In an earlier Blog about material from Roman Manchester that is going in the new Ancient Worlds displays I mentioned what was described by the finds specialist in the site excavation report as ‘…a fine obsidian ring… with a spiral inlay of millefiori glass…’ I hinted that there was more to say about this later.
No-one has picked up on this throwaway comment but I realised that I hadn’t explained what I meant when I revisited some of the earlier Blogs this morning. When I found the ring in the store I thought there was something odd about it. It was glassy but not glass-like even though it has a thread of millefiori or multi-coloured glass inlayed in its surface. Somehow it seemed, well, organic. I showed it to the Portable Antiquities Finds Liaison Officer, Frances McIntosh, who was covering for a colleague on maternity leave and she identified it as amber.
Britain would have had access to amber through trade with Scandinavia. Roman writers like the Elder Pliny knew where amber came from. The material could even be picked up on the North East coast where it is washed up by the tides. Amber does float in water, though we didn’t want to put this piece to the test by dunking it! So what was first thought to be volcanic glass or obsidian turns out to be amber but with an inlay of multi-coloured glass. It seems like a strange thing to do and whoever did it must have been very skilful in handling the hot glass whilst it was still plastic and applying it to a recess in the surface of the amber. And that without breaking the amber in the process.
I’ve not come across this before. Whether there was a specialism in decorating amber like this is impossible to say. It does go to show the benefit of looking at museum collections with fresh eyes. You never know what you’ll find.