Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.55

Katharina Schmidt, Glass and Glass Production in the Near East during the Iron Age Period: Evidence from Objects, Texts and Chemical Analysis.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2019.  Pp. viii, 312; 68 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781789691542.  £50.00.  


Reviewed by Katherine A. Larson, Corning Museum of Glass (larsonka@cmog.org)

The professed goal of Katharina Schmidt’s new book, Glass and Glass Production in the Near East during the Iron Age Period is “to contribute to the history of glass and close the gap between the Late Bronze Age and the Hellenistic period” (1). The current volume is the first synthetic book-length treatment of Iron Age glass since the classic 1970 Glass and Glassmaking in Ancient Mesopotamia.1 It makes a significant contribution to glass studies by being the first work by a single author that draws together the evidence from archaeology, texts, and archaeometry.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide background on the general framework of the book and the properties of glass and other vitreous materials, respectively. The core of the book is Chapters 3–7, which cover the archaeological (Ch. 3–5), textual (Ch. 6), and archaeometric (Ch. 7) evidence for glass in Iron Age Mesopotamia (ca. 1000–539 BCE), spanning the regions of Assyria, Babylonia, and the Levant. The conclusion in Chapter 8 summarizes the major findings of the study, with comments on the role of the palace institution in Neo-Assyrian glass production and the value of glass in the Iron Age. The end matter consists of a glossary of technical terms, a bibliography, a catalogue of objects arranged by archaeological site, the color plates, an edition of a cuneiform text recipe for blue glass, tables of chemical data, and an index.

While much of Schmidt’s evidence is well known among glass specialists, it has not previously been brought together in a systematic and cohesive way, and therein lies the real merit of the book. Schmidt examined most of the catalogued objects in person, and so was able to provide new, cohesive insights into manufacturing techniques; the identification and experimental recreation of three different methods for producing blue and white rosette inlays is especially informative (68–73). Of note within the newly published material are several glass objects from Hasanlu, now in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and from Khorsabad, now at the Oriental Institute and the Musée du Louvre.

Schmidt identifies three major groups of Iron Age glass, distinguished primarily by manufacturing technique: mosaic, cast- and-cut, and core-form. This categorization in turn governs the interpretation of objects by typology, function, chronology, geographic distribution, and even within the ancient mind. While we might today group this variety of objects under the single material-based category of “glass”, Schmidt shows that the meaning of glass was quite variable in the Iron Age mind, and “glass cannot be considered a uniform material” (157).

Schmidt’s emphasis on and attention to the archaeological data led her to several important conclusions and revisions to the established canon of the Iron Age Mesopotamian glass narrative.

1. Mosaic glass was probably not made during the Iron Age. Schmidt interprets the Iron Age examples, including the mosaic glass inlays set in the alabaster vessel from Hasanlu (now in Philadelphia), as reused Late Bronze Age fragments. Other examples, such as the mosaic bowls from Aššur, may have continued to be used into the Iron Age as heirlooms.
2. Major innovations in Assyrian glass production included transparent glass, the slumping and sagging technique, and the use of glass bowls in royal banqueting. The vast majority of cast-and-cut vessels and inlays come from palatial contexts in the Assyrian heartland. Although Nimrud heavily dominates this material, the lack of glass found in Assyrian domestic spaces helps validate this pattern as historical reality, not an artifact of differential archaeological recovery (103).
3. Not all glass carried the same symbolic value. While transparent bowls were closely attached to the palace at Nimrud, polychrome core-form perfume vessels were used outside the royal sphere, in religious, domestic, and funerary contexts. Core-form vessels largely seem to be a Babylonian phenomenon, and, unlike cast vessels, relate closely in shape and function to contemporaneous ceramic and stone vessels.

Another benefit of Schmidt’s approach is the consideration of the diversity of glass inlays produced during the Iron Age, including inlaid vessels, painted inlays, rosette inlays, small and large monochrome inlays, and attachments for statues. Although such artifacts generally fall into her “cast-and-cut” category, the technological variation in manufacturing methods for the rosettes alone is remarkable. Cast-and-cut inlays were also used in “Phoenician (style) ivories”, for which Schmidt again asserts the importance of the palace in their production rather than of any specific ethnic affiliation of the craftsmen.

