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A Clear Look at Ancient Glass

/ July 29, 2014
In September I invited Janet Jones to come take a look at the ancient glass vessels in the NCMA’s holdings. Dr. Jones is a professor at Bucknell University, a graduate of UNC–Chapel Hill, an archaeologist, and—more important—an expert on ancient glass.
Janet Jones at work in the NCMA conservation lab

Janet closely examined all the vessels in our collection, those we normally have on view in the galleries as well as those in storage. Her investigation revealed a few Islamic vessels, notably a Mamluk/Ottoman kohl vessel dating to the 17th–18th century. This vessel (92.7.22) is currently listed in our files as “long flask with flanged neck, dated to the 4th–5th century, or as late as 12th century.” Evidently, this file will need to be revised.

Long flask with flanged neck

Two of the vessels listed as glass turned out to be very fine ceramics. When Janet came across them, she called me over to look. As an Egyptologist and having worked exclusively on the Egyptian collection until I became curator of ancient art in 2011, I had not had the opportunity to look at the majority of our glass objects before. Fewer than a handful of them are said to have been discovered in Egypt, and of the few we have—you can see them in our Egyptian galleries—two were imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and the third is actually Islamic. (Those are the only glass vessels I had studied previously.) As soon as I saw the two Janet pointed out, I agreed with her: ceramic, not glass.

Also, one unguentarium (vessel for ointment) is a pastiche—a composite made from two different ancient fragments (92.7.13). Take a closer look at the picture: can you see the two different fragments? The body and neck of the vessel are transparent blue-green with the iridescence indicative of glass disease, but the rim is transparent colorless glass.

This assessment of the ancient glass collection is extremely helpful. It allows me to see what types of vessels we have, what gaps we might need to fill, or which pieces should be deaccessioned because they don’t fall within our collection parameters.

Bell-bodied unguentarium

Support for this research is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ann and Jim Goodnight Fund for Curatorial and Conservation Research and Travel.

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