In the archaeology collection of Manchester Museum is a mysterious glass vessel (0.9251/1282) variously said on the documentation to be ‘English and possibly 18th century’ (with question marks against both date and provenance!) and Roman.
I’ve seen ceramic Roman ink-wells and even an enamel-decorated bronze inkwell and this piece has the familiar down-turned internal rim designed to prevent spillage of the ink found on those objects. In addition the suspension loops on this example are reminiscent of the dolphin-shaped glass flourishes that sometimes serve as decoration and handles on vessels of Roman date. However, the thickness and heaviness of the glass and the hexagonal shape all seemed a bit, well, un-Roman. I made a mental note in passing that it was an oddity and got on with other priorities.
Then, on one of my occasional visits to the British Museum I browsed the Roman glass section and there on the shelf in a display case was a similar example, rounded rather than hexagonal, and dated about AD 50 with the label ‘Perhaps used as an ink well’.
Mystery solved you might have thought but it still didn’t seem quite right to me. Sometimes you get a feeling about objects and so I was intrigued to find similar examples in Glass from Islamic Lands, a catalogue of the Al-Sabah Collection in the Kuwait National Museum by Stefano Carboni (Thames and Hudson, 2001), pp.142-3. Although the museum was badly damaged during the Iraqi invasion of 1990 and the collections looted, much (but not all) was recovered and the museum has some absolutely stunning Islamic glass vessels.
The catalogue stresses (and I’m quoting from the catalogue here) that the study of undecorated glass vessels and fragments is as vital to an understanding of Islamic glass as that of elaborately embellished objects. In this respect these glass inkwells were very important because calligraphy is of the most celebrated and best-known areas of Islamic art production. Glass was used because the use of precious metals for inkwells and pen boxes was prohibited. Plain glass vessels were used for writing purposes in scriptoria, manuscript production and letter-copying centres.
However, the catalogue talks about the inkwells having a glass tube inserted in the centre and being attached to the opening of the vessel by a wide rim that overlaps the opening and thus seals the rim. The inserted tube was meant to prevent the ink from splashing and to be easy to clean. If there was an inserted glass tube in the Manchester Museum example it is now missing. In fact the down-turned internal rim makes it very unlikely there was an internal tube on the Manchester Museum example.
The suspension rings on Islamic inkwells, which vary in number between one and six, were used to hang the inkwell from the scribe’s left wrist. This must have been a bit uncomfortable because the glass inkwells tend to have thick walls and to be rather heavy. The catalogue says they may have been hung from a belt or suspended from a bracket on the wall. The examples published in the catalogue are dated to the 9th-10th century.
I am grateful to Irit Narkiss, Conservator at Manchester Museum, for bringing in her copy of Ancient Glass in the Israel Museum by Yael Israeli (The Israel Museum, 2003) which shows the familiar squat heavy glass inkwell with cylindrical body and a single small handle rising to the shoulder (no.452, p.345).
Having almost, but not quite, convinced myself the Manchester inkwell was Islamic, I contacted Prof Jenny Price, the well-known Roman glass expert. I bumped into her at a Yorkshire Archaeology Society Council meeting recently. She was fairly confident the Manchester example was Roman and that it came from the North Western provinces. She suggested they might not have served solely as inkwells. I find the external similarity of the Islamic to the Roman inkwells striking. I don’t suppose there’s any question of the North Western provinces somehow providing a model for the design of glass inkwells in the Islamic World? It does seem very unlikely. What is known about the origins of the Islamic glass inkwell? Or is it simply another example of different cultures coming up with a similar design solution to a common challenge in very different locations geographically and at different times in history?
How did the Manchester Museum come by its glass inkwell? The label gives the accession number as 0.9251/1282 and says it is from the A.F.Warden collection. The locality is given as ‘England?’. Manchester Museum acquired Mr Arnold Forrester Warden’s collection of antiquities in 1963-4. Mr Warden was a sculptor who showed some of his work at Manchester Art Gallery in 1949-51. Mr Warden’s interests included the Mediterranean region, tropical Africa and the Near and Far East, and his collection, now largely in the Manchester Museum’s Living Cultures collection, includes pieces from all these areas. Mrs K. Forrester later gave a bequest in memory of her husband.
I am most grateful to The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, in Kuwait for permission to reproduce the image of the glass inkwell; to Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures at Manchester Museum, for supplying details from the Warden collection card index; and to Prof. Jenny Price for her comments.