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Predynastic Alabaster Amphora with Snake Handles

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: Egyptian
: 3000 B.C.
: Alabaster
: 43.8 cm. x 19.4 cm.

Ex- Important American private collection, Acquired in 1994




The smooth and polished surface reveals the natural beauty and translucency of the stone especially when the light comes through its walls. The light beige stone has several almost vertical veins: the carving of the stone follows successfully the polychromy and the geometric arrangement of the striped alabaster to create a “natural decoration” for the vessel. It was carved from a single large block of stone. The shape is very elegant and harmonious in its simplicity: the bottom is flat, the ovoid body is elongated, the shoulder is gently rounded, the lip is thick and well modeled. A relief ornament in the shape of a snake suggests a handle on both sides of the upper part of the body. The internal profile corresponds to the exterior contours of the vase. Intact vessels of this size and quality that have survived into modern times are extremely rare.

In Ancient Egypt the stone vases were considered as first rate luxury objects: they appear only in the royal tombs as well as in the graves of the elite. The art of vessel carving had already reached its peak as far back as the Old Kingdom: for example, the artisans working under the pharaoh Djoser can be credited with tens of thousands of vessels that were placed in the magazines of the step pyramid of Saqqara – we are referring to 30-40,000 vases, the majority of which were found broken. The creation of these objects is a frequent subject on Old Kingdom painted murals, but very few ancient workshops have been discovered. The iconography seems to indicate that the carving commenced with the sculpted and polished exterior, before piercing the interior with the help of a drill, a stick would forked at one end to hold an abrasive stone. To assure even and centered drilling with the most stability, the rotation was achieved by alternating the drill, from one direction to the other. These different steps were accomplished by placing the vase in a hole in the ground or on a worktable. The final polishing involved rubbing the surface with a hard stone, sand or emery.

These stone vessels were used as containers for unguents and cosmetic oils; they kept them well thanks to the thickness and solidity of the walls. While such substances had innumerable daily uses, they also played a prominent role in the religious life (as offerings in the temples for daily anointment of statues and other cult objects) and the funerary rituals (for the preparation of the mummies). Therefore, it is not surprising that a significant number of stone vessels were regularly deposited in sanctuaries and funerary settings.


ASTON B. G., Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels, Materials and Form, Heidelberg, 1994. EL-KHOULI A., Egyptian Stone Vessels: Predynastic to Dynasty III, 3 vol., Mainz am Rhein, 1978.

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