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Mysterious Urn
May 7, 2009 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Mysterious Urn Filter: What is the intended use of this ceramic thing i picked up at an antiques fair?

Here are some (blurry) pictures:
1. Complete urn
2. Urn pieces
3. Urn pieces standing
4. Urn opening
5. Inside shaft

I bought this little urn-looking thing at an antiques fair as a nice bibelot, but I'm still wondering what it is intended to "do."

The thing unscrews into three pieces: one is a ceramic ring; the other is a metallic base which fits onto the bottom; and the other is a metallic shaft with a point (the urn "top") that has perforated openings around it. The top shaft slides into the ceramic ring and screws into the bottom base, locking it all together.

I wanted to think this had something to do with incense or the like, but when you flip over the top piece, the shaft is blocked by a plasticky/waxy...thing -- a stopper, maybe -- that doesn't allow for an unobstructed opening to the top perforations. It seems to be pretty solidly wedged in there, too (i.e., by design, not accidental).

The whole item is no more than 2'' tall and 1'' wide; it fits in the palm of the hand. The bottom base is shaped kind of like a "dish," but when sealed together, there is very little room from the dish base to the plastic/whatever blockage to suggest that one could fit anything in there.

Maybe the openings on top are ornamental, but I still feel as if this is intended to store something smoke/incense/perfume/drug related. Why else would it come apart?

Help me, MeFi sleuths!
posted by softsantear to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
It really looks a lot to me like the things they use in Catholic church to distribute the smoke from frankincense and myrrh. Typically hanging, then used to swing during mass.
posted by lottie at 3:35 PM on May 7, 2009


Also known as a censer.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:46 PM on May 7, 2009


I wonder if this is only the top part of a larger assembly. I also bet that the very top part of the shaft comes loose - I can see what looks like a seam with some corrosion.
posted by muddgirl at 3:50 PM on May 7, 2009


I tried with hands and with pliers to unscrew the top, but to no avail.

It's hard to tell whether it is just a fold in the metal or a seam dividing two pieces; in any case, if it is something meant to be unscrewed, it is solidly rusted over. I just ended up scratching up the metal in my attempt.
posted by softsantear at 4:00 PM on May 7, 2009


A Catholic censer would be fitted with loops or hooks for a chain, I think.

A sugar caster?
posted by zadcat at 4:08 PM on May 7, 2009


Given the holes on the top, and the similarity to the last picture on the Wikipedia page, I have to agree that it's a censer. It doesn't have to be the swingy kind to be a censer.
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:01 PM on May 7, 2009


An incense burner? Not necessarily a censer, but of the decorative variety, no chain.
posted by chez shoes at 5:02 PM on May 7, 2009


Completely wild-ass guess: a combination salt cellar on the bottom and pepper shaker on the top, or something similarly condiment-related? The copper parts look pretty oxidized but there doesn't seem to be any tarry residue you might expect from burning incense or opium, etc, so maybe fire was not part of this thing's function.

This "answer" was just an excuse to say how delighted I am to see the word "bibelot" on the intertubes.
posted by Quietgal at 6:03 PM on May 7, 2009


While the censer ideas are all quite sound, and I started marking them all as best answer, it doesn't quite click for me. The thing is completely odorless and has no residue. Also, the seller (50s) told me she found it in a box of her mother's things. So while "home incense device" could fit the bill, I want to think it's something more utilitarian or, failing that purely decorative.

To that end, Quietgal's surprise answer best explains the divider inside the shaft. This could keep the condiments separate, and it seems to explain the apertures on the top.
posted by softsantear at 6:10 PM on May 7, 2009


My guess: It's some kind of pounce pot. For sprinkling pounce on your fountain pen written note, to help dry it. See.......Before the invention of blotting paper or "pounce pot"
posted by blink_left at 6:24 PM on May 7, 2009


I thought you said that screwing the two brass pieces together locks everything in place. Wouldn't any salt fall out everywhere once you unscrewed it? At any rate, having to unscrew something at the dinner table in order to get salt seems completely unlikely to me. You'd have to put it back together to pass to the next person, who would then have to unscrew it, while avoiding shaking pepper everywhere. It sounds like a design for disaster at any dinner party.

I think it's more likely a single shaker of some sort that maybe held a cosmetic powder. Does the pointy bit at the top come off?
posted by oneirodynia at 10:36 PM on May 7, 2009


oneirodynia, you're right. I was awake in bed last night thinking this very same thing. In order to get to the base you have to undo the whole thing, and it would be a mess.

So my line of waking-dream reasoning went like this: jumping off from quietgal's suggestion, maybe the bottom could hold something, but not something as messy as fine salt or pepper. Maybe it is a censer. What if the top unscrews and holds incense briquettes for burning, which waft through the perforations... and the bottom holds a small reservoir of extra briquettes? These would be big enough to not really cause "spillage" if unscrewed.

Thinking about blink_left's answer, maybe the underside of the shaft could serve as some kind of stamp or seal. Perhaps there is something missing that fits in there. Maybe it could be a pounce pot on top + stamp combo. If ink is involved, I could see why the base needs to be there so that you don't have a recently-inked seal coming into contact with anything. On the other hand, if that were true, the ceramic ring could have just been a hollow bowl for the shaft to "slide" into. Obviously the whole unit is meant to be moved as a piece, otherwise the need for interlocking parts wouldn't be there.

Of course, maybe this is just a terribly designed widget that defies expectations of standard ergonomics.
posted by softsantear at 12:23 PM on May 8, 2009


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