Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.30

Justine Bayley, Ian Freestone, Caroline Jackson (ed.), Glass of the Roman World.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow Books, 2015.  Pp. xxvi, 204.  ISBN 9781782977742.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas J. Derrick, University of Leicester (


The volume reviewed is a Festschrift offered to Prof. Jennifer Price, an esteemed and respected scholar who has worked on glass from many regions of the Roman world and beyond (both temporally and geographically). In concordance with Prof. Price’s own wide-ranging publication history (listed xi-xxvi), the 18 contributions are on diverse and engaging topics. They are arranged in to three sections: 1. Technology and Production, 2. Vessels and their Forms, 3. Other Uses of Glass. Some papers present new material which adds to existing corpora, and others take more general approaches. The contributions are discussed in turn below, largely in the order they appear in the volume.

The first paper (p. 1–22), by Marie-Dominique Nenna, is a preliminary report on the excavations at the site of Beni Salama (2003, 2005–9), in the Wadi Natrun. The Wadi is named after natron — or more correctly trona — and was an important, and one of the largest, sources of the material in antiquity. Trona was used in the creation of chemically stable silica-lime-natron glasses which were common throughout the Roman period. Nenna describes the site in detail, with its several primary glass furnaces which produced raw glasses destined to be worked in secondary glass workshops. This contribution is accompanied by 19 excellent figures including 15 colour photographs of the site, its environs, and parts of the furnaces. Nenna adds important tangible evidence for the production of glass in Roman Egypt. Egyptian provenance is often theorised based on chemical analysis, but workshop structures are infrequently discovered.

Anna-Barbara Follman-Schulz’s paper (23–32) presents a brief but detailed overview of the glassworking centred on the Hambach Forest in Late Antiquity. The landscape context of this activity is considered and the evidence for glassworking in the region — namely the furnaces, crucibles, and vessels produced — is laid out. Particularly welcome here is the use of plaster casts to illustrate moulded and stamped elements. This contribution provides a useful summary of material previously published largely in German.

A detailed and comprehensive gazetteer of the evidence for glassblowing in Roman London, compiled by John Shepherd, follows (33–43). Shepherd has published widely on this evidence, but this contribution constitutes an up-to-date summary of the state of knowledge. Rapid development, and therefore rescue archaeology, in central London has added several sites to Shepherd’s corpus. He is therefore able to draw a timeline from the earliest glassworking (bead production c. 50–60 C.E. at Gresham Street) to various other sites in the 1st and 2nd centuries, and also discusses tantalising evidence for a possible 3rd–4th century crucible fragment from a dump in Norton Folgate. These insights have crucial importance for the history of glass use in Roman Britain as a whole, and this paper is a particular highlight of the volume.

Caroline Jackson and Harriet Foster discuss provenance studies and their utility for research on Roman glass (44–56). Their contribution describes the state of the discipline and comprehensively charts the development of scientific analysis of archaeological glass from tentative forays in the 1980s to the present day. The authors suggest that the field needs to move towards combining analyses to determine glass provenance with vessel consumption in archaeological contexts, in order to reconstruct the economy of Roman glass. This high resolution approach is surely one the field needs to use more often. At some sites it is not deemed necessary to take glass samples, but scientific advances may well make this process cheaper and more likely to be undertaken in the future.

David Whitehouse presents a survey of pontil use in the Roman world (57–60). For this he used a corpus of 621 Roman and early post-Roman glass vessels with extant bases from the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. Although the sample is small and there are issues with provenance in the Museum’s collections, Whitehouse is able to make preliminary conclusions about pontil use, namely that there is less evidence of it in the 1st century (a period of experimentation in glassworking), but it increases over time.

Ian Freestone and Colleen Stapleton present the results of chemical analyses of opaque Roman mosaic vessels and discuss them within their wider context (61–76). This paper adds substantially to the pre-existing corpus of analysed samples (73). The study takes fragments of various colour configurations, housed at the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museums, and investigates their chemical composition. The results unveil a “highly complex technology colouration technology in the early imperial period, underpinned by a sophisticated empirical knowledge of material behaviour” (71).

The final paper on technology and production (77–94) is by E. Marianne Stern, who compares and contrasts glass production in the west of the empire (largely Rome, Italy, and adjoining provinces) and the east (particularly the Syro-Palestinian coast). The approach taken is very broad, and this paper will be of particular use to scholars interested in the wider development of glass vessel production in the Mediterranean and the resultant socio-cultural consequences of this process. Stern orients the discussion around the Latin terminology used by Pliny the Elder in order to reconstruct the processes undertaken in ancient glassblowing and working. Ethnographic and personal experience — Stern is herself a glassblower — is used to add substance to the scant iconographic sources and literary references. This paper acts as a good bridge between the first section (technology) and the second (vessels and their forms).

