The Unseen Museum is the well-known exhibition project of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens that brings to the fore antiquities stored in its vaults away from the visitor’s eyes.
In the late spring of 2023 the Unseen Museum presents the “ancient hot-water bottles”. It is a set of clay vessels for therapeutic use, dating from the end of the 3rd to the 1st century BC, from Athens, Chalkis, Tanagra and from other origins. These objects, which for years were characterized as ordinary flasks, were recognized as the paraphernalia of doctors, athletes and pharmacists of antiquity. The strange shapes and the special way of making them made them suitable for the relief of various ailments.
The use of ancient vases as therapeutic devices was first identified in ancient Cyprus. Clay hot-water bottles were found at the famous in antiquity Asklepieion of Paphos. They had been manufactured in the shape of parts of the human body and were meant for the therapy of various ailments. Similar vases, which for a number of years were interpreted as flasks, have been located in areas of metropolitan Greece: Pylos, Delos, Thessaly, Athens, Aegina and Aetolia.
The hot-water bottles of the National Archaeological Museum differ in size and typology (globular, triangular, semi-cylindrical). Most of them bear stamped inscriptions, often with the name of their manufacturer. These vessels contributed to the therapy of ailments, such as the common cold, arthritis, rheumatism, strained muscles and abdominal pain. Clay as a bad conductor kept heat for a long time relieving pain and increasing blood flow. Moreover, the use of heating pads in the form of poultices and pain relief patches is known in Hippocratic medicine, which focuses on Traumatology and bone diseases, domains in which hot-water bottles are still in use even today. Clay vases of therapeutic use were manufactured from the 3rd cent. B.C. onwards, namely in the Hellenistic and Roman period, when new healing methods and techniques were applied. However, these vases do not seem to be particularly widespread, and were possibly made on demand for specific clientele, such as physicians, athletes or pharmacists (drugsellers).
The “ancient hot-water bottles” are presented in the “Hall of the Altar” (no. 34) from Tuesday, May 23 to Monday, July 31, 2023.
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