H. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm)
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Sid R. Bass Gift, in honor of Annette de la Renta, and Rogers Fund, 2001 (2001.253)
In Hellenistic and Roman times, vessels made in semiprecious stone were much sought after as symbols of wealth and sophistication. They were used as diplomatic gifts or treasured as heirlooms, and many of them found their way into royal tombs or imperial collections, both during antiquity and later. Relatively few examples, however, have come down from antiquity; most of the surviving hardstone vessels are small containers, such as this exquisite amphora, made of banded agate, a kind of chalcedony. Despite its small size, the vessel is a masterly example of the maker's skill. Not only does it have a pleasing shape and an attractive polished surface that shows off the patterning in the agate, but the carving out of the inside is also evidence of great technical dexterity.
The rarity of the stone and the difficulty of producing vessels from it encouraged imitations in glass and pottery; the most striking example is provided by mosaic cast glass vessels that copied the banding of the agate in canes of translucent deep amber and opaque white glass (91.1.1303).
Although gem-cutting workshops existed in Rome during the first century B.C., the techniques used to make such hardstone bottles may be linked more closely to the production of luxury cast glassware. The establishment of such a glass industry in the imperial capital, probably during the Augustan period (27 B.C.–14 A.D.), may give support to the view that craftsmen making hardstone vessels also migrated to that city, where the Roman aristocracy undoubtedly provided them with most of their business.