The Long 'Roman' Glass Industry

Start: Nov 20, 2017 04:00 PM

Location: Room 612, UCL Institute of Archaeology

Roman glass

Ian Freestone will give the seventh seminar in the Term I Institute of Archaeology Research Seminar series highlighting current research at the Institute on 20 November.

Institute of Archaeology Research Seminars take place on Mondays from 4pm, in Room 612 of the Institute.


By the latter part of the first millennium BCE, glassmakers on the Levantine coast were making their glass from a mixture of coastal sand and naturally occurring soda (“natron”) from Egypt. This raw glass was made in large tank furnaces on a scale of many tonnes and shipped in lumps around the ancient world, where it was re-melted and converted into artefacts. This extremely efficient mode of production allowed a significant up-scaling of the glass industry, accommodating developments in shaping processes such as slumping and blowing, and allowing the furnishing of individual large Roman public buildings with many tens of tonnes of glass window and mosaic. So-called natron glass dominated production until the eighth-ninth centuries, when new types of glass based upon the use of the ashes of burnt plants and trees instead of natron become dominant in the Mediterranean and in northwestern Europe.

Our understanding of the structure of the glass industry has moved forward mainly due to evidence from excavation of production sites combined with the compositional analysis of glass using geochemical techniques. It is possible to distinguish at least nine compositional groups representing different primary production centres in the eastern Mediterranean and their durations range from several hundred years to as little as a few decades. Evidence for the production of raw glass in Europe is at best ambiguous, suggesting that this may not have occurred at all. Some regions appear to have preferentially received specific types of glass, potentially providing insights into contact and trade. However, distribution patterns may also reflect consumer choice; recently we have discussed evidence that some raw glass was deliberately tinted to distinguish it from others – a form of commodity branding. Evidence for recycling is frequent and by the ninth century CE the stripping of glass from large buildings appears to have occurred. On a different scale, individual production events (“sets” or “batches”) can be identified, allowing intentionality and use to be inferred.


Term I Institute Research Seminar Series 2017-18

All welcome!

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