium gentium Smyrnae is at below).
We would be delighted, if you could consider contributing to our symposium and contact us with the required information below before February 1, 2018. Our e-mail addresses are: or For all your queries concerning the symposium our phone number is: +90.544.938 54 64. The organizers seek to widen participation at this symposium, and would like to encourage colleagues from all parts of the world to attend. The symposium committee kindly requests that you alert any persons within your research community who would be interested in participating at this symposium, either by forwarding our e-mail through Facebook or other similar social media, or by printing this circular or our poster and displaying it in your institution. We hope that you will be able to join us at the Dokuz Eylül University, and look forward to seeing you in Izmir!

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May 17, 2018
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+90.539.577 07 33


DESEM, Rectorate Building of the Dokuz Eylül University
DEÜ Rektörlük Binası, Cumhuriyet Bulv. No.: 144, Alsancak
Izmir, TR-35210 Turkey
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