Bryan and Roman glass
The week kicked off first thing on Monday morning with a Roman glass ‘gig’ ,playing to Manchester Museum’s Visitor Services Assistants in the third of the Ancient Worlds galleries.
We started off in the Egypt gallery where I showed the assistants some pieces of 19th Dynasty ancient Egyptian glass dating from the time of Ramesses II (1295-1186) to make the point that although glass starts off, as so many other things, in Mesopotamia, knowledge of the craft spread to Egypt, where the glass making industry had the advantage of extensive natron or sodium deposits that were used as a flux in the manufacture of glass. Glass was popular with the elite ruling class of the pharonic court.
An unguentarium in the hand…
We then moved upstairs to consider the later history of glass, when it was taken up by the Romans. The Romans annexed Syria in 63 BC and skilled workers moved to Italy in the 1st century BC. The invention of quicker and chepaer ways of working glass by glass-blowing, the Roman peace (pax Romana) established under Augustus following the Civil Wars, the resumption of long distance trade and return of business confidence, all stimulated the glass-making industry. Mass production of glass vessels became possible in a fraction of the time it had taken previously thanks to the glass-blowing technique. Strabo refers to a glass vessel costing a copper coin (Geographica XIV.2 ). The equivalent pieces in glass came to replace a wide range of ceramic vessels. In many ways glass vessels were preferred because they were clean and hygienic, didn’t smell and didn’t affect the taste of foodstuffs or beverages that were stored or served in them. Despite the widespread recycling of broken glass which was melted down and re-used (Martial Epigrams 1, 41), the generic name for Roman rubbish comes from the Latin for broken glass ( vitrea fracta for ‘rubbish’ in Petronius’ Satyricon 10) so sites must have been littered with broken shards.
VSAs in the Ancient Worlds gallery
Most of Manchester Museum’s Roman glass collection consists of small perfume bottles or unguentaria that are most likely to have come from tombs in the eastern Mediterranean. Typically they are tall and narrow in shape which helped prevent evaporation of the contents. Having a wider or bulbous base helped to keep the centre of gravity low down and so prevent the vesels falling over accidentally. They are sometimes referred to as lachrymatories after the erroneous belief that they were used by mourners to gather their tears and placed in the tomb. However, tests of surviving substances in the vessels have shown them to be oil-based perfumes and unguents. Some vessels even have a pronounced ‘kick’ underneath to reduce the volume of the contents so that only a token offering was made by the mourners.
Sadly there are no examples of early mosaic glass nor the later cage-glass vessels in the Manchester collection. I finished off by showing the VSAs the glass inkwell that I have already discussed on this blog. Everyone clapped when I finished so I guess a good time was had by all. Thank you to Rowena who took the photographs.
Caitlin working on the Roman glass collection at the Manchester Museum
I am very grateful to both the Roman Society and The Manchester Museum for giving me an excellent opportunity to work in such an interesting Museum and at such an exciting time: whilst completing my placement at Manchester I was fortunate enough to assist in the final stages of the opening of the new exhibition Ancient Worlds. It was very exciting to see many of the objects and collections I had worked on a few months before finally go on display in this amazing exhibition (you can find out more about Caitlin’s work in the post ‘A Fake Lamp’ on the Ancient Worlds Blog).
Glass display for the Ancient Worlds third gallery
One of the largest collections of objects I worked on came from a metal detector, and included buttons, bells, buckles, toy canons and even a large medieval key. After cataloguing, numbering and photographing this huge collection I was able to appreciate the value of donations and loans from metal detecting clubs and individuals, which bring a wide variety of finds to the Museum. This particular collection was quite extensive, though there was little information about where things came from. Coming from an archaeology background this was quite frustrating as the information the collection could offer was limited. However photographing the objects in the respective groups and then finally seeing them in the exhibition it gave me a chance to understand that the aesthetic appeal of objects to the public almost equalled their historic value to archaeologists.
I was also able to see how one collection of objects was prepared for the exhibition and added to the digital app database: the collection was a large group of Roman glass with over a 100 items including vases, flasks and drinking vessels, they came from various sites in Europe. The artefacts were arranged in the stores and then individually examined by one of the conservation team, the iridescent shine of some of the glass was actually a result of decay and corrosion. A mock-up of the display was created in the store and photographs were taken of each shelf and blown up to A3, which I then annotated with accession numbers. This allowed the installation team to recreate the display in the gallery without starting again from scratch and it saved time. This task required a steady hand as the glass was extremely fragile and the odd, tall shapes made it difficult to keep moving the objects safely. After recording the accession numbers of the glass vessels I added to them to a database along with their descriptions; the idea of a more digitally interactive exhibition was fascinating. It was an excellent opportunity to see how modern exhibitions make use of current technology to cater for a new generation of visitors.
My time at Manchester was very enjoyable and this placement was an amazing opportunity for me. I would like to thank the Society for the Promotion of Roman studies for funding me and I would like to thank Bryan Sitch the Deputy Head of Collections and Curator of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum for enabling me to experience working in the Museum and for involving me in the new exhibition.