The History of Ancient Glass

Ancient Glass of Asia Minor


The Bronze Age

The discovery of how to make glass was probably made in the Bronze Age towards the end of the third millennium B.C. Archaeological evidence suggests that the discovery took place in Mesopotamia and, in all probability, occurred as the result of the use there of vitreous glazes and faience-for beads, tiles, pottery and other articles. The earliest glass-makers produced substitutes for semi-precious and precious stones, hence almost all early glass is opaque and brightly coloured. Beads were the most common items produced, although cylinder seals, rods, inlays and other small objects were also made. All of this early glass-ware was worked when cold, using various cutting techniques adapted largely from those used by stone-cutters.

Glass vessels do not make their appearance until the late sixteenth century B.C. The distribution of finds indicates that the first examples of glass vessels were probably made in northern Mesopotamia in the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni, although the earliest datable example comes from the site of Atchana (ancient Alalakh) on the plain of Antioch near the modern Turkish border with Syria. The vessels were almost invariably made by using the core-forming technique and take the form of small bottles, beakers and goblets. The creation of vessels represented a major advance in glass technology, for it involved the manipulation of the glass while still hot. The homogeneity of the core-formed glasses indicates that they were probably made at a small number of centres that were in close contact with one another. Workshops were based at major cities or attached to religious centres where the glass-makers enjoyed royal or priestly patronage. Little change can be detected in the vessel shapes between the late sixteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. This may also be taken to indicate the ritual and conventional role that glass played in Late Bronze Age society.

Not long after the first appearance of core-formed vessels, glass-workers developed techniques for casting mosaic glass to form goblets, bowls and plaques. As with core-forming, mosaic casting seems to have been associated with the Hurrian areas of northern Mesopotamia. In addition to vessels, a wide variety of glass objects were manufactured-beads, seals, pendants, jewellery and furniture inlays, and even small figurines.

Within a short time Mesopotamian glass products and the knowledge of how to make them were exported to other major centres of Late Bronze Age civilisation. Of these the most important was the kingdom of Egypt. Although the initial inspiration for the Egyptian industry came from abroad, native craftsmen soon developed their own types of glass-ware. This industry reached full maturity under the royal patronage of the pharaoh Amenhotep III in the first half of the fourteenth century B.C. Archaeological remains from that period attest to large- scale production, high technical competence and permanent factory installations. The Egyptians clearly recognised the inherent qualities of glass as an inert, odourless material. So, their glass vessels were mostly small closed containers- flasks, jugs, amphoriskoi, krateriskoi, jars and kohl tubes, all derived from the shapes of traditional Egyptian pottery, faience and stone-ware vessels. They were used for storing aromatic oils, scented unguents and costly incense, as well as more mundane articles such as cosmetics and medicines. In addition to vessels, the Egyptian industry engaged in the production of glass objects, principally inlays in opaque colours for furniture, funeral paraphernalia, shrines and large-scale architectural elements.

The evidence for the production of glass vessels elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age is as yet inconclusive. Even if Syrians and Cypriots were not producing vessels of their own, closely related to Egyptian types, it is likely that they were taking an active part in the manufacture of raw glass and in the trade in both ingots and finished products. It is certain, however, that the Mycenaean Greeks developed a native glass industry, the main product of which was small cast appliqués.

The Iron Age

In the eleventh century BC a dark age spread across the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, bringing a sharp decline in civilisation and prosperity. The disruption to trade that ensued severely affected the glass industry. After the collapse of the great empires of the Late Bronze Age, there was a lengthy gap in glass production in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. No firm evidence has yet been found to prove that glass was being produced during the Early Iron Age. Although it does not disappear completely from the archaeological record, glass is extremely rare in the period between the twelfth and eighth centuries B.C. But this is not to say that glass was completely unknown. Literary evidence for glass-making has been found both in Middle Babylonian cuneiform texts and in Neo-Assyrian tablets from Nineveh. It is assumed that these texts offer a thread of continuity stretching across the four-century gap in the archaeological record. Early glass objects, too, were kept as precious keepsakes and heirlooms during this period, as is shown by the finds of mosaic glass in the citadel at Hasanlu, which was destroyed in the late ninth century B.C.

