Ball games are among the simplest of sports and have been played for thousands of years throughout the world, including in the ancient Mediterranean where this feeder-cup resembling a modern stitched football was made. Games involving throwing, catching or skilfully balancing and manipulating balls of various sizes – often made from stuffed animal bladders – were forms of entertainment and exercise at all levels of ancient Greek society.
Despite the resemblance of this object to a traditional football made up of stitched panels, there is however no evidence to suggest that ball games similar to modern football or rugby were played between opposing teams. Greek and Roman writers and artists provide an abundance of evidence for ball games, but none involving kicking the ball towards a target as part of an organised sport.
The closest ‘team’ ball game we know of is described by the Greek medical expert Galen, who lived in the second century AD. Groups of players faced each other and tried to prevent a person in between from catching the ball passed between the two sides, sometimes involving jostling or tackling to get control of the ball.
A funeral relief in the Archaeological Museum in Athens shows an athletic young man balancing a ball on his raised thigh. Although it is tempting to interpret this as a modern football exercise, it is probably a demonstration of his skill and physical fitness. Most Greek sports were about showing the individual skill and stamina of the athlete against an opponent, though this also provided essential training for military service on behalf of the state.
The ball on the feeder-cup therefore was more probably used for one of these purposes. The significance of the snake on the shoulder is unclear but the bottle’s probable find spot in a tomb hints at the well-known connection between snakes and the underworld in the ancient Mediterranean. Furthermore, the ability of the snake to shed its skin was seen as a miraculous symbol of rejuvenation and renewal, which may explain its presence on a medicine bottle. Traditionally, the rod carried by the Greek healing-god Asklepios was entwined with snakes, which is why to this day it is an international symbol of the medical profession.