In the first paper in section 2, “Vessels and their forms,” Souen Fontaine and Danièle Foy examine several previously unpublished mould-blown beakers from Gallia Narbonensis featuring circus, gladiatorial, and mythological scenes (97–111). This part of Gaul was, until now, under-represented in terms of these vessels. Fontaine and Foy combine their newly identified fragments with previously published examples and discuss the full group in their regional and super-regional context. This paper has a lot in common with Sally Cottam’s paper, the final one in this section (146–150). It discusses an unusual mould-blown beaker which appears to have ‘scales’ set in a quincunx formation, accompanied by a pushed in base-ring which is more common on free-blown vessels. Cottam examines the phenomenon of this unusual base formation – usually a mould has a ‘base piece’ – and has discovered, by consulting experimental glass blowers Mark Taylor and David Hill, that the most likely explanation is that this was a moulded base re-worked for some reason.

Birgitta Hoffman’s paper is a brief two-and-a-half-page overview of the Roman and post-Roman glass (ca. 2000 fragments) found during surveys and excavation in the Fezzan (112–115). This is an interesting summary that shows that the use of glass in the Fezzan, on the edges of the Empire, is indicative of processes of wider social practice and consumption in the region. There is unfortunately a slight error in the labelling of the two images, with the label for Figure 9.2 presumably describing Figure 9.3, and the label for Figure 9.3 referring to a vessel which is not depicted. This mislabelling, however, does not affect the quality of the discussion, as the images were used to demonstrate the quality of some of the Fezzan glass, an aim which is still achieved. The next paper, by Yael Israeli, discusses some remarkable vessel types from the Roman port of Caesarea Maritima (116–123). Eight were imported vessels, the forms and decoration of which were previously unrepresented in local products, and two are local and probably point to the production of glass oil lamps in the city. This similarly brief paper, which offers an update to previously excavated material, is illustrated well and offers a window to the evidence from the site.

The paper by Daniel Keller is one of the volume’s longer and more stand-out contributions (124–137). Keller uses the distribution patterns in the deposition of drinking vessels in households in the Late Antique eastern provinces to reveal the presence of ‘sets’ used in drinking practice. This paper uses a detailed intra-site contextual analysis to illustrate that not only is this sort of approach possible with Roman glass, but it can also be highly rewarding. This is the type of contextual analysis which would work well with a detailed glass compositional analysis, as advocated by other papers in the volume.

Martine Newby Haspeslagh discusses the exciting discovery of a ‘Dionysiac’ cameo glass vase (138–145). This preliminary discussion of this dark blue and white vessel has obvious parallels to existing dark blue cameo vessels, including the renowned Portland Vase housed in the British Museum. This vessel is currently undergoing conservation and thus this paper focuses largely on the interpretation of its mythological scenes.

Two papers on glass used in buildings open the third section of the volume, “Other Uses of Glass”. Sarah Jennings discusses the abundant evidence for different types of architectural glass found at Butrint in Albania (153–164). The description of the manufacturing processes involved in the production of window glasses and several photographs of material make this a key reference work. Heidi Amrein then examines two previously unpublished glazing bars from Vindonissa with a brief discussion of the wider context of Roman window construction and use (165–169).

The reuse of Roman glass fragments is the subject of the paper by Sylvia Fünfschilling (170–177). It focuses on the abundant evidence from Augusta Raurica (Augst, Switzerland) of the reworking of vessel wall and base fragments to make counters, geometric forms, and knapped blades. This paper will surely make many specialists, and those who use glass reports, re-evaluate many vessel glass assemblages.

The final two papers concern the use of glass in the manufacture of jewellery and similar objects. The paper by Justine Bayley is a detailed account of Roman enamelling, a practice common in Britain (178–189). This is a comprehensive treatment that will also be appealing to a non-specialist, given the excellent images and clear discussion. Similarly Peter Cosyns, in the eighteenth and final paper of the volume (190–204), discusses the phenomenon of ‘black’ glass from Britannia, Galla Belgica, and Germania Inferior, and has produced a detailed and significant reference work.

The volume is suited to a range of different audiences. The first is, naturally, archaeological specialists who work with glass objects and vessels. In addition, the work also has value for more general researchers or students due to the accessible language and terminology used in several of the papers, although it should be noted that this volume does not offer a generalist and all-encompassing account of glass use in the Roman world, nor did it set out to do so (alternatives for readers seeking this approach: Isings 19571; Price and Cottam 19982). The volume is well presented and illustrated with high quality colour photographs and illustrations throughout. As someone who works with Roman glass, I am confident that I will return to this volume on a regular basis, as many of the papers are of crucial importance to the field and to material culture studies more generally.


1.   Isings, C. 1957. Roman glass from dated finds. Wolters: Groningen.
2.   Price, J. and Cottam, S. 1998. Romano-British glass vessels: a handbook. Council for British Archaeology: York. This was designed for material from Roman Britain, but currently it is the best general overview, as Isings 1957 is somewhat outdated.

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