Dr. Joan E. Taylor, Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London
It is easy to feel in this quest to identify the picture of a ‘whale’ a sense that we are all staring at the same ink-blot and seeing different things. The architectural edifice/tower/tomb monument theory does not quite work, because there are little ‘flaps’ on each side, the sides are concave and the circular blob is not explained well. In addition, as James Tabor has said, no one would draw a tomb monument upside down on the side of an ossuary. However, no one would draw a fish in this position on an ossuary either. Instead, viewed the right way up, there is a simpler solution: the picture depicts a small receptacle often used in tombs, called an unguentarium.
Unguentaria were used for perfumed oils, balsam sap and nard (cf. Mk 14:3; Jn 12:3). These perfumes were often employed in tombs when people were buried. In the Gospels, women come to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea to anoint Jesus’ body (Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1).
To see this image, turn it around so that the blob is at the bottom or look at the ossuary. What comes into view is a certain kind of unguentarium with an outsplayed rim, an ovoid body and a slimmer neck, with a pointed base. This combination of features was often made in colored glass. Also found in these unguentaria are notional handles where the main body bulges out, as in some glass examples you can see in the Israel Museum, for example:
This is shown in the ossuary image. Patterns can be found also on some unguentaria, either by colored glass, paint or incisions. This type of unguentarium could be about 5 cm to 18 cm in height, so it is drawn larger in the ossuary image.
The mysterious blob is also easily explained. A viscous, thick substance like nard could congeal in this way as it dried at the pointed base, but more likely it is displayed as seeping out of this a small opening at the bottom of the pointed tip. Some unguentaria were supposed to be broken at this tip to allow the ointment to come out, perhaps as the example in
Pointed-base unguentaria were often meant to be hung up. Therefore, this imagine seems most likely an unguentarium, not a fish, and not a tomb monument. Its seeping perfume expresses an appropriate wish for a tomb, and illustrates a common item found within.