The Ancient Channel No.5…Unguentaria and the Lady Smells of Antiquity

Alright so most people think that perfumes are something of the modern world. However, in antiquity- bathing was all too rare, and most times your musk was covered up by the flowery, sweet, and luscious smells of frankincense and myrrh. (I may be exaggerating a bit here, but in between baths, one could lather oil all over themselves and use a dull blade to literally scrape the dirt off. You’d come out pretty soft and smooth- but I wouldn’t venture down any slides or hug a pal soon afterwards).

Yet when you got the chance to bathe, you would often pour unguents into your bath water or douse yourself in unguents so as to make sure a week from then  you’d smell the same (or you would hope).

Have you ever gone to Bath and Body Works and purchased a Wallflower? A Fabreeze oil plugin? Or any modern candle container in which a plate is suspended above it for the purpose of burning oil to fragrance a room? Of course you have- so did people 2000+ YEARS AGO!

Imagine the unguentarium here in the picture placed on the disc (or large central hole) of the lamp. The wick would be stuffed in the small nozzle hole, and once lit the unguentarium would be warmed by the heat of the wick and thus burn the oils within the vessel. And there you go- modern day air freshener.


Here’s how it works. There is a particular ceramic vessel: an unguentarium (singular) unguentaria (plural) [for all you linguist perfectionists out there ;)] specifically, a piriform unguentarium (A) is descended from the greek lekythosa container made especially for carrying precious oils.  In the Hellenistic period, prior to the introduction of the piriform- there was the fusiform unguentarium (C). It will be obvious from the pictures provided, that the fusiform wasn’t all to popular- it looked more like a small, obscure boomerang, or a mini-weight. It wasn’t until the precious, piriform unguentarium that the perfume industry BLEW UP. The Nabateans were the main men for producing the highest quality of perfumed oils, and they were smart enough to not only produce the value-added product but to put a signature on their own type of vessel- the Nabataean piriform unguentarium. 

Nabatean Piriform Unguentaria (A) Source

Glass Unguentaria (B) (Source)

Fusiform Unguentarium (C) Source

How do we know all this?? Just like there are historians today, there were some in antiquity whose works have survived thousands of years. Strabo tells us much about the Nabateans in his attempt to compile a Geography (1st century AD). We also have been able to collect all of this information through archaeology! David Johnson created a chronological typology of these lil guys and it has been the focus of my research since I was a wee- little Freshman in college, working in Dr. Parker’s archaeology lab.


And there is your pot knowledge for the day ;).

2 comments on “The Ancient Channel No.5…Unguentaria and the Lady Smells of Antiquity
  1. Pingback: Strigils and oil bathing in Antiquity | Antiquorum et Praesentis

  2. Demonstration of a man using a strigil to scrape off dirt from his body (Source)

    The oil bathing that Pam mentions here was a common practice before the invention of soaps. Archaeologists find items in domestic contexts and in Roman graves called “strigils,” which are the blunt blades that would be used to scrape off the oil (along with the dirt) after it was lathered onto the skin.

    Bronze bathing utensils from Pompeii (Source)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>