When glass-making does re-emerge, the products appear in a variety of new forms and with different functions and techniques. Very little remains, however, to indicate the presence of early glass factories in Mesopotamia or elsewhere in western Asia. A fragment of an opaque turquoise blue 'segmental' glass ingot was found in the N.W. Palace at Nimrud and seems to date from the seventh century BC, but other ingots from Nimrud, in opaque red glass, are probably not earlier than the Achaemenid period.

The earliest use of glass on a large scale in the first millennium BC occurred on Phoenician ivories. The glass was used as an inlay for embellishing and accentuating details of figures and floral designs and gave the ivory a polychrome appearance. They include both monochrome and mosaic-glass inlays, and they date from the first half of the eighth century BC. It has been suggested that the monochrome inlay pieces were cast by the ivory carvers themselves, while the mosaic-glass inlays, since their preparation required considerable skill and training, were probably made by specialist glass-makers. It remains uncertain whether the two types of inlay were made by Phoenician craftsmen from local sources or, alternatively, were imported either in a raw or in a finished state from elsewhere.

Glass vessels make their reappearance soon after the initial production of the ivory inlays. In Mesopotamia this took the form of a revival of the core-formed industry of the Late Bronze Age. Its recommencement has been dated to the second half of the eighth century B.C. These core-formed vessels were apparently not as highly prized as the cast and cut vessels to be discussed below, since they occur more frequently in private graves than in association with the royal palaces. The vessels were, however, exported in the seventh century BC to Iran and numerous examples of a local Neo-Elamite industry at Susa are clear imitations of the Mesopotamian types. Other isolated core-formed vessels have been found at the Urartian site of Karmir Blur, as well as in Syria and Palestine.

A significant number of core-formed alabastra have been found on the island of Rhodes. This suggests that either they reached Rhodes from Mesopotamia or they were produced in Rhodes by migrant Mesopotamian craftsmen. Rhodes, indeed, became the main centre of production for core-formed vessels in the mid-sixth century BC, and it was probably from there that the craft spread through the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.
By far the most interesting type of the Iron Age glass-ware, in terms of technique, decoration and intrinsic value, is the group of cast and cut vessels. They differ considerably from glass vessels of the Bronze Age in their appearance and method of manufacture. The vessels were cast in moulds, probably by the lost-wax technique and then finished by grinding, cutting, drilling and polishing-techniques borrowed from the makers of stone vessels. Luxury metal and stone vessels frequently served as prototypes not only for shape, but also for the horizontal grooves and ridges that characterize some of the vessels. In contrast to the majority of earlier glass, these were monochrome vessels, usually made in translucent, almost colourless or light greenish glass. The glass-makers were evidently imitating rock-crystal or transparent semi-precious stones and not the opaque lapis lazuli or turquoise that had attracted craftsmen in the second millennium BC. This preference for translucent glass shows, most importantly, a new awareness of the special qualities of the substance with which they worked.

The largest and most important group of cast vessels comes from the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud. The Sargon Vase provides a terminus ante quem of 705 BC for the beginning of these cast and cut luxury glass vessels, although most of the Nimrud fragments were found in the debris of the 612 BC destruction. In addition to the plain bowls, some pieces have superb wheel-cut decoration and two fragments of another bowl reveal inlaid and painted decoration. These stand as examples of the consummate skill of the glass-makers of the time, combining the use of lost-wax casting, cutting, painting and mosaic-glass inlaying. At a somewhat lower level of craftsmanship, there are a small number of glass cosmetic palettes from Palestine, notably from the site of Megiddo. They closely resemble the stone palettes that are relatively common in the same area; Megiddo itself has yielded thirty-five such examples. There is no evidence that glass was made in Palestine in the eighth to seventh centuries BC. The glass used for making the palettes is similar to that used for the cast and cut vessels described above. These, too, are believed to be the products of Phoenician craftsmen, as indeed the stone and occasional faience palettes are thought to be.

