Incense Burner Shaped as a Comic Actor Seated on an Altar
In ancient Greece and Rome, people loved the theater as much as we enjoy movies today. They even had a system for recognizing favorite performances. Each year they cast their votes for best play. Acting was one of the most celebrated professions. But instead of winning statuettes like they might today, actors were awarded special laurel wreaths. And if people in the audience really liked a performer, they would snap their fingers in appreciation rather than applaud.

The bronze thymiaterion (incense burner) pictured here was made almost 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome. It shows an actor in a servant's costume, sitting on an altar. He is wearing a comic mask that has a giant mouth and silver eyes. Actors usually wore these boldly featured masks to make it easier for people to see facial expressions. The large mouth carried the actor's voice to the back of the theater so people could hear what was being said.

How did the incense burner work? The figure is not one piece, but two. The top of the altar swiveled open to allow incense to be put inside and burned. The perfumed smoke rose through the actor's hollow body and escaped through his giant mouth.

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