Innovation Through Interactions: A Tale of Three 'Pilgrim Flasks'

By Dr Carla Gallorini

At the beginning of the 18th Dynasty a new shape enters the Egyptian pottery repertoire: it is a type of vessel with lentoid body, a narrow neck inserted at the top and two loop handles, one either side of it, for suspension (Fig. 1).

1-Gurob-FlaskThe shape has parallels in the contemporary Mycenaean[1] and Syro-Palestinian corpora,[2] and the inspiration for the form might have come from earlier Middle Bronze age pottery vessels[3] or from containers made of natural materials like gourds, animal skin or even ostrich eggs.[4] In Egypt flasks of this type were produced in a variety of styles and materials, including pottery, glass, faience[5] and metal,[6] from the early 18th Dynasty until the Coptic and Medieval periods. It is to these later examples that the shape owes its nickname, ‘pilgrim flask’, as small pottery flasks in this shape were produced in great number as souvenirs for the pilgrims visiting the sacred shrines in Egypt and the Near East. With time the term has lost its original association with pilgrimage and it has come to designate all two-handled lentoid flasks, regardless of their country of origin, date or function.

Among the objects on loan to the University of Birmingham from the Eton Myers collection are several examples of Egyptian ‘pilgrim flasks’, mostly datable to the New Kingdom. To the collection also belong a Mycenaean globular vertical flask (ECM1974) and an example of a St. Menas pilgrim flask (ECM1905). Within the frame of the ‘Connections’ exhibition they offer the opportunity to look at how a foreign ‘idea’, in this case a pottery vessel, has been assimilated into the Egyptian repertoire only to become, centuries later, ‘the most prevalent form of surviving late antique pilgrim artefact’.7

In recent years a great amount of research has been conducted to try and understand the mechanisms that regulate the transfer of knowledge and the diffusion of technological innovations through interactions among different cultures.8 Ethnographical and anthropological studies have shown that pottery production in pre-industrial society is generally conservative because its knowledge is taught and transferred within family based groups from a very early age.9 When innovations occur they do so for a variety of reasons,10 but the most common of them is changes in the ‘functional field’: new products are created or are adopted from elsewhere to perform new functions.11 Could this be the case for the pilgrim flask? And if so, what factors can we see behind this innovation?

During the 18th Dynasty Mycenaean ‘pilgrim flasks’, or to be more precise Mycenaean globular vertical flasks (FS189), were imported into Egypt as containers for speciality oils and unguents,12 and ECM1974 described below is a good example of the type. The Mycenaean vertical globular flask is characteristic of the Late Helladic IIIA period13 and has an interesting pattern of distribution: it is relatively uncommon on the Greek mainland, where it is found mostly in funerary contexts, but it is very well represented in Egypt, Cyprus and in the Levant.14 In Egypt it is one of the most common shapes among the imported Mycenaean pottery, second only to the stirrup jar.15 Neutron activation analysis of the Mycenaean sherds from Tell el-Amarna has shown that they were produced in the Berbati area, east of Mycenae:16 this evidence, together with the distribution pattern of the flasks has prompted scholars to suggest that the shape was produced in the Argolid especially for export.17

Another type of ‘pilgrim flask’ also imported into Egypt during the 18th Dynasty has a Syro-Palestinian origin.18 Janine Bourriau has drawn attention to the fact that pilgrim flasks of this type are often found both in Egypt and the Levant in association with Canaanite jars, possibly because they contained a commodity added to the wine to flavour it.19 She has also used the evidence from the pottery excavated at Memphis Kom Rabia to suggest that the beginning of amphora production in Egypt is connected to the development of wine production in the Delta in the early 18th Dynasty, as the wine produced then in larger quantity required containers to transport it.20 If she is correct in linking the appearance of Egyptian amphorae in Marl D21 to the advent of Egyptian pilgrim flasks in the same fabric22 we have here a compelling reason for the Egyptians to adopt the foreign shape.

By the second half of the 18th Dynasty the ‘pilgrim flask’ shape was reproduced in different styles and materials suggesting it had acquired a different set of functions, most likely as container for cosmetic and scented oil,23 a use the Egyptians were already familiar with thanks to the Mycenaean examples. Some faience flasks of this period bear a decoration of lotus flowers,24 a symbol of regeneration and of the transformation of the dead in the afterlife. Through the centuries the pilgrim flask shape maintained its association with ‘renewal’ and precious products, and in the Late Period it was used for the so-called ‘New Year Flasks’, vessels produced in celebration of the annual rising of the Nile, which marked the beginning of the New Year for the Egyptians.25 These flasks were filled with the water of the Nile collected at the beginning of the annual flood and carrying with it the symbolic values of regeneration and rebirth.26 It is not surprising therefore, to find the same shape used by pilgrims to carry the holy water or the consecrated oil from the sacred shrines of the eastern Christendom. The pilgrimage centre of Abu Mina, 45 km south of Alexandria,27 was Egypt’s most important pilgrim centre and flasks with the effigy of St. Menas became a popular souvenir among the pilgrims, some being found as far as Meols, in the west of England.28

Three ‘pilgrim flasks’ from the Eton collection illustrate some of the stages in the development outlined above.


