The lekythos, according to its size, can serve various functions, and may be destined either for body care, or for funerary rituals, the latter being the case for this particular piece. Extremely popular during the Archaic (6th and 5th centuries B.C.) and Classical (5th and 4th centuries BC) periods, Athenian potters often made white lekythoi of significant size, i.e. over one meter, and usually out of marble. These would substitute the funerary steles in cemeteries, and help distinguish male tombs from female ones, female tombs being usually marked by amphorae with low handles. Some of these are still on location in the Ceramic Cemetery in Athens (located in to the West of the city); others may be found in certain museums, such as the Athens National Museum or Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
On this lekythos are portrayed two women discussing, one sitting whilst holding her veil, the other holding a pyxis (box) and bringing her other hand to her chin in sign of mourning. Engraved on the lekythos, the name ‘Nicomachus’ undoubtedly refers to the deceased.
This type of lekythos may be left empty or, in the case of a cremation, contain the ashes. During the same period, another type of double-handled vessel, the loutrophorus, also served the same funerary purposes. There also exist lekythoi with an average height of 15 to 50 centimeters, dating as early as the Geometric period (8th and 7th centuries B.C.), and usually containing ointments and essential oils for body care. These lekythoi were manufactured extensively in Attica between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, with a large variety of shapes and decorations, themes and compositions. Traditionally they were narrow, with one handle, a long neck, wide mouth and small base, such as the lekythos presented here. One variety of lekythoi however, the aryball, had a rounded vessel, a flat mouth and could be hung by a strap.