Janet Jones is Presidential Professor of Classics at Bucknell University with over 30 years of archaeological field work at sites in Greece, Jordan, Tunisia, and Turkey. She received her BA in Latin from the College of William and Mary, and holds a Ph.D. in classical archaeology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches at Bucknell University specializing in classical and Near Eastern archaeology, ancient technology, and environmental history.

Digging Glass: A Day in the Glass Lab

June 29th found me, as it usually does, doing archaeology.  Some years I’m excavating, some years I am lecturing to groups who are visiting sites like the ones I’ve excavated, and some years, like this one, I am working away on the publication of finds from all those years of excavating.

Glass is a beautiful, seductive material and a rich source of evidence about technical and aesthetic aspects of a culture and about the complex processes of exchange and influence between cultures.  Glass — luxurious, expensive, and resource intensive — reflects the decision-making of the elites and their sense of style. The production of glass is a fundamental technology based on complex technical knowledge and specialized skill. Glass, discovered by accident, grew to transform the environment of daily life by brightening tables and structures. The story of the coming of age of glass is one of the fascinating stories in the history of technology. One you should check into.

I am currently working on the glass from three sites:  Aila and Humaya in Jordan, and Gordion in Turkey.  The glass recovered from these three sites covers the gamut of glass forming technologies (molded, core-formed, mosaic, blown) and ancient periods of production (Iron Age through early Islamic).  So working on archaeological glass asks for a dedication to the material itself in all its life phases and permutations.  Ever since I worked at the Jamestown Glasshouse during my undergraduate years, it’s been glass for me just as it’s coins or bones or pottery for someone else.

Today, on the Day of Archaeology, it’s Roman glass from Gordion, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Phrygia.  I am beginning to write up the chapter on Roman glass for a final report.

Gordion had an interesting Roman period, one until recently mostly overlooked, and has produced interesting Roman glass that reveals periods of economic prosperity, a taste for luxury glass tablewares, and information about Gordion’s connections to the outer world in the period.

For today, a closer look at a heavily weathered fragmentary mosaic bowl.

mosaic bowl fragments

Heavily weathered fragments of mosaic bowl in new container.

As with the study of other artifact, the study of this glass has several stages.  Because we are not permitted to remove the glass from Turkey, I have carefully examined, measured, described, and drawn each artifact in the depots at the excavation house near Gordion.  Here in my lab at Bucknell University this summer I am working from my drawings, notes, and from photographs I have taken in Turkey (some of which are below).

This fragmentary bowl was excavated in 1951 and had received relatively little (no?) attention over the years.  Several years ago we moved the fragments from a candy box with tissue paper padding into a beautifully designed container created by Ariel O’Connor, a Gordion conservation intern.  It has been a puzzling vessel for me because of the heavy weathering, but seemed clearly to be a mosaic bowl of some sort. I have worked with conservators on site to remove some of the weathering layers to see what lay below.  What you see in the following photos is what we found.

Cleaned fragment.

Cleaned fragment with color scheme of mosaic strips visible (back lit).

Great excitement as we uncover gold!

Cleaned fragment with gold band visible in sunlight.

Fragment with gold band (back lit).

Quite a difference from those gray, filmy pieces in the first picture!

Here’s a photo of  part of the rim of the bowl:

Cleaned fragment of rim (back lit).


Today, in my library full of studies of excavated glass and museum collections, I have been trying to figure out the technique, color scheme, and date of the vessel.  I am also trying to locate comparable excavated pieces or pieces in collections that will give me hints to the origin and date.

A final entry on this piece in my field notebook says the fragments appear to show that the vessel was fashioned from tooled strips of canes with a repeating sequence of turquoise blue, yellow edged in purple, opaque white edged in dark blue, and colorless encasing shattered gold leaf.

A wonderful aspect of my job is spending a pleasant hour or so leafing through likely museum catalogues and that thrill of discovery when I find, just now, what I was looking for – a parallel in profile, technique, and color scheme, in a favorite publication – David Grose’s catalogue of early ancient glass in the Toledo Museum of Art (1989).

And the answer is:  The vessel is very likely a gold-band mosaic bowl of the early to mid-first century BCE.  The profile is that of a broad shallow bowl with an upright rim with a narrow rounded edge. It was likely assembled in sections from tooled, fused strips, molded, then rotary polished.  It is one of two bowls (some of the fragments are definitely from a second bowl).

New problem(!):  The bowl appears to come from a securely dated context – a destruction level – that’s a century earlier than that.  Hmm.  Well, this is how we make progress.   Stay tuned for the final publication!