The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all drank wine, as did pretty much every other ancient civilization. But out of what? It turns out that vessels in the ancient world were made in great quantities and diverse materials, including pottery, glass, ivory, stone, wood, leather, bronze, silver and gold.
In the Beginning
The earliest known drinking vessels were made from pottery—clay hardened by heat—and date back to the Upper Palaeolithic age. During the Bronze Age (3300–1200 BCE), when metalworking techniques were introduced, bronze and gold cups and goblets started to emerge. However, they remained reserved for a small wealthy elite.
During Roman times, metalware techniques were further developed. Roman emperors and senators were known to have drank wine in vessels made from materials including gold, silver and lead, often with elaborate gilt decoration on the exterior. However, on most days, a pottery goblet embellished by ornate scrollwork of buds and leaves would suffice.
Cast glass cups were first produced in Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as the 15th century BCE. With the invention of glass-blowing techniques, glass drinking vessels saw a re-emergence during the Roman era.
This invention revolutionized ancient glass production, putting it on a par with the pottery and metalware industries in some parts of the Roman empire. A very fortunate Roman might have found himself drinking wine from a glass vessel as beautiful as the Lycurgus Cup. Currently in the British Museum, this glass from the fourth century CE changes colors depending on the light.
Throughout ancient history, few dinners with wine are more famous than the Last Supper (circa 30 CE). Scholars believe that winemaking in the Holy Land in the Middle East dates to around 3000 BCE. Archaeological evidence from the area suggests people during this period used a variety of pottery vessels to collect and serve wine. But the jury is still out when it comes to Jesus’s cup: a limestone or wooden vessel remain contenders for that.
Whilst the cup in use at the Last Supper was probably quite ordinary, what is certain is that many today might be surprised by the wide range and intricate designs of drinking vessels available to our ancestors in the ancient world.