BMCR 2019.12.28

Glas aus Beirut. Die Glasfunde aus der römischen Therme in BEY 178. Felix Berytus, 1

, Glas aus Beirut. Die Glasfunde aus der römischen Therme in BEY 178. Felix Berytus, 1. Marburg: Eigenverlag des Archäologischen Seminars der Philipps-Universität, 2019. ix, 103; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9783818505387 €69,00.

Table of Contents

The present book, the revised version of the author’s MA thesis (submitted in 2014), is devoted to the glass found during the excavation of the Roman and Byzantine bathhouse on plot BEY 178 in Beirut, Lebanon, the final publication of which is still pending. It is the first in a new series, entitled Felix Berytus, established to publish the results of rescue excavations in the old city of Beirut undertaken during the reconstruction phase after the end of the civil war in Lebanon, with the stated aim of better understanding the urban development and cultural history of the ancient city of Berytus (1).

The work is aimed at glass specialists and will be especially helpful to graduate students with an interest in glass studies. It is unfortunate that this valuable book was published in German, presumably the decision of the editor of the series, Winfried Held. It may be hoped that future volumes will be in English, the Near East’s current lingua franca, or will at least include an English summary to ensure a wide dissemination.

Four short chapters introduce the reader to various aspects of the study. They include a short outline of the excavation in general and of the bath building in particular in whose ruins the glass was found (5-6), a concise description of the development of ancient glass production (7-10), an explanation of the methods used for the archaeological study of glass finds (11-12), and, finally, a description of the system used for recording the glass in this study (13-14).

The very long typological chapter that follows forms the bulk of the book, describing and analysing the glass in several subchapters. The vessel glass is divided by period: Hellenistic to Late Republican (15-26), Late Republican to Early Imperial (26-29), Mid-Imperial to Late Antique (29-36), and Late Antique to Early Byzantine (36-45). The following subchapters treat specific glass groups, such as goblets and lamps (46-60), fragments of glass vessels (60-62), glass jewellery (63-70), window glass (71-75) and varia such as tesserae, gaming counters, a spoon and glass waste (75-83).

Each of the subchapters begins with a brief description of the general production techniques for the glasses described in this part and the characteristics resulting from them. This is an unusual feature (most reports on glass in the Near East presume that the interested reader is already familiar with this material) and probably results from the fact that the book started its life as an MA thesis. It will undoubtedly be useful for many readers, as the author not only offers the relevant literature, but has also made drawings illustrating many of the techniques, which is a valuable aid in understanding them. This part is followed in each of the subchapters by a very thorough description of the finds, closing with a catalogue. The figures illustrating the catalogue were also drawn by the author herself and are interspersed throughout the text, making it easy to move between text and illustration.

Even though the author stresses that the aim of the book is the typological analysis of the glass finds (84), an attempt at analysing the distribution of the glass finds within the bathhouse is made (84). However, because the stratigraphic analysis of the excavation was not yet complete when the book went to press, this chapter is necessarily very short.

The building in area BEY 178 has been identified as a bathhouse, built in the mid-1st century AD and used — presumably with many alterations and modifications — until the earthquake of AD 551. After the earthquake, stones from the foundations and walls were partially robbed out (in addition to the valuable interior fittings from marble, glass, bronze and lead, one would imagine). According to Reinhard, the stratigraphy of the whole area was affected by deep and extensive disturbances. As a result (not uncommon in the Near East), the latest glass finds were not always in the uppermost layers, nor were the earliest finds in the lowest layers. Most of the layers contained just a single fragment; in rare cases that number rose to ten. The exceptions are four layers from a single robbed wall trench, in which up to 80 diagnostic fragments were found per layer. These seem to have been dumped in a single action, with no secondary displacement. Unfortunately, the author does not seem to have analysed this assemblage any further, although it would have been worthwhile to take a closer look at it, as it comes as near to a ‘closed context’ as possible in what otherwise must be described as accumulated rubbish that had been displaced several times. As the summary vaguely mentions the ‘unusually numerous Late Antique and Early Byzantine glass lamps, most of which were dumped in a single layer’ (86), it leaves the reader to wonder whether the assemblage in the four layers mentioned above may have consisted of these lamps. It is to be hoped that this assemblage will be analysed further after the publication of the stratigraphic report of the bathhouse.

On the whole, the spatial distribution of the glass finds seems to point towards material dumped in the bathhouse site after it was destroyed during the AD 551 earthquake and subsequently robbed of building materials. The glass was probably discarded in part as an element of larger amounts of material coming from various destroyed sites in the neighbourhood and elsewhere within the city and in part directly as rubbish. The use of ruined bathhouses in particular as places for rubbish dumps — presumably because of the large amounts of opus caementitium used in their structures, which does not lend it self to re-use and is difficult to remove — has been observed in so many instances both in the Mediterranean and the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire that it may be termed a common fate during the ‘Nachleben’ of these buildings.

The glass finds from area BEY 178 are exceptional in their wide chronological distribution, spanning a period from 550 BC to AD 1500. However, as they were small fragments found in displaced settlement waste, their identification is less secure than that of more complete glass finds from closed contexts (i.e. graves), a condition that the author stresses several times.

While the earliest glass finds are sporadic in character, the strong presence of Hellenistic monochromatic hemispherical or conical bowls is evidence of the large amount of these vessels present in Beirut, as they are also well represented in the report on glass from other areas by Jennings.1 Also noteworthy is the relative scarcity of finds from the early and mid-Roman periods, a phenomenon that has been similarly observed elsewhere in the Near East and whose reoccurrence in Beirut seems to prove it to be more widespread than has been thought. More than half of the identifiable sherds date to the Late Antique to Early Byzantine period (85), a peak in glass production that is fairly common in the Near East. The relatively small number of goblets and large number of glass lamps also date to this period. No Late Byzantine to Early Islamic vessels were identified, which is unusual for the region, but may be a result of the earthquake in AD 551.

Most of the finds are mass products of modest quality. Some, such as the unguentaria, small bottles, goblets and window panes, may well have originally been used in the bathhouse, as similar items have been found in other bathhouses. However, they may also come from nearby buildings, as the author surmises for the Late Antique and Early Byzantine glass lamps.

As no traces of earlier buildings were found in area BEY 178, while quite a large number of glass finds date from the period before the bathhouse was erected, the author concludes that the construction of the bathhouse must have destroyed earlier buildings. While this may be true, the sporadic nature and small number of these finds seem to indicate that these also may be termed settlement waste, which had been displaced several times from various nearby areas. The large number of finds dating to the period directly before the earthquake as well as the small number of finds of later date (up to the 14th/15th century) are proof of the use of the area as a dumping ground.

The book is a thorough typological study of a wide variety of glass finds typical for the Near East. Particularly commendable are the summaries of the production techniques of the various finds and the accompanying explanatory drawings. Even though the finds are displaced settlement waste, the author has investigated their spatial distribution and offered explanations for the occurrence of specific groups. The book is well illustrated with drawings of the finds and maps of the excavation area and has a table at the end giving the precise find location of the finds (which would have benefitted from having the headings on each page). The only noticeable error is a duplication of a sentence on page 11, so the volume may be termed admirably edited.

Notes

1. Jennings, S. 2004-5, Vessel Glass from Beirut. BEY 006, 007 and 045. Archaeology of the Beirut Souks 2 = Berytus 48-49.