Although it has long been recognised that these vessels form a coherent group with a fairly well-defined chronology, the place of origin has been the subject of much controversy. The industry should be attributed to Phoenicia or, in the case of the Nimrud pieces, to Phoenician craftsmen working for the royal palaces in Assyria. So, it would appear that the Phoenicians played a major role in the production of glass in the Iron Age. The eclectic nature of Phoenician art is reflected in the ability of its glass-makers to supply a luxury product to a variety of different markets.

The Classical Period

Between the sixth and first centuries BC the largest share of glass production was devoted to the making of core-formed vessels. These were almost exclusively small bottles intended for holding scented oils, unguents, perfumes and cosmetics. The bottles and their contents became part of everyday life; they were used in the home, were offered as votives at sanctuaries to the gods and were used at funerals to anoint the dead. Their shapes consciously imitate those of Greek pottery but they stand out from them because of their brilliant colouring and vivid patterns.

Three successive periods of production have been identified, each delineated by a new repertory of forms, decorative motifs, handle forms and colour combinations. The bottles circulated widely in the lands bordering the Mediterranean, but no factory site has yet been discovered and thus it remains uncertain where precisely they were made. Various locations have been suggested-Rhodes, Cyprus, southern Italy and the coastal cities of Phoenicia. It is likely, in fact, that there were a number of different centres, each producing its own variants.

In the fifth century BC a new industry, using the lost-wax technique, started production under the auspices of the Achaemenid Persians. It specialised in finely made luxury tableware whose shapes and cut decoration were modelled on those of metal vessels. Most of this tableware was made from a colourless glass in direct imitation of rock crystal. The largest known assemblage of Persian glass-ware was recovered from the treasury at Persepolis, the royal palace destroyed in 331 BC during Alexander the Great's conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. Other examples have been found in disparate and far-flung locations. It has, therefore, been difficult to determine whether the industry was based in the Persian heartland, or in one of the western satrapies, or even in a Greek city on the periphery of the Empire. However, the close correlation between the glass vessels and Persian silverware combined with the evidence from Persepolis, shows clearly that the industry, wherever it was located, depended heavily on the patronage of the Achaemenid court.

The Hellenistic Period

In the Hellenistic world there were two main centres of glass-making, the Syrian coast and Alexandria, the capital of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt. In Syria production of the traditional core-formed unguent bottles was sustained until the first century BC. In addition, a prolific series of cast bowls were produced. The vessels were often decorated with cut lines or grooves and, on later types, with a row of knobs or short ribs around the exterior of the body. At Alexandria, on the other hand, glasses of a more elaborate and technically sophisticated character were made. These cast and cut vessels come in a greater variety of shapes and display a highly individual, artistic quality. The glass-makers at Alexandria also developed the skill of making mosaic and sandwich gold-glass. All of these are represented in the so-called Canosa Group of glass table ware, which may be dated to the second half of the third century BC. They attest to the first concerted effort by ancient glass-makers to manufacture complete dinner services from glass. Like Achaemenid glass, this tableware was much influenced by the prevailing styles of pottery and metal vessels. It is clear, however, that glass was gaining greater recognition as an attractive and colourful alternative, especially to silver serving and drinking vessels.

Although glass vessels from both Syria and Alexandria were traded widely-examples reached Italy and South Russia, as well as Asia Minor-their manufacture was a laborious and costly process. Consequently, glass-ware remained a relatively scarce and expensive item, and the industry still depended heavily on the patronage of the wealthy, whether leading citizens of Greek cities or members of Hellenistic royal families.

