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An urn is a vase, ordinarily covered and without handles, that usually has a narrowed neck above a footed pedestal. "Knife urns" placed on pedestals flanking a dining-room sideboard were an English innovation for high-style dining rooms of the late 1760s. They went out of fashion in the following decade, in favour of knife boxes that were placed on the sideboard.

In Classical terms, an urn is a large decorative covered container of wood, metal, pottery, etc. In furniture, it was a large wooden vase-like container which was usually set on a pedestal on either side of a side table. This was the characteristic of Adam designs and also of Hepplewhite's work. Urns were also used as decorative turnings at the cross points of stretchers in 16th and 17th century furniture designs. The urn and the vase were often set on the central pedestal in a "broken" or "swan's" neck pediment.

Cremation urns

Funerary urns (also called cinerary urns) were used by many civilisations. After a person died, survivors cremated the body and collected the ashes in an urn (see also lekythos, a type of pottery in ancient Greece used for holding oil in funerary ritual). In the Bavarian tradition, a king's heart would be placed in the urn upon his death (as happened with King Otto of Bavaria in 1916).

Romans placed the urns in a niche in a collective tombmarker called a columbarium (literally, dovecote. The interior of a dovecote usually has niches to house doves.

The discovery of a Bronze Age urn burial in Norfolk, England prompted Sir Thomas Browne to carefully describe the antiquities found. He expanded his study to survey burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, and published it as Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial (1658).

Other urns

The Ashes, the prize in the biennial Test cricket competition between England and Australia, are contained in a miniature urn.

Urns are a common form of architectural detail and garden ornament. Well-known ornamental urns include the Waterloo Vasemarker.

In mathematics, an urn problem is a thought experiment in probability theory.

A tea urn is a heated metal container (Electric water boiler) traditionally used to brew tea or boil water in large quantities in factories, canteens or churches, that is, it is not usually found in domestic use. Like a samovar it has a small tap near the base for extracting either tea or hot water.


  1. Martin Pegler, The Dictionary of Interior Design

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