BMCR 2024.02.10

‘To see a world in a grain of sand’: glass from Nubia and the ancient Mediterranean

, 'To see a world in a grain of sand': glass from Nubia and the ancient Mediterranean. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2023. Pp. 202. ISBN 9781803274492.



With a tip of the hat to William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in the title, this publication of Spedding’s doctoral research sets out to demonstrate how the chemical characteristics of Meroitic (ca. 350 BC to 350 AD) and X-Group/Ballana Culture/Early Nobadia (ca. 350 AD to 600 AD) period glass can illuminate a world of exchange and craftsmanship, showing the reader how it is indeed possible to ‘hold infinity in the palm of your hand.’ The glass production and trade narrative unfurled in the pages of this volume are accomplished through the chemical analysis of 373 vitreous artefacts recovered from excavations at Faras (n=237 beads), Meroe (n=71 vessel fragments), Gabati (n=53 beads), and Qasr Ibrim (n=12 beads) in what is today Sudan, along with comparative samples from Graeco-Roman Gebelein (n=13 beads) and Roman period El- Mustagidda (n=10 beads) in Egypt.

Chapter 1 draws the reader into the world of Nubian history, providing an initial overview of the region and its general history before narrowing the scope to focus on events of the Meroitic period. This chapter also serves to contextualize the world of ancient glass production and trade, elaborating upon numerous evocative examples of overland and maritime trade, in particular the importance of the Iulia Felix and Embiez shipwrecks, which shed light on the movement of glass products around the Mediterranean.

Having set the contextual stage, Chapter 2 proceeds to delineate the nature of glass analyses undertaken using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) combined with energy dispersive spectrometry (EDS), what they can and cannot tell us about past practices as well as the methodological nitty-gritty of how such analyses proceed from a practical and pragmatic standpoint. It is here in Chapter 2 that the sites from which the analyzed samples derive are introduced and discussed. As Spedding reports, these sites were selected for their geographic distribution and different roles of importance within the broader interconnected Meroitic-Mediterranean sphere, and because they yielded actual glass samples available for chemical analysis. The 373 analyzed samples forming the core of this volume are from several UK museums: the British Museum, Manchester Museum, Liverpool World Museum, National Museums Scotland, Garstang Museum, and the Petrie Museum. The analytical approach adopted is chemical, utilizing elemental analyses to gain insights to composition and production techniques.

Chapter 3 presents the results of the analyses, findings which are further supplemented through the inclusion of three appendices at the end of this volume. Chapter 3 establishes the types of glass production identified from the chemical analyses conducted (e.g., low-lead glass, high-lead glass, etc.).

Chapter 4 begins the contextualization of the results, focussing on low-lead glass, which is the main variety represented among the samples analyzed from three of the four sites comprising this study. Results are parsed in terms of what such chemical composition means for the production and distribution of glass products as well as how the samples analyzed fit within the broader Mediterranean realm, as ascertained through comparisons with published values from the sites of Pergamon (Turkey); Bubastis and Armant (Egypt); Butrint (Albania); Adria, Spina, and Bologna (Italy); Carthage (Tunisia); the Embiez Wreck (France); as well as Parthian Seleucia (Iraq). It is in Chapter 4 where the hypothesis of potential ‘primary production centres (PPCs),’ begins to be developed more fully.

Chapter 5 addresses the three remaining varieties of glass production identified, namely high-alumina mineral soda (mNA), high-lead, and so-called ‘high-silica,’ which is ultimately identified as a type of glassy faience. However, only high-lead and ‘high-silica’ analysis results are actually discussed in this volume, with high-alumina glass findings being noted as already having been presented in Spedding (2019).[1] Beyond the Mediterranean locales engaged with in Chapter 4, Chapter 5 introduces novel consideration of possible links, or influence, of high-lead Assyrian and Persian red glass. This glass variety is known primarily from contexts in ancient Assyria and Persia but the implications in regard to ancient Nubia remain unclear, in part due to the limited number of examples of this glass variety thus far identified. Comparative analyses with materials from Nimrud (Assyrian) and Persepolis (Persian) are integrated into Chapter 5 to further examine the implications of this glass type within Meroitic Nubian contexts.

Chapter 6 presents a brief summary of conclusions. But Spedding also provides numerous ‘where do we find ourselves now,’ interstitial concluding paragraphs throughout the various sections of the chapters in this volume. This approach has its benefits and drawbacks. On the beneficial side, such an approach helps to keep the reader grounded in what has just been discussed while it is fresh in mind, providing the opportunity to draw together many technical analyses and broader regional findings. The drawback of such an approach is that it scatters concluding statements across the volume, resulting in a pointillism that requires greater reconstruction of the broader synthesis from the dispersed dots of concluding remarks.