In 1959 the archaeologist G. A. Wainwright presented Eton College with a selection of objects collected during his work in Egypt.29 Among them is a Mycenaean flask from the New Kingdom cemetery at Balabish (fig. 2 © IAA University of Birmingham).30 It has a globular body, short, narrow neck and slightly thickened rim (max. diam. 2.9cm); the two handles are oval in section and run from just below the rim to the shoulder. The vessel is wheel made, thrown from the base, in a fine and well levigated clay (the break is pink 7.5YR 7/4). The outer surface is damaged but the decoration of concentric circles on the body (Red 10R 4/8 and Black 5YR 2.5/1) is still clearly visible together with a “U” pattern (FM45)31 in the same colours running down along the ‘side panel’ under the handle. In spite of the damage, traces of a band decoration are also present on the rim and handles.

The flask, which is illustrated as a complete vessel in the original excavation report,32 is now missing its base and a portion of the body. The identification of ECM1974 with the flask illustrated in Balabish pl. XXV, 83 is certain and it is further corroborated by the fact that the vessel is marked ‘B17’ on the interior in pencil with reference to the burial group to which it belonged and which is shown in the original excavation report.33


3-ECM1971Flask ECM1971 (fig. 3) was also donated to Eton College by G.A. Wainwright in 1959, but there is no record of its original provenance.34 It has a lentoid body, a short, narrow neck with folded rim and the two handles, oval in section, run from below the rim to the shoulder. The vessel is made of Egyptian Marl D35 and the exterior surface has been slipped and burnished (‘yellow’ 2.5Y 8/6). The variations in the colour of the surface are due to the uneven firing temperature. Part of the lower body is missing, but some of the original content is preserved.

It has generally been assumed that early examples of ‘pilgrim flasks’ from both Egypt and Syro-Palestine were constructed from two bowls, thrown on the wheel and then joined at the rims. However ECM1971 was made in one piece and the wheel marks flow continuously from the centre of one lens to the other. The neck was then pushed through leaving the excess clay from the process still attached to the interior of the vessel. Another pilgrim flask in the Eton collection, ECM1981 (fig. 4) shows the technology more clearly. This method of manufacture has already been noted in Egypt for some of the pilgrim flasks excavated by Reisner at the Late New Kingdom/Third Intermediate Period cemetery at El-Ahaiwah,36 but also in flasks from Jordan37 and the Late Bronze age Egyptian garrison at Beth Shan,38 in modern northern Israel. This manufacturing technique is different from the one used for the Mycenaean flask, which was thrown from the base, and suggests that the Egyptian potters imitated Levantine, not Mycenaean, prototypes.



This flask entered the collection in 1934 through a donation from H.E.J. James and it is said to come from Alexandria (fig. 5). It is made in Marl A4,39 the surface fired yellow (2.5Y 8/6). The body is flat and circular and it is mould made in two sections joined around the side. The neck and handles were then applied to the body by hand. On one side St. Menas is represented standing with his arms stretched and flanked by two camels which bend their heads toward his feet (Fig. 5). On the other side is a Greek inscription in two lines which read ‘????G??’ (Fig. 6) an abbreviation of the standard inscription found on larger flasks ‘????G?? ??? ?G??? ???? ????’ conferring the ‘Blessing of St. Menas, Amen’ to the pilgrim.40 According to tradition Menas was an Egyptian who was conscripted as a soldier during Diocletian’s reign and sent to Phrygia where he was killed for refusing to make offerings to the gods. There are various accounts as to how his body was returned to Egypt and camels appear in various roles: in one account they are said to have miraculously carried the saint’s remains through the desert from Alexandria to his final resting place. Another story tells that, thanks to the bones of the martyr, the soldiers returning to Egypt fend off an attack from a sea monster with ‘faces like those of camels’.41 For the many pilgrims facing the long sea journey home this would have been a most reassuring story.



