Ancient Drinkware Was a Feast for the Eyes

HUMANITIES, Winter 2019, Volume 40, Number 1

Dating to the fourteenth century BCE, the rhyton is a type of drinking vessel once found at particularly sumptuous feasts.

Ornately etched scenes adorn some of the surviving rhytons and assist scholars in  understanding how they were used: to celebrate rulers, venerate heroes, accompany sacrifices, and communicate with the dead.

Craftsmen in the Near East began making animal-shaped stone vessels as early as 6,000 BCE. The Minoans were the first in the Aegean region to craft rhytons. The Romans produced them to use as funerary objects. The earliest rhytons were equipped only with a wide mouth for scooping liquid. Later, a hole for the spout developed, often at the mouth of the animal depicted. With a reservoir at the top and a spout below, the rhyton required some skill to drink from, akin to accurately guiding the liquid jet from a wineskin.

The very act of pouring liquid into a vessel fashioned into a ram’s head or the foreparts of a deer suggested to feast-goers the coming to life of the animal. Storytelling naturally followed, as did the good relations that fostered diplomacy and trade. The rhyton played a significant gift-giving role and over time became an art object itself, intermingling cultures and civilizations during the Bronze Age.

“Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings,” an NEH-funded exhibit that was on view at Harvard Art Museums last year, featured over sixty beakers, mugs, and rhytons and emphasized the cross-cultural nature of the drinkware.