BMCR 2011.12.62

Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity

, Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. 136. ISBN 9781606060537. $20.00.


There exist several works which provide introductions to ancient glass production,1 reflecting the many faceted nature of the material itself and its study. Molten Color seeks to add to this volume of publications by presenting glass objects from the exhibit of the same name at the Getty Villa. The book is offered as an introductory work in seven brief chapters, accompanied by color images of objects from the collection. A small number of objects on display at the Corning Museum of Glass, New York, and the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, are also illustrated where suitable examples, such as the extremely rare cage cups, could not be found in the Getty collection.

The book focuses on glass from the second millennium BC to Late Antiquity, predominantly from the Mediterranean area. The vast majority of the pieces in the collection are Roman, and the writing is also heavily focused towards Roman material, which is Wight’s primary area of expertise. Following a brief introduction in which modern uses of glass and attitudes to ancient glass are discussed, Chapter 1 provides a background to the earliest discovery of glassmaking and the raw ingredients and colorants required. Chapters 2 and 3 examine the earliest use and spread of glass in the second and first millennia BC, including an extended and useful description of the production of mosaic glass and its variants in chapter 3. Chapter 4 introduces the subject of glass blowing and discusses the profound changes this discovery had on the nature and value of glass, which went from being a rare luxury to a material which was widely produced and consumed. Chapter 5 presents some of the glass working techniques practiced in the Roman Empire and provides a detailed discussion of mold-blowing. Chapter 6 deals with diversification and regional distinctions in the later Roman Empire, while chapter 7 addresses the issue of how glass was used, and more specifically how it became widely available.

The writing is clear and accessible, providing a basic introduction to ancient glass suitable for the non-specialist. Members of an academic audience may find the text lacking in detail, but will find the work factually accurate and up to date. Despite the brevity of the work the author excels at describing glass forming – or ‘working’ – techniques . A rather small non-annotated bibliography and further reading section is provided, and reference to limited examples of specific research mentioned in the text can be found here.

The book features 92 color images and several black and white line drawings illustrating various glass-working techniques. The color images are of a relatively high quality and should be of interest to the glass scholar. Of particular note are some more unusual items from the Getty Museum collection, including a Greek core-formed amphoriskos to which the suspension chain is still attached (JPGM 2003.168), and a number of fine examples of Hellenistic to Early Roman mosaic and ribbon-ware vessels. The black and white illustrations of glass-working techniques are reminiscent of the photographs in Hugh Tait’s Five Thousand Years of Glass,2 and cannot always be clearly made out. The corresponding written descriptions, however, are very easy to follow.

In some places it could be argued that historical sources are emphasized at the cost of other evidence. For example, the discussion of furnaces and glass production tools in chapter 1 refers only to depictions dating from the post- Medieval period, despite the fact that earlier furnaces are known to have been rather different, based on archaeological evidence. Just such evidence is found in the depiction of a glass furnace on two second-century AD clay lamps which is discussed in some detail in chapter 4 but not illustrated. Descriptions of important furnace remains, such as the 14 th -century BC glass-melting furnace from Amarna in Egypt or the large slab of raw glass found at Beth She’arim, Israel, suggesting the use of tank furnaces in the 4 th century AD, were omitted.

Minor criticisms aside, this work provides a succinct, factually accurate and eminently readable introduction to techniques of glass working in antiquity. Written by an established expert in the field, the non-specialist will find the text a valuable introduction, particularly to the processes involved in forming glass objects, and both specialist and non-specialist can benefit from the catalogue aspect of the work and the useful illustrations from this interesting collection.


1. See for example Henderson, Julian. 2000. “Glass” in The Science and Archaeology of Materials. London: Routledge; Newton, R. G. and Davison, S. 1996. Conservation of Glass. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd.; Stern, E. Marianne and Schlick-Nolte, B. 1994. Early Glass of the Ancient World 1600 BC – AD 50. Ostfildern: Verlag Gerd Hatje; Tait, Hugh (ed.). 1991. Five Thousand Years of Glass. London: British Museum Press; Grose, David Frederick. 1989. Early Ancient Glass: Core-formed, Rod Formed and Cast Vessels and Objects from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Roman Empire, 1600 BC to AD 50. New York: Hudson Hills Press; Goldstein, Sidney M. 1979. Pre-Roman and Early Roman Glass. New York: the Corning Museum of Glass.

2. Tait, Hugh (Ed.). 1991. Five Thousand Years of Glass. London: British Museum Press.