Perhaps most astonishing is just how few glass objects (excluding beads, which Schmidt did not consider for this study) can be positively attributed to Iron Age Mesopotamia over a period of almost five centuries—a total of 389 objects in the catalogue, including 55 without archaeological provenience. More than half (199 catalogued items, plus over 250 uncatalogued fragments of cast vessels) come from Nimrud. Poor preservation must be a factor, as glass makers increasingly used natron soda rather than plant ash as a flux in the glass batch, resulting in an unstable, water-soluble mixture that may have been viable during its use-life but did not include enough stabilizing lime to survive two and a half millennia. The significant early-10th-century-BCE natron glass beakers from the burial of Nesikhons at Thebes, which are highly susceptible to moisture and deteriorating, may be emblematic of this sparsely populated chapter in glass history. 2

Chapter 6 provides a commentary and edition for one of the “Nineveh glass recipes”, a group of five cuneiform tablets from the 7th-century BCE library of Ashurbanipal related to the primary production of glass from raw ingredients. The recipe translated is the one for blue zagindurû glass, considered to be representative of the other recipes. Schmidt’s commentary makes clear that a multi-stage process of heating, crushing, and melting was necessary to produce a pure glass product. Schmidt considers the texts to be true recipes, indicative of glassmaking processes from the 2nd millennium BCE, not the literary or administrative ‘lexical lists’ of Moorey (119).3 Remarkably, as was demonstrated almost 50 years ago, the recipe is comprehensible and produces a viable glass (130; see also Brill in Oppenheim et al 1970, 110-114), although the problem of circularity, by which modern glass chemistry is used to translate the more esoteric terms in the text, and the text in turn followed to produce recipes consistent with contemporary understanding of glassmaking processes, remains.

The final category of evidence is chemical analysis. In addition to helpful summary sections on raw glass ingredients and colorants (along with the worthy reminder than glass coloration is not strictly governed by additives, but also depends on furnace conditions, heating and cooling cycles, and impurities), Schmidt discusses previously published analyses of Iron Age glass from Hasanlu, Nimrud, Pella, and Gordion. Only 11 of the 183 objects subjected to chemical analysis also appear in the catalogue, a caution for correlating the two lines of inquiry. The main story of chemical composition in Iron Age glass is the introduction of natron as flux, a shift in raw ingredients which Schmidt considers to be gradual and not nearly as widespread or immediate as it is often claimed (142). However, the combined lack of chronological control, scarcity of analyzed material, and the instability of early natron glasses means that a model for the adoption of natron should still be considered an open question. Plant ash continued to be the primary flux used in Near Eastern glasses through the first millennium CE (e.g. in Sasanian glass4), in marked technological contrast to Roman natron glasses. The persistence of plant ash as a flux in Mesopotamia may reflect the absence of a local source of natron soda and/or a conservative manufacturing enterprise.

Schmidt leans heavily on evidence from the late Bronze Age to understand the Iron Age, even though an apparent gap in glass production during the 12th and 11th centuries calls the mechanics of continuity into question. In many cases, especially in chemical analysis, this is more indicative of the paucity of study and lack of evidence for Iron Age glass compared to the earlier period rather than of any oversight on Schmidt’s part. The compression is most pronounced, however, in the discussion of the Nineveh glass texts, which Schmidt understands to be copies of 2nd-millennium originals. Granted, the glass texts are the extent of written evidence about glass making from the Iron Age, but their relationship to actual glassmaking in the Iron Age could be further problematized. Also potentially misleading is the inclusion in the catalogue and plates of the mosaic bowls and inlays from Aššur and Hasanlu, which are dated by Schmidt to the Middle-Assyrian period

By contrast, Schmidt very seldom refers to material that postdates the end of the Neo-Babylonian empire in 539 BCE. Core-form kohl tubes and head pendants, characteristic objects which begin in the 6th century BCE, are not catalogued and only summarily discussed (116, fig. 5.3). Schmidt provides a brief excursus on the so-called “Achaemenid” glass bowls which are the successors to the Neo-Assyrian cast-and-cut bowls (63), but she does not mention the important work of Despina Ignatiadou, who has argued that the type is a product of the 4th century Greek world.5

Certainly, the information Schmidt has gathered is vast and diverse. But with 200-year gaps isolating the classical Iron Age from the Bronze Age and the Hellenistic period, it does leave open many outstanding questions about the role of Iron Age Mesopotamia in the historical arc of glass. Nevertheless, thanks to its updated and synthetic catalogue, revised typology and chronology, functional analysis, and refined geographic distribution, Schmidt’s work will help inscribe the major innovations of Iron Age Near East into a comprehensive history of glass.


Notes:


1.   A. Leo Oppenheim, Robert H. Brill, Dan Barag, and Axel von Saldern. Glass and Glassmaking in Ancient Mesopotamia: An Edition of the Cuneiform Texts Which Contain Instructions for Glassmakers: With a Catalogue of Surviving Objects. Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 1970 (reprinted 1988).
2.   Birgit Schlick-Nolte and Rainer Werthmann. “Glass Vessels from the Burial of Nesikhons.” Journal of Glass Studies 45 (2003): 11–34.
3.   P.R.S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, pp. 210–211.
4.   Robert H. Brill, “Appendix 2: Chemical Analyses of Some Sasanian Glasses from Iraq.” In Sasanian and Post-Sasanian Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass, 65–88. Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 2005.
5.   Despina Ignatiadou, “Achaemenid and Greek Colourless Glass.” In The World of Achaemenid Persia, edited by J. Curtis and J. Simpson, 419–26. London: British Museum, 2010.

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