The Roman Period

The Roman glass industry was founded on the inspiration and expertise provided by glass-makers from the Hellenistic world. It rapidly developed, however, into an independent and innovative enterprise that further spread the art of making glass vessels beyond the Mediterranean basin to western Europe and elsewhere. As it grew, it furnished the ancient consumer for the first time with inexpensive, mass-produced glass-ware. The principal impetus to this industry came from the timely and fortuitous invention of glass-blowing. However, this technological advance by itself was not sufficient reason for the sudden transformation of glass from a rare luxury to a commonplace article. Other factors played an important role. The first was the enormous expansion of trade that occurred in the early imperial period, coupled with the increase in prosperity heralded by the restoration of peace under Augustus. The second is to be connected with the Roman campaigns in the East in the first century BC. The annexation of Syria and increasing Roman involvement in the affairs of Palestine and Egypt brought the Romans into direct contact with those very regions where glass-making had long been established and was still very much active.

Just as the Romans developed under Augustus a taste for marble in civic architecture, it could be argued that at about the same time they acquired a passionate appetite for glass-ware. Their preference was not restricted only to vessels and receptacles but extended also to the use of glass for interior decoration in mosaics, panelling and revetments.

The Romans were the first people to appreciate fully the functional uses of glass as a covering for windows and, when backed with a metal (gold or silver) foil, as a reflective material. Glass windows and mirrors are so much a part of the modern world that, as a consequence, it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of these innovations. They also tend to be overshadowed by the appearance of stunning new forms of tableware and utilitarian vessels in the early imperial period. Yet the glass mosaics, panelling and windows were probably as ubiquitous and indispensable in the Roman world as the glass bottle. In short, the Romans were capable of recognising all the qualities of glass that are today so much taken for granted. The Romans were, it seems, eager to try out all sorts of novelties and experiments. For the nascent Roman glass industry this inquisitiveness, coupled with their ability to indulge their acquisitive tastes, stimulated an unheralded flowering in the art of glass. New forms, techniques colours and applications were eagerly adopted. Their appreciation of the various properties of glass is echoed in the relatively scarce references to it in contemporary literature. Perhaps most revealing is the story told by Trimalchio of a craftsman who presented to the Emperor Tiberius a glass bowl that would not break and could be hammered back into shape if it got dented. The glass-maker expected to be rewarded for his 'invention'; instead, the emperor ordered him to be executed, fearing that if the secret became common knowledge gold would lose all its value. The story well illustrates the high prestige of glass in the early first century AD and the mood of innovation and experimentation that permeated Roman society at that time. Unfortunately, the story has been more frequently used by modern scholars to argue that the Roman world had no interest in technical progress, greater efficiency and increased productivity. The evidence of the Roman glass industry speaks strongly against such a view.

Because of its size and complexity, it is possible to identify certain salient aspects of the Roman glass industry. First, a clear distinction is to be drawn between types of glass, especially with regard to vessels. So, some were patently made as luxury items and were regarded in antiquity, just as today, as works of art. Cameo glass, for example, undoubtedly falls into this category. These highly prized objects may or may not have had a functional use. At a slightly lower level stands a second class of vessels, the finely made and often elaborately decorated tableware. Many of the signed mould-blown vessels can be assigned to this group. Below them come the more mundane but still attractive containers-the jugs, flasks and bottles that could be used for both serving and storage. Finally, one has the mass of utilitarian vessels, typified by the plain, cheaply produced perfume bottle.
This wide range of products reflects the various markets for which the glass industry catered. At one end of the scale one must envisage a clientele comprising the very highest strata of Roman society. Indeed, it has recently been argued that such exquisite pieces as the Portland Vase were made for the imperial family itself. Likewise, one example of the late Roman vasa diatreta, the (now destroyed) Strasbourg cage-cup, bore the name of the Emperor Maximian (AD 287-305). At the other end of the scale are the glasses that, in the words of the Augustan writer Strabo, "could be purchased for a copper coin". Some bottles, in fact, may be regarded as disposable containers, and it is certainly true that glass more or less supplanted various types of Roman commonware pottery.

