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A Roman Tear Vial

September 6, 2018



Frequently found in Roman Period tombs throughout the Holy Land, finely blown glass bottles with inordinately long, slender necks and wide, flat rims are often identified as lachrymatory or tear bottles (e.g., Barkay 1994: 92; Avni; Greenhut; and Ilan 1994: 207).  They represent the technological breakthrough in glass manufacturing that allowed mass production of glass objects and vessels at prices affordable to the working classes.  In the days following a death, surviving family members apparently collected their tears in these bottles prior to depositing them in the family tomb to demonstrate their deep feelings of sorrow over the deceased.  Families with the financial means would hire professional mourners to join the family in their expressions of grief at funerals and burials.  The collection of tears into lachrymatory containers is not isolated to the Roman period, but some scholars dispute any suggestion that this practice flourished during the Victorian era as the small vials allegedly used for this task in fact contained perfumes.  Likewise, Jews and others used this style of Roman glass bottle for various purposes.  Consequently, the Horn Museum example may have actually contained either perfume or other expensive liquids that families deposited in the tombs of their loved ones rather than their tears.


Relevance to the Biblical Account


 “You tell my wanderings: put you my tears into your bottle: are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8).  These words, attributed to David over one thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ, clearly demonstrate the practice of collecting tears as part of the mourning process of a departed loved one.  Weeping as an expression of sorrow over a death spans all periods and cultures.  The practice is deeply engrained in the human persona.  Examples of situations where mourners may have used lachrymatory bottles include the following accounts from the New Testament:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,weeping and loud lamentation,Rachel weeping for her children;she refused to be comforted, because they are no more”(The murder of infants in Bethlehem; Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18).  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).  “As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep”” (Jesus responding to the widow at Nain; Luke 7:12-13).  “And all were weeping and mourning for her (Jairus’s daughter), but he (Jesus) said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping”” (Luke 8:52).  “When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there… When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:31, 33).  “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.  And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman,why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away”(John 20: 11-15).  “So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunicsand other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them” (The raising of Dorcas; Acts 9:39).


Physical Description


The Horn Museum lachrymatory (tear) bottle (73.0275) comes from the early Roman necropolis at Tall Hisban, Jordan (Waterhouse 1998: 31-35, 183-84). Excavators discovered the glass bottle intact among the contents of Tomb 18 and registered it on July 27, 1973. The lachrymatory glass bottle is approximately 23 cm in height.




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Whitehouse, David

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2004    Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass, Volume Three.  Corning:  Corning                        Museum of Glass.

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