Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?
Psalms 56:8, King James Bible
This week I have come across this unusually shaped vessel whilst searching through the Roman archaeology. There are two possibilities for what it could be- a Roman lacrimosa or an unguentarium. The first is my favourite as it seems more poignant. A lacrimosa, or a tear catcher, was a small vessel in which tears would be collected, usually at funerals as part of a mourning ritual. If a lot of tears were collected, that would mean that the deceased was held in high esteem. Some bottles had a special seal, allowing the tears to evaporate and thus marking out the mourning period to be observed. Interestingly it seems that the Romans had strict ideas about the appropriate length for mourning. According to Seneca, women should mourn for ten months, whilst it was not honourable for a man to show such emotion (Fögen, 2009). Tear catchers have a long tradition in antiquity, with reference being made to them in the Old Testament, as illustrated above. They have been found in the tombs of Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans. Could they now be found at Tiddington in Warwickshire?
Well, not quite. Although this is a possibility, it is more likely that this little vessel is an unguentarium, an unguent being an oil, cream or ointment used for cosmetic or medicinal purposes. In contrast to the ceramic nature of this item, a lacrimosa was generally made of glass and smaller than the vessel we have. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating insight into Roman everyday life. The fact that the flask is almost complete is amazing in itself, especially considering the length of the bottle’s neck. This design would have ensured that the precious ointment held inside would not easily topple over and could be effortlessly poured from the bottle so no tears would be spilt over lost contents.
Fögen, T. 2009. Tears in the Graeco-Roman Wold. Hubert & Co: Berlin. Accessed online at books.google.co.uk/books?id=bvqUFtJwWM0C&pg=PA135&lpg=PA135&dq=mourning+rituals+in+ancient+rome+tears.