“skin-bottle.” The use of containers or “bottles” made from animal skins is a very ancient custom and was still practiced in the East until fairly recent times. The most common material that was used for skin-bottles was the skin of a goat or young kid. Bottles made from goatskin were used to hold wine, water, milk, and such.
It was important that the skin would not leak, so usually, the head of the animal was cut off, leaving as much neck as possible, and then the bones of the animal were sometimes broken so they would fit out the neck hole, and the animal was turned inside out with all the innards passing out through the neck hole. The animal was not cut open as is done when an animal is field dressed before being butchered. Once the animal was inside out, the skin was scraped so that the hide was clean and free from meat and fat. Also, the legs were cut off close to the hoof and then tied tight so fluid would not leak out through the leg hole, and the anus was sewn shut. Then usually the animal was turned hair-side out again and would hold fluid. Sometimes the hair was left on the animal skin, and sometimes it was scraped and coated with oil or grease so that it was thoroughly watertight, and also would not tend to dry out.
It was common with the smaller skins that the neck hole served as both the opening from which the skin-bottle was filled and the opening from which its contents were poured out. However, if a larger container was desired, even as large as a camel or ox, which were used as large containers and sometimes used on long journeys in the desert, often one leg was only tied shut with cord and that leg would provide the spout through which the fluid was poured.
It was common to keep the skin-bottles upright by tying a rope under the upper thighs of the animal and hanging it so it would not tip over, but sometimes a full skin could simply be set upright with the neck pointing up and tied shut. The rough and mobile life of many of the people of the East made skin-bottles a much better choice for liquids than earthenware pots, and they were much easier to seal. If a skin-bottle did get cut or tear, sometimes it could be repaired by sewing or tying it up (cp. Josh. 9:4).
When the skin-bottles were filled with wine, people had to be careful not to use old skin-bottles that had become hard and inflexible, because Eastern wine finished fermenting in the skin-bottles and would produce gasses that would cause the bottle to burst if it was sealed tightly. Jesus used that fact in his teachings (Matt. 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37).
In 1855, Horatio Hackett wrote about skin-bottles, and how common they were.
“The use of skin bottles prevails still very extensively in all parts of western Asia…at Cairo I saw them at almost every turn in the streets, and on the backs of the water-carriers between that city and Bulak, its port on the Nile. After that I met with them [saw them] constantly, wherever I traveled, both in Egypt and Syria. They are made of the skins of animals, especially of the goat, and in various forms. They are more commonly made so as to retain the figure of the animal from which the skin is taken. The process is said to be this: they cut off the head of the goat, kid, or sheep, as the case may be, and then strip off the skin whole from the body, without cutting it except at the extremities. The neck constitutes the mouth of the bottle; and, as the only places that it needs to be sewed up are where the feet were cut off, the skin, when distended with water, is precisely the appearance or form of the animal to which it belonged. The bottles of this shape have been used in the Eastern countries from the earliest antiquity; that they were common in the days of the patriarchs and the Pharaohs, I had an interesting proof in one of the tombs near the Ghizeh pyramids. Among the figures on the walls I saw a goat-shaped bottle, as exactly like those now seen in Cairo as if it had been painted from one of them by a modern artist…Bottles are also made of leather, dressed for the purpose, and are of various sizes, from the pouch containing two or three quarts, which the traveler may sling over his shoulder, to the ox-hide in which caravans preserve their supplies of water on long journeys, when they meet with brooks or cisterns only at distant intervals.”a
In 1875, James Freeman wrote about skin-bottles, and included in his book a reproduction of Assyrian artwork in which a woman is giving fluid to her child from a skin-bottle, holding the skin by the forelegs and back and pouring out the fluid to the child through the neck hole of the skin.b