This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2016. It has been updated.—Ed.
The Olympic Games have a rich history, and so does an ancient medicinal treatment that seemed to have resurfaced at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You may have noticed small circles on American gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps’s skin as he competed. The marks on his skin were the result of cupping, a medicinal treatment that has been around for millennia. Vessels like this small, hollow, bell-shaped cup from Israel were used for the medical treatment of cupping. The earliest records of the practice of cupping—placing heated cups on the skin to improve blood flow—were found in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical document dating to 1500 B.C.E., and the Greek physician Hippocrates’s corpus of medical texts in 400 B.C.E. Archaeologists have also uncovered cupping vessels in China from 1000 B.C.E. Vessels used for cupping were made from a variety of materials, including bronze, horn, pottery and bamboo, and were typically shaped as balls or bells with diameters of 1 to 3 inches.
This bronze cupping glass came from Masada, a desert fortress in the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea that was occupied by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 C.E.). The glass was found in the destruction layer of 73 C.E.—when the Romans defeated the rebellion—with several coins inside, a clever hiding spot that remained concealed for nearly two millennia until Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin uncovered it in the 1960s. Amnon Ben-Tor suggests that the rebels may have been using this therapy during their confinement in the fortress.1 Another scholar who studied the cupping glass, however, believes it belonged to a Roman physician and was taken as loot by the rebels, who hid it with the accompanying shekels.2
Masada, the mountaintop fortress that set the stage for one of the ancient world’s most dramatic tragedies, is today one of the world’s most iconic archaeological sites. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the Jewish defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.
There were two practices of cupping: dry and wet. For dry cupping, the vessel was heated over a flame or in hot, scented oil and then placed on an individual’s skin, normally on the back, with the hollow opening against the skin. As the cups cooled, they became suctioned to the skin because of the low pressure area that was created. For wet cupping, small incisions were made in the skin, and the heated cups were placed over them. As they cooled, blood was drawn out from the incisions. This process was meant to help the body heal itself by improving blood flow and purging any impurities. Although painless, cupping left a mark on the skin—a red circle where the cup was set. This therapy is still used today as a form of alternative medicine around the globe—from Beijing to Beverly Hills—although the preferred materials for the vessels are no longer bronze but glass and plastic.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 15, 2016.—Ed.
Based on Strata: “What Is It?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2014.
2. Malka Hershkovitz, “A Roman Cupping Vessel from Masada,” Eretz Israel 20, Jerusalem (1989), pp. 275–277 (in Hebrew; English summary pp. 204*–205*).