Ancient baby’s bottle donated to The University of Auckland

02 November 2011

A 4000-year-old baby feeder which turned up in a garage sale in Palmerston North has been donated to the Department of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Auckland.

Classics Associate Professor Anne Mackay says the Bronze Age ceramic bowl, originating from Cyprus, has immense educational value.

“We think a mother probably used it for weaning her baby to goat or sheep milk. It holds the same amount as a modern baby bottle and the thumb of a woman’s hand would go conveniently through the handle,” Professor Mackay says.

The piece surfaced in Palmerston North in 1998 as a donation to a charity garage-sale. It wasn’t sold, and in 2011 the garage-sale organiser, Heather Mansell, sought an expert opinion on the unusual item from Massey University.

Realising the significance of the rare piece, it was destined to join the University of Canterbury’s Cypriot collection as Massey did not hold a collection of original antiquities. However earthquake damage to Canterbury University has meant it has now been donated to Auckland’s secure collection.

“It is now the oldest item in our collection. It doesn’t have great monetary value but it adds incredible value from a teaching perspective. It’s an object that everybody can identify with because similar containers are still used today. When students hold something that a mother put her hands on all those years ago it connects them to the ancient world.”

The globe-shaped, red ceramic feeder is intact. Its thin spout may have been covered with a cloth or cow teat to facilitate sucking. Although once an everyday household item, only a handful of similar vessels have been uncovered in Cyprus.

The feeder is made of clay and is incised with a double zig-zag motif. It was likely buried with a dead infant as quite a few antiquities are discovered in ancient graves, although an old exhibition label found inside the bowl suggests that it has been in a private collection for a long time.

Professor Mackay and Dr Gina Salapata from Massey University have co-authored a paper on the ancient feeding cup, titled Bowl for a Dead Infant? to appear in the journal Prudentia.