Physician's Cupping Glass or Alembic

Object Name: Alembic

Date: 9th–11th century

Geography: Attributed to Iran, Nishapur. Excavated in Iran, Nishapur

Medium: Glass, greenish; blown, applied spout

Dimensions: H. 1 15/16 in. (5 cm)
L. 3 7/8 in. (9.9 cm)

Classification: Glass

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1940

Accession Number: 40.170.132


Cupping glass, alembic, baby feeder, breast reliever—these are just some of the suggested identifications for this object, of which numerous examples have been found at Nishapur and other excavation sites. The most recent proposal is that those with straight spouts served as alembics, the vessels that sit on top of the vessels that heated substances to be distilled. In this function, the cup would capture the distillate and the spout would direct it into a receiving vessel. On the other hand, those with curved spouts are thought to have served as cupping glasses, the cup being placed on the patient's skin and the spout curving up to the physician, creating a vacuum by sucking air through the spout. Only one thing is clear: their production ceased after the twelfth century. Apparently, these perplexing items were no longer in use.