BMCR 2018.09.55

Glassware and Glassworking in Thessaloniki: 1st century BC – 6th century AD. Archaeopress Roman archaeology

Anastassios Ch. Antonaras, Glassware and Glassworking in Thessaloniki: 1st century BC - 6th century AD. Archaeopress Roman archaeology. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2017. viii, 384; 70 p. of plates. ISBN 9781784916794 £65.00.

Table of Contents

This volume is far more than its title implies. Yes, it is a comprehensive study of the evidence for Roman and early Byzantine glass production from excavations in and around Thessaloniki and, yes, its focus on a rich body of material from northern Greece fills a major gap in the study of glass production in Greece in this period. But Antonaras, an archaeologist and curator at the Museum of Byzantine Culture at Thessaloniki, has produced more than the conventional regional study. Using a wealth of detail and a deep knowledge of his field, he both sets the industry at Thessaloniki into larger historical, economic, technological, social, and archaeological contexts, and sheds light on the nature of glass production across the Roman Empire.

I consulted this volume in my research on Roman glass when it appeared last year and I have found it invaluable. Normally, with a study like this, I would expect a relatively narrow regional discussion of finds and perhaps a useful comparison for my material here and there. I did not expect to discover the wealth of information and the level of detail about such topics as the uses of various types of glass vessels (Ch. 6), theories on their method of manufacture (Ch. 1), what their decoration says about them (Ch. 5), and how they found their way to the retail customer, how they were priced, and the social status of the workers who made them (Ch. 3). In this study, I keep finding doors that open onto a deeper sense of what glass production in the Roman and early Byzantine periods meant in terms of labor, manufacture, distribution, and the lived context of individual vessel types.

The work is divided into ten sections supplemented by a wealth of illustrations (both line drawings and color photographs) and a rich bibliography. The organization is clear and accessible with a detailed table of contents. In his introduction, Antonaras provides a helpful user’s manual to the study together with a history of glass production before the Roman era. In Ch. 1, he discusses the processes of glass production for types considered in the study, both primary, i.e., producing glass out of raw materials (for which there is no evidence in Thessaloniki) and secondary, i.e., fashioning glass vessels. Here Antonaras includes a useful overview of workshop design, types of equipment, and furnace construction for both processes. In Ch. 2, he outlines the distribution of secondary glass workshops around the Roman Empire, details the evidence for at least four glassworking sites in and around Thessaloniki, and characterizes the products of each site.

Ch. 3 is a particularly illuminating discussion of what is known about the social position of the glassworker at this time, the place of glassworking in the context of craft production, and the development and economic context of the industry at Thessaloniki and in the Roman Empire broadly.

Ch. 4 provides detailed typological information about specific vessel types found at Thessaloniki, both locally manufactured and imported, including descriptions, likely methods, places and dates of manufacture, and comprehensive lists of comparanda. Ch. 5 offers similarly detailed information about the evolution and dating of the Thessaloniki material as well as the distribution of the decorative techniques found on it. Ch. 6 discusses the uses of various vessel types including valuable information about the practical aspects of different shapes and decorations. Ch. 7 provides an extremely helpful illustrated chronological overview of types, together with their relative frequencies at Thessaloniki over time.

Ch. 8 is the catalogue of finds (in type so small it is difficult to read), and Ch. 9 provides details of their archaeological contexts. The volume concludes with a glossary, concordance of registration and catalogue numbers, a comprehensive typological and chronological table, and line drawings and/or photographs of all catalogued finds. Last but not least is a detailed bibliography.

Portions of this volume will be relevant to general readers interested in ancient technology and the sociology of craft. Chapters on the uses of glass vessel types and the social status of craftsmen are enlightening and accessible. It would be difficult to overstate the usefulness of this study to the student of Roman and early Byzantine glass. Drawing on an extensive regional body of material, Antonaras has provided scholars with a trove of detail about glass production and trade in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods with an account that is not limited to northern Greece or to the eastern Mediterranean. Drawing on the local, he has painted an admirably broad picture of one of the most innovative industries of the Roman world.