A third aspect that may be considered is the distribution of the industry. It has commonly been supposed that there was a number of major production centres in Syria, Egypt, Italy and the Rhineland. On the other hand, a cursory acquaintance with the blown glass of the Roman world makes it quite clear that practically every region must have possessed its own glass-houses, at least from the end of the first century AD onwards. This apparent contradiction is resolved by distinguishing between the different categories of product, as described above. Thus most of the utilitarian glass vessels were undoubtedly made locally, possibly by itinerant craftsmen using temporary facilities. The ephemeral nature of their activities may help to explain why so few glass workshops have been identified at archaeological sites. Likewise, because of their limited distribution, the common domestic wares display a great variety of form. Despite their simple and often careless manufacture, they are extremely difficult to classify, both geographically and chronologically. So, at the lowest level the popularity of glass led to the fragmentation of the glass industry. Even in remote provinces such as Britain there was a minor glass industry by the third century AD.

The better quality wares, however, were produced at established factories, some of which were able to proclaim their existence by the use of stamped moulds. For these 'middle-of-the-range' products subtle differences between the common shapes and styles of decoration can be used as identifying characteristics of regional groupings. The vessels then circulated within a given area, and only in exceptional circumstances would one expect to find them elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is a general homogeneity to Roman glass that implies fairly constant contact between the various centres of production. It is likely that this interrelationship was fostered mainly by the migration of craftsmen from one part of the Empire to another. There is, for example, abundant epigraphic evidence to suggest that many Syrians and Egyptians moved to the West to carry on a number of different professions and trades, including glass-making.

Finally, it is apparent that luxury glass was made in a small number of highly specialised workshops. It has been suggested elsewhere that silver picture plates reflect the universality of interests and tastes among the elite of late antique society. As with silver, luxury glass-ware was owned by members of the Roman nobility, whose material surroundings mirrored their common social and cultural background.Indeed, it could be argued that the far- flung distribution of late Roman glass such as cameo vessels and cage-cups (diatreta), two very closely related types, replicates on another level the ability of this social class to travel freely from one end of the Empire to the other. Significantly, the evidence adduced by Harden for long-distance trade in glass vessels relates to another type of luxury product, the fine colourless glass bowls with facet-cut and wheel-engraved decoration.

A dominant theme running through this brief survey of the history of ancient glass has been the important role played by wealthy patrons. Glass was often produced in workshops under direct royal patronage or was designed to cater for the needs of rich private clients. Yet, from the earliest times, man has used glass as a cheaper alternative to precious stone and metal artefacts. Until the Roman period practically all glass manufacture was geared to producing imitations of stone, metalwork and pottery. The fascination of glass is, therefore, something of an enigma. Unlike natural semi-precious stones, it was not durable, although it had the same qualities of translucency, smoothness and cleanliness. Whereas silver plate could be converted into 'cash', glass was a material of transient value. Again, glass was unlike pottery in that, once broken, it could be collected and re-melted. Glass has other qualities, too. It is malleable when hot and can be carved when cold; so, it permits craftsmen to employ a range of skills and produce a wide variety of different shapes, colours and decorative features. It imparts no taste or smell; it is thus an ideal container and, when sealed, can preserve contents for a considerable time. It is relatively light in weight and can be transported in a number of different forms as raw glass, finished products or as scrap. Culled glass has little intrinsic value, for it relies on the skills of the glass-maker to turn the glass into a thing of commercial worth or use. Trade in glass was, therefore, directed to specific outlets in antiquity and was not subject to the same dangers as, for example, the movement of precious metals.

The discovery of glass-making enabled man to exploit a material that could be used for countless different purposes and in every imaginable form. The appeal of glass throughout antiquity was without doubt based on its practical virtues, but it may also be linked to the fact that it is an artificial, man-made substance. Its mystery lay in the specialised skills that were needed to produce the raw material and then to work it into attractive but highly serviceable objects. In the Roman period the invention of glass-blowing brought the products of this exclusive industry within the reach of 'the ordinary man in the street'. No longer was it a luxury item, although the wealthy undoubtedly retained a liking for high-quality pieces. So, it might be said that glass was a great leveller. The ubiquity of glass on the Roman archaeological sites is testimony to its ability to span the gap between the disparate geographical and social elements of the Roman Empire.