The ‘pilgrim flasks’ entered the Egyptian pottery repertoire in the early 18th Dynasty as a result of the growing contacts with the Eastern Mediterranean. The technology of manufacture, the fabric used and the association with wine amphorae suggest that the earliest Egyptian examples were produced under the influence of Levantine prototypes to supply the growing needs of the developing wine making centres in the Delta at the beginning of the New Kingdom. The parallel use of the shape in Egypt as a cosmetic vase links it to the Mycenaean globular, vertical flask, which was produced in mainland Greece specifically for the export of speciality oils and unguents to Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Egyptian craftsmen borrowed the foreign form and reproduced it in different materials and styles, adapting it to suit the needs of the internal market and to conform to the principles of Egyptian design. Once fully absorbed into the repertoire the shape remained in use, evolving and adapting, for the following two thousand years.


1. Furumark 1941: 616-617 (FS186 and FS189). In his classification of Mycenaean pottery Furumark attributed a number to each class of vessels and also listed and categorised the major decorative patterns. It is established convention to identify vessels by Furumark Shape (FS) and decoration by Furumark Motif (FM).

2. Amiran 1970: 166-169, pl. 51.

3. Mountjoy 1993: 72, Amiran 1970: 166.

4. Anderson 1990: 43.

5. Examples in glass and faience exist in the Eton Myers collection, cf. ECM1589 (Reeves and Quirke 1999: 27, cat no. 24) and ECM1620 (Reeves and Quirke 1999: 27, cat. no. 25).

6. An example from grave G70 Abydos, now in the Ashmolean Museum (AN1896-1908 E.2442) is made of a tin and lead alloy and has a hinged lid (Ayrton, Culley and Weigal 1904: 50, pl. XVII, 20).

7. Anderson 2004: 81.

8. For a general introduction to the problems involved and good bibliographical references see Yasur-Landau 2005, Bourriau and Phillips 2004, and Shortland 2001.

9. Arnold 1994: 174-184.

10.Schiffer and Skibo 1987: 598-600.

11.Schiffer and Skibo 1987: 598.

12.Leonard 1981: 91-100.

13.Judas 2010: 439, table 4:17 gives an overview of the chronological distribution of Mycenaean flask types.

14.Leonard 1994: 84-87.

15.Judas 2010:796.

16.Mommsen et al. 1992: 298-299.

17.Mommsen et al. 1992: 298.

18.Amiran 1970: 166-169, pl. 51.

19.Bourriau 2004: 82.

20.Bourriau 2004: 85.

21.This is an Egyptian marl clay used mostly, but not exclusively, for the production of transport amphorae. The earliest stamped Egyptian amphora, possibly in this fabric, carries the name of Tuthmosis I (Hope 1989: 93). For a description of the fabric see Nordström and Bourriau 1993: 181-182, pl. VII: a-c, e-f.

22.Bourriau 2010: 83.

23.Bourriau 1981: 75.

24.ECM1620, in Spurr, Reeves and Quirke 1999: 27, cat. no. 25.

25.Friedman 1998: 229-230, cat no. 126 and 127. For and example from the Eton Myers collection see ECM1704 in Spurr, Reeves and Quirke 1999: 56, cat no. 87.

26. Bubenheimer Erhart 2006: 16.

27.For a general introduction to the pilgrimage centre of Abu Menas see Grossmann 1998: 281-302.

28.Anderson 2004: 81.

29.Reeves 1999: 5. The provenance is also recorded in the collection ‘entry catalogue’.

30.Wainwright 1920. Balabish lies on the east side of the Nile in the Sohag governorate, Upper Egypt. It was excavated by Wainwright and Whittemore in the winter of 1915, but had already been plundered in antiquity and excavations had also been previously carried out by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. The site is best known for its Pan Grave cemetery, but it consists of several cemeteries varying in date from the Pre-dynastic to the Coptic period.

31.See endnote 1.

32.Wainwright 1920: 64-65, pl. XXV, 83.

33.Wainwright 1920: pl. XXV, 83. The only other Mycenaean flask from Balabish was found in ‘B38’ (Wainwright 1920: 65) and was not illustrated, but on the basis of the description given in the text it belonged to the horizontal type of globular flask (FS191).

34. A provenance from Balabish can be suggested on the basis of the number ‘50’ written in pencil on the exterior of the vessel. Wainwright found 3 pilgrim flasks in tomb group 50 (Wainwright 1920: 57-58, pl. XXI, XXIV, 46 and 47) and ECM1971 fits well the description of one of the smaller one given in the text: ‘One of the smaller ones still had remains of ointment inside, and was cracked’.

35.Nordström and Bourriau 1993: 181-182, pl. VII: a-c, e-f.

36.Knudsen 2003: 91-92.

37.Anderson 1990: 46-47, endnote 6.

38.Frances and McGovern 1993: 94-102

39.Nordström and Bourriau 1993:77-178, pl. V: d-f, i-j.

40.Davis 1998: 308.

41.Davis 1998: 309-310.


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