The three appendices provided following Chapter 6 present a mixture of quantitative tables and scatterplots. Appendix I addresses data from Egyptian glass results; Appendix II provides chemical plots comparing low-lead glass from Nubian contexts with published materials; while Appendix III presents comparisons with materials from Pergamon, Bubastis, and Butrint. The volume ends with the bibliography and URL links to find more information on British Museum collection details. The volume does not have an index.

The approach taken by Spedding is data forward. This volume, while contextualizing in its discussion, is driven by the consideration of chemical data. Readers of this volume will be most fully rewarded by the presentation of substantial raw data comparisons between the samples analyzed for this study and published values from numerous Mediterranean sites. A key through line is the question of possible ‘primary production centers (PPC)’ and whether glass production was undertaken by primary regional centers or can be understood as a more nuanced local enterprise. Ultimately, Spedding puts forth the argument that a suite of commonalities among the low-lead glass samples examined and those of other values known from various Mediterranean sites suggests that a more centralized primary production center model is indeed viable; however, the location of such a proposed center, or possibly centers, remains presently unknown. In the cases of high-lead glass and ‘glassy faience,’ Spedding’s findings suggest that such products may have been more locally produced.

Beyond simply identifying the chemical properties of glass samples analyzed for this study, Spedding brings forth a number of interesting quandaries of glass studies and potential additional benefits of employing chemical analyses, most notably around the question of glass recycling. Glass production and glass use are widely known in the ancient world, but the role of recycling and cullet utilisation remains comparatively unclear, both due to lacunae around this practice in written sources and from limitations in macroscopic identification of the practice. As Spedding demonstrates, chemical compositional analyses can be a useful route forward for demonstrating mixed glass components in the creation of new objects and for broadening discussions around recycled material use in antiquity.

The scope of this volume is decidedly Mediterranean in focus. Though this is understandable, it is surprising that the contextualization of glass from the Meroitic era deposits analyzed would be limited to only a Mediterranean focus. Spedding’s choice not to discuss high-alumina glass (as presented already in Spedding (2019)) is an interesting one. More than the absence of discussion around high-alumina glass, the absence of discussion of this material type from the present synthesis also effectively removes consideration of Indian Ocean trade, because the chemical characteristics of the high-alumina glass are typical of production in Southeast Asia, namely through connections with India. While trade via the Red Sea and associated discourse around sites like Berenike and Adulis, and acknowledgement of the broader Indian Ocean context are discussed at points, and signposts to appropriate literature are provided, they do not form an integral part of the analysis presented. Notwithstanding the existence of Spedding’s earlier study, it is somewhat problematic in a book length synthesis to omit a proportion of the analyzed assemblage. Alas, life and research must have limits and thus while not overall detrimental to the volume, the implications of the Indian Ocean trade to the glass samples analyzed for this study appear only as Fata Morgana among the pages of this volume.

On a separate regional front, Spedding presents an interesting breadcrumb while discussing the implications of Assyrian red glass, noting that “while Nubia may have been at the far end of these Mediterranean trade routes it is conceivable that it was an intermediary for glass of Mediterranean/Egyptian origin to enter further into Africa in exchange for the exotic African goods sought by Egypt and the Mediterranean” (p. 84). Such a statement brings forth numerous additional questions, particularly to what degree the Mediterranean/Egyptian glass trade is evident in sub-Saharan contexts? While glass is but one commodity, the supposition put forth by Spedding touches on several larger questions around regional dynamics, mobility, and connectivity in the ancient world. In terms of the geographic position of Nubia, being situated between a multiplicity of culturally diverse neighboring regions, a plethora of questions around regional inter-connectivity, both for glass and beyond, come forward. Interactions and connections with neighboring Axumite cultural contexts to the east, the Chad basin to the west, and populations south of modern Khartoum remain comparatively little examined and less well understood. As the compartmentalization of Mediterranean vs. Egyptian vs. Nubian vs. Axumite/post-Axumite Ethiopian vs. Sub-Saharan African vs. Indian Ocean schools of archaeological discourse continues to erode and (inter-) regional connectivity continues to develop as the broader basis of syntheses moving forward, this topic of resources flowing into and through Nubia as a central node of interest will surely become all the more intriguing and illuminating.

This volume will be a welcome addition to any university library and archaeological research institute, but this is not an introductory volume, nor is it a volume targeted at a general readership. The technical documentary evidence presented by Spedding will be most useful to researchers engaged in the study of ancient glass production and trade, particularly at a chemical level, as well as archaeologists focussing on Mediterranean regions. The sheer amount of raw data presented also stands to make this contribution an invaluable comparative resource for further examining other areas of the Mediterranean world and beyond through ‘a grain of sand.’



[1] Spedding, J. V., 2019. “Indian Glass in Ancient Nubia.” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 22:11–27.