Balsamarium (Incense Burner) In The Shape Of A Bust Of Bacchus
Identification and Creation
Object Number
Balsamarium (Incense Burner) in the Shape of a Bust of Bacchus
Work Type
2nd-3rd century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Africa, Egypt (Ancient)
Roman Imperial period, Middle
Level 3, Room 3700, Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Art, Roman Art
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Physical Descriptions
Leaded bronze, silver inlay
Cast, lost-wax process
17.5 x 10.3 x 6.5 cm (6 7/8 x 4 1/16 x 2 9/16 in.)
Technical Details

Chemical Composition: ICP-MS/AAA data from sample, Leaded Bronze:
Cu, 64.97; Sn, 6.56; Pb, 27.82; Zn, 0.08; Fe, 0.13; Ni, 0.07; Ag, 0.08; Sb, 0.09; As, 0.19; Bi, less than 0.025; Co, 0.018; Au, less than 0.01; Cd, less than 0.001

J. Riederer

Technical Observations: The patina is dark green with areas of brown. The lid is lost. A loss on the proper right of the top of the head may have been a second loop. The base, although ancient, appears to have belonged originally to another object and is soldered in place at a hole on the bottom of the object. Holes, probably from corrosion, are also present on the back and proper right side. Modern paint covers about one-tenth of the surface, presumably to improve the appearance of the patina.

The balsamarium is an indirect lost-wax cast. The interior surfaces closely conform to the contours of the exterior. The now-lost lid was separately fabricated and attached with a hinge and pin fitting on the back of the head. Details in the headdress were probably worked directly in the wax model. Finer lines in the hair, leaves, and the animal skin garment were incised with a tracer and punches in the metal. Blobs of lead (3 cm in diameter), now partially mineralized, were poured into the bottom left and right corners. The lead on the proper right side is now exposed by the hole at that location. Perhaps the lead served as ballast to make the bust hang in the proper vertical orientation while suspended from the loop or loops on the top of the head. Heavy sheet silver covers the eyes. A hole in the center of each to represent the pupil continues through what appears to be cast holes of the same size in the bronze eyes below the silver. A 5-mm recess on the right nipple is undercut at the edges and once held an inlay, probably a secondary metal such as copper. Two 2-mm iron chaplets on the back right and left of the head are partially intact. The exterior at these locations shows no signs of the chaplets, and they are presumably well hidden by a bronze patch.

Henry Lie (submitted 2001)

Charles Dikran Kelekian [private collection], Egypt, (by 1914) to; Kelekian [private collection], Paris (from 1919) to; Kelekian [private collection], New York (after the war ca. 1950), sold; to Fogg Art Museum, 1972.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, David M. Robinson Fund
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
This balsamarium is one of the finest examples of a class of cast Roman bronze perfume containers, usually provided with either a swinging handle at the top, as was originally the case here, or with a hinged lid to prevent spilling. A variety of satyrs, maenads, and Africans also appear as subjects for this category of perfume containers. With its inlaid silver eyes, this bust of Dionysos presents an unusually attractive and light-hearted portrayal of the god of wine, inebriation and ecstasy.

David Gordon Mitten

Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
Previous description: The bust of Bacchus rises from a spreading calyx of acanthus leaves which sits upon a cylindrical pedestal with flaring foot. The hinged lid that originally covered the top of the vessel is now missing; loops for its attachment remain at the back of the vessel's opening. The youthful god wears a feline pelt tied over his left shoulder with a square knot; the paws project in high relief. Hair on the pelt is rendered by fine vertical striations. Bacchus' own hair, rolled under in a bun at the nape of the neck, is arranged in broad grooves spreading from a central part over the forehead. A hairband passes across the forehead. Pairs of curving strands descend onto both shoulders; smaller single locks curl onto either cheek. A diadem of ivy, comprising three leaves alternating with a bunch of berries, overlies the hair. The eyes are inlaid with silver, and the lips are parted.

Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
This balsamarium takes the shape of a bust of Dionysos supported on a separately made circular foot. The youthful, beardless god faces frontally. He wears a diadem with grape leaves and clusters on his wavy hair, which is parted in the center, rolled on the sides, and secured in a bun at the back of the head with a few loose tendrils on the sides of his neck. The face is round and well modeled above a thick neck; the nose is large, the mouth is slightly parted, and the eyes are inlaid with silver, with perforations for the pupils (1). The god wears an animal skin draped over his left shoulder, where the paws are tied in a knot to secure it. The edge of the skin is folded over, and the right side of his chest is bare. The bust ends at shoulder-level with no indication of the arms. The bust is supported by a shallow cup on top of a cylindrical base and circular foot, which is slightly concave on the underside and decorated with concentric circles.

The interior of the bust is hollow, and the top of the head is open. On the back of the head there are two small loops (0.8 cm in diameter), and there is a larger vertical loop (2.1 cm in diameter) on the left side of the head. It is not clear from the object whether there would have been a matching vertical loop on the right side, as discoloration and accretions obscure the area where it would have been, but better-preserved examples indicate that two larger vertical loops were used for suspension of the balsamarium from a handle. The smaller loops on the back of the head would have formed a hinge to secure a lid.

While it has been suggested that bust-shaped containers of this type might have been used to hold oil in the baths, due to issues that would arise in the extraction of oil, it is more likely that they held incense (2). Bust vessels often depicted Africans or Herakles as well as Dionysos (Bacchus) (3).


1. A balsamarium in the shape of Hermes-Thoth with silver inlaid eyes is in the Musée du Louvre, inv. no. BR 2940.

2. For a discussion on the type of object and its potential uses, see V. Marti, “De l’usage des balsamaires anthropomorphes en bronze,” Mélanges de l’Ecole francaise de Rome: Antiquité 108 (1996): 979-1000. For a longer discussion, see ead., Les vases anthropomorphes en bronze du monde romain: Recherches sur les “balsamaires” (PhD diss., Université de Lille, 1999).

3. M. Silvia, “The Roman Anthropomorphic Bronze Vessel from Strâmba (Turceni, Gorj County): Typological, Functional and Chronological Aspects,” Oltenia: Studii şi comunicari. Arheologie-Istorie 17 (2010): 51-56.

Lisa M. Anderson

Publication History

Caroline Houser, Dionysos and His Circle: Ancient Through Modern, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1979), p. 60-62, no. 41.

Valerie Marti-Clercx, "Les vases anthropomorphes en bronze du monde romain: Recherches sur les 'balsamaires'" (1999), Universite de Lille, (Ph.D. diss.), p. 432, no. Dio. I.7, pl. 84.

Exhibition History

Dionysos and His Circle: Ancient through Modern, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 12/10/1979 - 02/10/1980

Roman Gallery Installation (long-term), Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/16/1999 - 01/20/2008

Re-View: S422 Ancient & Byzantine Art & Numismatics, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 04/12/2008 - 06/18/2011

Ancient to Modern, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2012 - 06/01/2013

Subjects and Contexts

Ancient Bronzes

Google Art Project

Artstor Digital Library

Verification Level

4 - Best. Object is extensively researched, well described and information is vetted