Roman glass

Michael Marshall (MOLA): looking at small finds from Cheapside, London

I’m spending this Day of Archaeology writing up the small assemblage of Roman and medieval small finds and Roman glass from a MOLA excavation on Cheapside in the City of London. It is a bit of a break from the Roman Walbrook sites which have really been at the centre of my working life for the last couple of years.

The Cheapside excavation is an interesting site overall but the finds assemblage is small and not terribly well-preserved and so it makes only a modest contribution to the wider story of the site. The Roman glass is fairly commonplace (mostly 1st-century cast ribbed bowls and 1st-/2nd-century jars and bottle glass) and there are only seven Roman small finds, again mostly common types such as bone hairpins and counters.

Roman glass bowl rim fragment.

Roman glass bowl rim fragment

See a complete example of a Roman pillar-moulded bowl  here.

These objects will help us date the stratigraphic sequence and can tell us a little bit about what was going on in the local area. But the careful records we make mean that these objects can be incorporated into wider projects of finds research based around London more generally and hopefully they will get a second chance to shine in the future. The two hairpins, for example, can be incorporated into a big project on the date, distribution and function of Roman hairpins from Londinium that is currently underway.

Roman hairpin

Roman hairpin

The medieval finds are mostly early in date, belonging to the Saxo-Norman period, the first centuries after the walled city was reoccupied. There is some interesting evidence for craft activity such as most of a hemi-spherical crucible with a pinched pouring lip. This is in quite a few pieces now but can be reconstructed by the conservation team to allow it to be illustrated.

hemi-spherical crucible

hemi-spherical crucible

See a complete crucible with a similar form but in a slightly different fabric here.

The star piece from the site though has to be a lovely bone ‘trial-’ or ‘motif-piece’. This is a section of rib with carved interlace designs typical of the period. The precise function of these objects is unclear. Some people have argued that they could be used as moulds or formers but it seems more likely that they are a way of practicing or working out designs which can then be executed in other mediums. Similar objects have been found in contemporary contexts at sites such as York and Dublin; there are plenty of other examples from London too but this is a particularly interesting example.

The new Cheapside trial-piece

The new Cheapside trial-piece

See some more examples here and here.

Writing in 1991, Frances Pritchard noted that most of the trial pieces  found in London seemed to come from a fairly restricted area in the western half of the city north of Cheapside. We’ve found a lot of new examples since then so this morning I spent a bit of a time plotting more recent finds in GIS to see if this pattern still holds true. It seems like the distribution has expanded a little to the area directly across Cheapside to the south and a little to the north in the area at Basinghall Street where there is a recent find and also another older find, not plotted here, from nearby at London Wall. In general, however, the pattern remains strong and more recent excavations near this area have produced large groups of these finds as at Guildhall Yard and No 1 Poultry. The outlier to the south along the waterfront is from a much later 13th century context and was probably redeposited during dumping to expand the waterfront. Overall, the evidence seems to suggest strong quite tightly focused evidence for Saxo-Norman craft activity around Cheapside and the immediate vicinity.

Preliminary GIS plot of Saxo-Norman bone trial piece from modern excavation

Preliminary GIS plot of Saxo-Norman bone trial pieces from modern excavations

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!

Michael Marshall: Assessing Small Finds From Roman London Part 2

So the many, many boxes of nails, thank god, are now a distant memory. At the assessment stage we only do a fairly coarse quantification in order to determine the potential of the material for further work. This sometimes just involves weighing and counting the fragments but when preservation is good enough some other data can be collected such as number of complete nails from each context (divided into broad size categories), minimum number of nails and comments on particularly distinctive styles or features. The point of this isn’t to write a definitive account of the use of nails on the site but to assess their potential for further analysis, decide what role they will play in the final publication and how they can help us to address research questions.

Unfortunately, it’s probably not worth doing much more work on the Southwark nails as they are in terrible condition. Most are completely encrusted or incomplete and the assemblage is quite small with a maximum of c. 15 fragments from any given context making any inferences of limited value.

Much more exciting this afternoon is the Roman glass and glass working waste which will definitely feature in the final publication. As mentioned briefly in my previous post, this seems to be the first Roman glass-working evidence from this side of the river. The types of waste include ‘moils’ (glass from the end of the blowing iron left behind when you crack the vessel off) as well as a variety of melted, fused and runny lumps.  Threads, pulls and trails etc derive from more detailed manipulation of glass during decoration or the addition of handles etc.

Glass working waste from Basinghall, London: Threads and Nails( (c) Andy Chopping, MOLA)

The assemblage is relatively small so far with only about 25 moils worth of fragments accounted for, each of which equates to a vessel manufactured onsite. This estimate is based on EME (estimated moil equivalent) a technique lifted from pottery studies (EVEs) which is calculated by measuring the proportion of the moil diameter present in each fragment. Of course many more vessels could have been made and the moils recycled or not recovered. Vessels were being made from both naturally coloured blue-green glass and amber coloured glass.

Glass working waste from Basinghall, London: Moils ( (c) Andy Chopping, MOLA)

The general range of waste types is not dissimilar to those found at the much larger glass-working dumps at Guildhall Yard and Basinghall Street across the river in Londinium (see pictures below) and, like those dumps, the waste was found alongside lots of broken vessel and window glass intended for recycling. Raw Roman glass was brought all the way from the Mediterranean so recycling this ‘cullet’ made good economic sense. Identifiable fragments of bottles, beakers, jugs and jars from amongst the smashed up vessels suggest a probable date in the early to mid 2nd century AD for the glass working.

If glass working interests you check out this website and a great little book called Glass workers of Roman London by John Shepherd and my colleague Angela Wardle, which provides an interim popular account of their work on the Basinghall assemblage and the techniques of glass making.  Their work on the final monograph is nearing completion, but luckily the new evidence from Southwark should still just about make it into the gazetteer of glass-working sites included in the text, and contribute to their discussion of the organisation of the industry.

That’s enough from me. I don’t have time to tell you about the lamps, finger rings, combs, figurines, crucibles, hairpins, querns, toilet instruments, tools or the large and interesting assemblage of glass vessels I have already recorded from the site. Unfortunately, I can’t even tell you about the cosmetic mortar or the blue blobbed glass beaker, probably an import from the Rhineland, which I recorded yesterday. The whole point of the assessment stage is so we can get our head around what we’ve got, and how best to study and publish it, so if you want to know more you’ll need to hang about. This is certainly shaping up to be an interesting site and I’ve already spent too long waffling here and not enough time doing my glass data entry.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back and finish this context before the end of the day, so I can get to the pub on time.