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A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people).   Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art.  The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.

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In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel).  Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once.  Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans.  I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves.  In some cases we could perhaps find out.  Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years.  We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.

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Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

The English word “ebony” comes from the Ancient Egyptian word “hbny” (well, that is actually an approximation: I cannot find the vulture, asp, or little man characters on my keyboard). An obsession with the dense sable wood has clearly been a long-standing feature of human culture. The Greek word for the trees is “Diospyros” which apparently means something like “God’s wheat” or “fruit of Zeus” (since the Greeks first encountered ebonies in the form of Caucasian Persimmon trees). There are over 700 separate species in the Diospyros Genus—many of these are weird little shrubs or deciduous persimmon trees–but some are evergreen tropical giants.

 

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Arguably the most famous of all these ebony/persimmon trees is the Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) which produces a close-grained black wood so dense that it sinks in water. This precious wood is beautiful for carving and cabinet making, but the magnificence of the timber has been the sad downfall of the actual living tree. Diospyros crassiflora lives in West Africa from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon down through the Central African Republic and through the two Congo Republics.

 

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set--East Africa (early 2oth century)

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set–East Africa (early 2oth century)

The tree grows very slowly and to great age. It tends to be solitary—but mature trees can grow to 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Sadly most of the large specimens have been cut down for the exotic timber trade and the tree is now listed as endangered.  Infuriatingly I can’t even find a picture of the living tree–it’s like I wanted to show you a bull, but could only find pictures of hamburger.

 

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