According to the ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), Phoenician merchants moored on the river Belus discovered glass accidentally in Syria around 5,000 BC. Pliny describes how by leaving cooking pots on blocks of nitrate near their fire, the merchants discovered glass as the blocks melted and mixed with the sand of the beach to form a non-transparent liquid. However the first glass objects, mainly beads, date back to around 3,500 BC in Mesopotamia. Phoenician merchants and sailors later spread the glass making techniques throughout the Mediterranean.
Ancient Roman Glassware
Roman glass objects have been recovered across the Roman Empire in domestic, industrial and funerary contexts. Ancient Roman glassware includes some of the finest pieces of art ever produced in antiquity and the very best were valued higher than wares made with precious metals. The Romans loved glass for its practical as well as decorative uses.
How Was Ancient Roman Glass Made?
Ancient Roman glass was made by mixing two ingredients, silica and soda. Silica is actually sand which is made of quartz. To make the silica melt at a lower temperature, the Romans used soda, sodium carbonate. The source of soda during this period was natron, a type of salt found in dry lakebeds, usually imported from Egypt. Glassmakers would also use a stabiliser such as lime or magnesia. Lime was the primary stabiliser and it was naturally present in beach sand. Roman glassmakers would also use colorants giving the glass a specific colour.
Glassblowing & Translucent Glass
The 1st century AD marked a revolution in glass production technology with the introduction of glass blowing. Glassblowing was invented by Syrian craftsmen from Sidon and Babylon between 27 BC and 14 AD. The ancient Romans copied the technique consisting of blowing air into molten glass with a blowpipe making it into a bubble. The resulting inflated glass was thinner, more viscous and easier to work with than the initial thicker glass. With glass blowing, glass became thinner, colourless and translucent.
Iridescendence in Roman Glassware
The iridescence, which can be admired on the surface of Roman glassware, was unintentional and was caused by the weathering on the surface. The weathering of a glass object depends mainly on burial conditions of the item and on the chemistry of it. These conditions are humidity, heat and the type of soil the glass was buried in.
The most common form of Roman glass vessel was the unguentarium. Unguentaria were extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire, since they contained perfume and oil, considered precious at the time and often used both in private life and public ceremonies. Samples are found frequently at Greek Hellenistic and Roman sites, especially in cemeteries. This is because the ancients believed that the beauty routines, in which both sexes partook and for which such beautiful vessels were required, would continue into the afterlife.
Used for storing perfumed oils and other expensive cosmetic liquids and powders, ‘balsamaria’ were some of the most common items of blown glass in ancient Rome. They were made in a variety of materials, although glass is the most common variety found. Similarly to unguentaria they were commonly found at grave sites, buried with the deceased. Evidence found from these samples suggests that not only perfumes were held in them but oils and wine, acting as a last toast to the deceased.