Published: December 19, 2000
With Glass, the Bowers Museum Reflects of Roman Cultural Change
SANTA ANA, CALIF. – “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change,” a traveling exhibition opening at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art on February 24, illustrates how the craft of glassmaking was influenced by historical events and changing social values in the ancient Roman world. Organized by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the exhibition features more than 200 glass vessels – bowls, cups, jugs, and unguent bottles – dating from the late second century BC to the Seventh Century AD, “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change” runs through June 4, 2001.
The exhibit offers a new perspective, breaking with the tradition of treating this ancient glassware as an exceptional art form. Instead, the exhibition places glass in the more natural setting of a Roman household. Like pottery, glass came to be used in everyday life for all manner of domestic storage vessels and tableware and for the small bottles that held the spices, perfumes and medicines which were so much a part of the Roman affluent lifestyle. Beginning with the changing technology and changing role of glass, the exhibition provides information and insight into culture and lifestyle in the ancient Roman Empire.
The glass artifacts in “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change” come from various archaeological sites, including Beth Shean (Israel) and St Hermogenes (Cyprus), and illustrate a remarkable rang of forms and decorative elements. In addition to fine examples of glass, the exhibition features several related rdf_Descriptions in pottery and bronze, together with text panel and maps.
Glass Production In Roman Times
The Roman did not invent glass – that event occurred around 2200 BC in Mesopotamia. In fact, Romans showed hardly any interest in glass at all until the last decades of the First Century BC, at which time emperor Augustus decided to concentrate the production of various crafts on the Italian mainland. Syrian and Judean glass workers, imported as slaves, brought with them experience in traditional Hellenistic casting techniques and the then-novel idea of glass-blowing.
Within a few decades the glassmaking craft had blossomed into an industry, with some standardization of products, a well-organized work force, and a distribution process that took full advantage of the network or roads and seaways crisscrossing the length and breadth of the Empire.
Casting produced some visually striking tableware-monochromes in emerald green or peacock blue, polychromes in swirling patterns of amber and white, and colorful mixes of green and white rosettes and yellow “sea-grass” showers. Free-blowing provided low-cost wares that soon replaced several kinds of pottery vessels in the domestic marketplace; in time, free-blown wares came to dominate the Roman glass production, setting the foundation or our modern industry which worldwide now produces close to 60 million tons per year for our everyday needs.
When, circa AD 45, some craftsmen came up with the idea of blowing glass into a prepared mold, the industry moved forward again. Mold-blowing allowed the rapid reproduction of vessels of fixed size, taking glass into the trade arena for use in the short-range shipping of oils, preserved produce, and other products. It also offered a new aesthetic for vessel decoration that found its strongest expression in religious imagery of every kind.
Colorless glass, by way of mimicking rock crystal, became fashionable around the middle of the First Century AD. Bright monochrome and polychrome glass vanished from the scene just decades later. Facet-cutting of symmetrical patterns and cameo-carving also became fashionable at this time. so it was that, within just a century or so of becoming involved in glassmaking, the Romans refined and mastered almost every decorative and production technique the medium would allow.
Use of Glass
With production increases, glass found a place in every part of the Roman day, from the early preparation for social and business activities to the mid-afternoon public bathing and the dining pleasures that followed.
Containers for Spices, Cosmetics and Medicines
The natural fertility of the Italian valleys and hillsides produced plenty of homegrown herbs, flowers and fruits to flavor banquet fare, scent a perfume, or add power to skin-soothing lotion or pain-easing concoction. However, with the expansion of the Empire into the lands of the eastern Mediterranean and the control of key trade cities such as Palmyra and Alexandria, the Romans has access to a whole new range of Oriental commodities of this kind.
The ability to buy and use these exotics soon became a status symbol in Rome. Gluttony in banquetry, the lavish use of perfumes both in everyday cosmetics and in funerary rituals, and a fickle search for things new and rare became the norm of the Roman lifestyle. The glassmaking industry responded by producing tens of thousands of containers of every color, shape and size. Close to half of the vessels displayed in “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change: are believed to have been made for these purposes.
From the First Century AD onwards, glass vessels shared the table with pottery vessels at every meal among the middle classes of Rome. Their shape and decoration often mimicked the banquet silverware of the city’s patrician families. An array of these different kinds of tableware is displayed in “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change,” and some of the complexities of Roman dining etiquette are examined.
In Funerary Rituals
Most ancient Romans believed in a conscious existence after death. Their tombs were furnished with many kinds of glass vessels for domestic necessities, such as cosmetics and toiletries (sometimes even an inkwell), and for food and wine intended to provide nourishment in the Afterlife. During the first two centuries AD, many domestic vessels-particularly large jars, but also grain measures and large bottles- found a secondary but final use as containers for the cremated remains of the deceased. About three quarters of the vessels to be displayed in “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change” come from funerary contexts.
Dr Stuart Fleming, Scientific Director of the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, is curator of “Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change.” Dr Fleming is the author or co-author of almost 200 articles on scientific techniques applied to ancient materials, with emphasis on the dating, compositional analysis and structural interpretation of pottery, bronze, glass, gold and jade. His books include Authenticity in Art (1957), and The Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science (1981), co-written with Dr David O’Connor to accompany the Museum exhibition of that name.
Two books, both written by exhibition curator Dr Fleming and published by University Museum Publications, accompany the exhibition. Roman Glass: Reflections on Everyday Life, explores the ancient uses of glass throughout the various routines of daily living. Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change, explores the themes of the exhibition.
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