Today on Museum Bites we’re taking a second look at ancient glass with this reboot of our ramble through the Pompeii exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I’m fascinated by ancient glass, not just its rare beauty, but its endurance through thousands of years of wear and tear.
My butterfingers have chipped, cracked and shattered my fair share of the modern and more durable version. Cups, bowls, goblets, a blender (high shelf + glass pitcher wobbling off = spectacular spray of tempered glass), mirrors (just call me Lucky 😉 ), a window or two, and a windshield (that one hurt!), have all suffered from my klutziness.
The first man-made glass was crafted in 2,000 B.C. Mesopotamia. Small tchotchkes were made by pouring molten glass into molds or by shaping it with tools. These early methods of creating glass required a lot of patience and sweat, and the resulting trinkets were luxuries afforded only by the rich.
In 50 AD, a crafty glass artisan from the Syro-Palestinian coast (a member of the Roman Empire at that time) gathered a glob of molten glass on the end of a tube. Air was blown into the tube, the glob inflated like a balloon, tools were used to mold the cooling glass into shape, and voilà a revolutionary way to make glass was born. But it didn’t stop there. These crafty Romans dropped and inflated molten glass into molds, thereby increasing the size, shape, intricacy, and sheer number of glass objects available.
With the addition of larger furnaces, glass production took off and the price dropped. Soon the Roman Empire and the cities along its trade routes were lousy with glass. Like a sleek new iPhone, it became the got-to-have-it merch. Jewelry, mirrors, mosaic tiles, windows, sculptures, and everyday items such as cups, bowls, bottles, and ewers were available to the masses.
Glass was not only aesthetically pleasing, it could withstand the heat. Its smooth surfaces were easier to clean compared to unglazed ceramics. Remember the nasty dormouse pot from my Dining on Dormouse post? Glass also didn’t leach bad tastes, smells or contribute to lead poisoning like the bronze kitchenware popular in ancient Pompeii.
Personally, I find Pompeian glass to be particularly amazing. It not only had to withstand the daily bashing about, but also Mount Vesuvius’s wrath—a 70 mph avalanche of rock and ash with a 1,300° F heat shock riding piggyback. As the photo on the right depicts, not all Pompeian glass was left untouched. If you’d like to view more intact and well-preserved Pompeian glass either virtually or in-person click on these The National Archaeological Museum of Naples and The British Museum links.
Fun Danish Fact: A Danish woman from the Bronze Age (2500 BC to 800 BC in Europe) was found buried with 2,000-year-old Egyptian glass beads. These beads are a testament to glass’s endurance, as well as the extensive trade routes of the time.
Fun Glassy Facts: Glass is typically made by heating silicon dioxide (found in sand), soda ash or potash, and calcium oxide (e.g., limestone) to 2400° F. Metallic oxides added to the mix, will produce various colors. Iron oxide yields green glass, copper oxide gives us light blue, cobalt creates dark blue, and gold gives us a deep, ruby red. To achieve clear glass, manganese dioxide is added. Large amounts of manganese dioxide, however, will yield purple glass and even higher amounts create black glass. Roman glass was typically green, due to the iron-rich sand in the area. If you’d like to geek out on glass, check out these videos from the Corning Museum of Glass (a bucket list destination!): Glass Blowing, Mold Blowing, and the Chemistry Glass Game.
Next week, we’ll be taking a road trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. In the meantime, have a great week 🙂