Museum of Medicine
School of Medicine, University of Crete

Exhibits / Medicinal Vessels


In a brief historical- archaeological review of the medicinal vessels until the middle of the 20th century, we are interested in the evolution of containers as symbols of broad social and cultural values in various historical times and societies. Identifying a container as a medicinal vessel presents the difficulty of accurately identifying the substance it contained. When there is an inscription or residue of content that facilitates this connection, a pharmaceutical use is considered more certain. However, even if the substance contained in it is identified, it should be proven that this substance was pharmaceutical, as many substances in addition to their pharmaceutical property had a second use, that is, they were aromatic or intended for aesthetic purposes. Also, a vessel could often be re-used after its initial use for storing a pharmaceutical substance to store a different kind of substance.

It appears that the first medicinal vessels were made of materials such as clay, glass, stone and wood. Glass is not permeated by liquids, so it was suitable for storing medicines and perfumes. The samples we have from the Stone and the Bronze Age are scarce and controversial. In the Bronze Age typical forms of medicinal vessels are, among other items, the compass vases. In Minoan Crete there is a great influence from Egypt.

Medicinal vessels from the corresponding collection of the Museum of Medicine of Crete

Regarding the historical times (11th century BC- 476 A.D) compass vases are crucial for the storage of medicines in Athens, based on archaeological findings. In classical times, these vases were called kilichnides (rollers) and were dedicated to deities by physicians along with some other instruments of their profession, usually a probe. In addition to wood, the use of copper, marble and ivory is also found.

In Hellenistic times there were many substances from medicinal plants and illustrated botanical texts. It is reasonable to assume that their thumbnails would also depict medicinal vessels, as is the case in the later Alexandrian manuscript of Nikandros "On Theriaca and Alexipharmaca". Extensive use of medicine and pharmacology requires the use of multiple containers. In fact, some of them were collectibles since the time of their manufacture because of their high artistic level, which is due to the improvement of the glass-blowing technique. They also listed the vessels’ contents by putting a stamp or labels on their neck. Here we find the so-called Theriaca vases, which were used in pharmacies until the 19th century A.D. (picture of Museum material?)

In the Middle Ages (476 A.D. until the end of the 15th century A.D.) there is interaction between the Byzantium, the Western civilization and the Arab stream. Vials and vessels reflect the physicians’ social and financial status. Since the 7th century A.D. and onwards, lavish medicinal vessels ceased to be used. In the 11th century A.D., however, large pharmacies were found inside monasteries. In paintings of physicians-saints there are typical depictions of medicinal compasses, such as in paintings of Saint Anargyroi. There is a partial overlap of the profession of pharmacist and perfumer, who shared a common name (mirempsoi). So, the question arises whether the substance and its container are exclusively for pharmaceutical, cosmetic or religious use.

In Muslim nations materials for medicinal vessels and vials were technologically developed and richly decorated with motifs from the flora and fauna. Faience is the most commonly used material for medicinal vessels. In parallel, the use of porcelain in vessels and vials starts to spread which is a suitable material for pharmaceutical vials as it is durable, waterproof, clear and does not cause colour diffusion in it. A particular advantage of porcelain is that it does not allow the contents of the medicine to be altered by sunlight and for this reason it is more expensive than glass.

In the West, compass vases are still used in the Middle Ages to store incense and myrrh in addition to storing medicines. Ηospitals inside monasteries have a pharmacist and huge pharmacies with a large number of vessels. The road to private pharmacies has been open since the 13th century AD when folk pharmacists took over monastic hospitals. Private pharmacies in order to attract customers need lavish medicinal vessels.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, there is a distinction of pharmacology from medicine and religion. The 17th century is the century of scientific revolution during which the profession of pharmacist was made discrete. In addition to new medicines and vessels, pharmacists need lavish utensils for matters of prestige. So, pharmacies have lavish vessels in the storefront, a fact reminiscent of the Roman era where there were negative comments about the opulence of medicinal items. In the 18th century new glass-manufacturing techniques appear. Medicinal vessels are now in high demand. Porcelain vessels are often used to store medicines.

The 19th century is characterized by the biochemical production of medicines and the increased demand for all quality medicinal jars and bottles. New bottle styles and small dosing vials appear for the need of house calls. As a general rule, the medicinal jar and bottle had to inspire respect and confidence. In the middle of the 20th century, medicines no longer needed lavish packaging. During the first half of the 20th century, medicinal products with distinctive packaging appear- half of the surface of the bottle is embossed with the name of the company and products, while on the other half a paper label with a more detailed description of the contents was affixed.


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School of Medicine
University of Crete
2208 ΤΚ 71003
Voutes, Heraklion Crete, GR