Digging into the Collections January 2017

Roman Glass

Four small fragments (or shards) of glass comprise this month’s topic.  These fragments can be reconstructed into a larger piece (larger comparatively: it’s still only 2.6” x 1.3” in size).  When reassembled, the fragments become part of the rim of a cup or small vessel with a blue trailed decoration around the neck.

Much like the alate pipe from the second blog in this series, the provenience of this artifact is what I find fascinating.

According to the catalog information, this artifact is “a piece of [a vessel] dug from a Roman forum” and dates to around 1500 B.C.  The date provided in the catalog, however, is definitely wrong as the founding of Rome is traditionally dated to 753 B.C.

This, of course, leads to the next question: are these glass shards really Roman?

The answer to that question is: maybe.

It’s hard to determine the authenticity of an artifact without knowing its provenience.  The provenience provided in the catalog for this artifact is rather vague as the word “forum” was used to refer to all public squares or marketplaces in Roman cities.  As the catalog entry states “a Roman forum,” it makes me believe it is not from the Roman forum (fourm Romanum) in Rome, but rather a forum located in another city.  So the glass can basically be from anywhere in the Mediterranean region or Europe that was once part of the Roman Empire.

Additionally, if the date provided in the catalog was wrong, couldn’t the provenience information be wrong too?

So without solid provenience information, the physical characteristics of the artifact have to be used to determine its authenticity.  (Scientific studies could also be done using X-ray fluorescence and other techniques, but we don’t have the equipment or the funds to do so for this artifact.)  So the style, dimensions, materials, workmanship, and condition of the artifact are examined and compared against authentic works of Roman glass.

Glass was invented in Mesopotamia in the late 16th century B.C. and moved into Egypt in the 15th century BC where its popularity and industry grew.  But according to the Metropolitan Museum,

[it] only begun to be imported, and to a lesser extent, made on the Italian peninsula in the mid-first millennium B.C…However, there is very little evidence for… glass objects in central Italian and Roman contexts until the mid-first century B.C.  The reasons for this are unclear, but it suggests that the Roman glass industry sprang from almost nothing and developed to full maturity over a couple of generations during the first half of the first century A.D.

The success of the Roman glass industry was in part due to the revolutionary invention of glassblowing around 50 B.C. in Jerusalem.  Prior to this, glass vessels were made using either the core-forming technique or the casting technique.  Glassblowing made it easier and quicker to make glass which led to greater quantities of it.  This in turn lowered the price of glass which made it available to a wider population.  It became so popular that by the first century A.D., glass had become a standard household object in the Roman Empire.  Additionally, glassblowing allowed for the production of a wider variety of vessel shapes and sizes.

Glass, therefore, is a common artifact found at sites associated with the Roman Empire.  In particular, blown glass (as this artifact appears to be) is especially common.  It is not beyond the realm of possibility, therefore, for this to be an actual fragment of Roman glass.

Stylistically, the artifact is consistent with ancient glass made during the Roman Empire.  Colorless glass was an early invention in glass making, but it gained popularity during the Roman period.  It was used primarily for tableware in the late first and second century A.D.  (C.M. Jackson).  The artifact in the collections at Ohio History Connection is consistent with this trend as it appears to be a fragment of a cup or small vessel.

The trailed decoration around the neck too is a typical style of the age.  Trailed decoration, according to R.A. Grossman, is “a strand of glass applied to a vessel or object.”  Grossman also states that

The use of trailed decoration on glass vessels extends back to the earliest use of the core-forming technique.  Glassmakers frequently applied trails of yellow and white glass, usually in zigzag or festoon patterns, to the bodies of core-formed vessels…following the decline of core-formed glass and the discovery of blown glass, the use of trailed decoration was overshadowed by model relief and cut down decoration.  Beginning in the second century A.D., however, and lasting for several hundred years thereafter, trailed decoration regained a position of prominence in the decorative repertoires of glassmaking (20).

This suggests that the artifact is more likely to be later in date (second century and later) if indeed Roman.

The dimensions of the artifact is also consistent with ancient glass which is very thin and fragile.  The curve of the rim appears to be that of a cup or small vessel which were commonly manufactured during the Roman Empire.

Additionally, the condition of the artifact suggests that it might be Roman.  The glass fragments display iridescence, rainbow like colors on the surface.  Iridescence, according to the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan, is “caused by the devitrification (chemical decomposition) due primarily to prolonged contact of the objects with moist and acidic soil in their archaeological contexts.”  Iridescence is usually formed in sheets or layers on the inside of the glass, as it appears on this artifact.

Lastly, the fact that the glass is in pieces also lends to its authenticity.  Most ancient glass is found in pieces, and most fakes are whole vessels.

The glass artifact in the Ohio History Connection collection, therefore, could possibly be Roman in origin.  Its style, dimensions, materials, workmanship, and condition are all similar to glass made during the Roman Empire.  It is my opinion, therefore, that it is possible that this glass rimsherd could indeed be Roman.

If you would like to look at the artifact yourself, it and other Roman and Greek artifacts from the Ohio History Connection collection will be on display starting in early February.

And if you would like to see more ancient glass and are in the Columbus area, the Columbus Museum of Art is currently exhibiting Glass Magic: Then and Now which features glass made in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago including several examples of Roman glass.  As a side note: the Columbus Museum of Art is free on Sundays 🙂

Posted January 27, 2017

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