Stone vessels have long held special functional places in the biblical world (e.g. Sparks 2007). During the period of the New Testament, religious Jews used stone vessels extensively to follow halakhah(Jewish religious law), which maintained that only stone vessels, not pottery vessels, were ritually pure. Accordingly, a thriving industry emerged that fashioned stone vessels from the soft and easily worked Senonian chalk formations east of Jerusalem and in the Galilee (e.g., Amit; Seligman; and Zilberbod 2000; Magen 1994; 2002). While most of these stone vessels clearly functioned for utilitarian purposes, some exhibit particularly fine workmanship and show signs of machine turning. These truly beautiful pieces were undoubtedly highly prized and reserved as receptacles for the most precious and expensive of possessions. The wealthy classes especially esteemed the translucent exotic beauty of alabaster stone vessels, usually imported from Egypt and fashioned as bowls, vases or bottles. Fine alabaster vessels and objects date back to prehistoric times and their production spans all historical periods. Their high value meant that owners used alabaster vessels almost exclusively for important valuables or expensive ointments and perfumes. According to the first century Roman historian Pliny (Natural History13.3), perfumes were best kept in alabaster vases.
Recently, geologists discovered deposits of calcite-alabaster and evidence of ancient quarrying in two caves; one west of Jerusalem and other in the Ephraim hill country to the north (Frumkin; Bar-Matthews; Davidovich; Langford; Porat; Ullman; and Zissu 2014; Zissu; Klein; Porat; Langford; and Frumkin 2017: 32). This find demonstrates that alabaster vessels found in the Levant did not necessarily originate in Egypt, where extensive alabaster deposits exist. The Horn Museum purchased a fine alabaster bottle from former Andrews University professor Abraham Terian, as reported in the Institute of Archaeology Horn Archaeological Museum Newsletter(Vol. 3/4 [Spring 1982], p. 3). Shortly thereafter, an anonymous donor, perhaps Dr. Terian once again, gave three alabaster bottles to the Horn Museum with the stipulation that all three would be sold and the museum keep the proceeds exceeding $500 for each (see Institute of Archaeology Horn Archaeological Museum Newsletter Vol. 4/5 [Summer 1983], p. 4).
Relevance to the Biblical Account
Alabaster is only mentioned a handful of times in the Bible. David accumulated “all kinds of precious stones and alabaster in abundance” for Solomon to construct the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 29:2). Song of Songs 5:15 and Esther 1:6 mention alabaster columns or pillars; the former in poetic allegorical form. The Magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus (Matthew 2:11; Van Beek 1960). While unspecified, the Magi probably delivered these sumptuous products, at least in part, in alabaster vessels, an appropriate container for such fine goods. The gospels (Matthew 26:6-14; Mark 14:3-10; Luke 7:36-50) also tell of a notoriously sinful woman coming to Jesus while He visits the house of Simon in Bethany. The woman poured very expensive perfume from an alabaster jar on Jesus’ head and feet (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37-38), intentionally breaking the jar in the process. The gospel writers specifically mentioned that the jar or bottle was alabaster in part due to its expense, along with the perfume of nard. John 12:1-8 apparently presents the same account but names the woman as Mary, perhaps Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) and omits any mention of an alabaster jar or bottle. The alabaster bottle in the Horn Museum collection is representative of the vessel Mary used to anoint the head and feet of Jesus Christ.
The Horn Museum alabaster bottle (84.0303) is about 20 cm in height and very well crafted with a beautifully lathe turned body. The slender shape of the bottle predates the New Testament, but such bottles were commonly used during the first century.
Amit, David; Seligman, Jon; and Zilberbod, Irina
2000 Stone Vessel Workshops of the Second Temple Period East of Jerusalem. Pp. 353- 358 in Ancient Jerusalem Revealed,ed. Hillel Geva. Reprinted and Expanded Edition. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
1945 Palestinian Alabaster Vases. The Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine11:93-112.
1989 Perfumes and Cosmetics of the Ancient World. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum.
Frumkin, Amos; Bar-Matthews, Miryam; Davidovich, Uri; Langford, Boaz; Porat, Ro’i; Ullman, Micka; and Zissu, Boaz
2014 In-situDating of Ancient Quarries and the Source of Flowstone (‘calcite-alabaster’) Artifacts in the Southern Levant. Journal of Archaeological Science41: 749-58.
1994 Jerusalem as a Center of the Stone Vessel Industry during the Second Temple Period. Pp. 244-256 in Ancient Jerusalem Revealed,ed. Hillel Geva. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
2002 The Stone Vessel Industry in the Second Temple Period: Excavations at Hizma and the Jerusalem Temple Mount. Judea and Samaria Publications 1. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.
Sparks, Rachael T.
2007 Stone Vessels in the Levant. Palestine Exploration Fund Annual 8. Leeds: Maney.
Van Beek, Gus W.
1960 Frankincense and Myrrh. The Biblical Archaeologist23: 69-95.
Zissu, Boaz; Klein, Eitan; Porat, Roi; Langford, Boaz; and Frumkin, Amos
2017 Roman Cult, Jewish Rebels Share Jerusalem Cave Site. Biblical Archaeology Review43/6: 30-39.