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It was in the late 8th and 7th centuries BC, before the pottery from classical Athens became popular, that oil bottles were first widely traded throughout the Mediterranean. These little pottery vases, decorated with animals, both real and mythical, were specialities of the city of Corinth, the major producer of Greek decorated pottery at that time. The most common shapes were the aryballos and the alabastron, the latter named after the alabaster used to make Egyptian vases of this shape. The tiny necks allowed limited contact with the air, so the perfumed oil would not deteriorate quickly.





By the middle of the 6th century these oil bottles had become more elaborate, and were often mould-made figure vases (sometimes called ‘plastic vases’) in the shape of animals, mythical figures and humans. Some were made in Corinth, but most were made in the east Greek world on the islands of the eastern Aegean, and on the coast of modern-day Turkey.






Athenian potters adopted the aryballos and alabastron vase-shapes, but they also introduced another shape of oil flask, the lekythos. This had an elongated body and a flat foot, to allowit to stand upright. The lekythos was used to hold oil for pouring libation offerings, often as a gift to the dead. The shape of this vase also emphasises the expense of the oil it contained. The long thin neck allowed only a trickle of oil to be poured out, and some lekythoi even have a smaller false body inside. This meant that although they only contained a small amount of oil, they looked, from the outside, as if they held a larger quantity. Find out more about the