According to the Roman historian Pliny (23-79 A.D.), Phoenician merchants discovered glass accidentally in Syria around 5,000 BC. Pliny describes how by leaving cooking pots on blocks of nitrate near their fire, the merchants discovered glass, as the blocks melted and mixed with the sand of the beach to form a non-transparent liquid. However the first glass objects, mainly beads, date back to around 3,500 BC in Mesopotamia. Phoenician merchants and sailors later spread the glass making techniques throughout the Mediterranean.
Ancient Roman glass was made by mixing two ingredients: silica and soda. Silica is actually sand which is made of quartz. To make the silica melt at a lower temperature, the Romans used soda (sodium carbonate). The source of soda during this period was natron, a type of salt found in dry lake beds. Natron was imported from Egypt from a place called today Wadi El Natrun or "natron valley" in Arabic. Glassmakers would also use a stabiliser such as lime or magnesia. Lime was the primary stabiliser and it was naturally present in beach sand. They would also use colorants if they wanted the glass to have a specific colour. The production process started at facilities which contained large furnaces and giant tanks where the molten glass would be poured. These large facilities would then distribute the primary glass broken into chunks to smaller production facilities across the Empire.
Initially, ancient Roman glass was mainly used to make vases, cups, pitchers and other containers that held liquids. Glass was thick, heavily colored and not very translucent. It required a lot of polishing. It was also very expensive. Only the wealthy could afford to have cups made from glass. The 1st century A.D. saw a revolution in glass production technology with the introduction of glass blowing. Glassblowing was invented by Syrian craftsmen from Sidon and Babylon between 27 BC and 14 AD. The ancient Romans copied the technique consisting of blowing air into molten glass with a blowpipe making it into a bubble. The resulting inflated glass was thinner, more viscous and easier to work on than the initial thicker glass. The Roman glassworkers would also use the mold-blowing technique. Molten glass would be placed at the end of the blowpipe and then inflated to take the shape of a carved mold which could be wooden or metal. This allowed for the production of glass objects with a variety of shapes and on an industrial scale.
Condition: Fine. Areas of multi-coloured iridescence with soil encrustations and weathering on interior and exterior. No chips or cracks.
Dimensions: Height 6.5cm x Width 7.2cm
Provenance: Ex. private collection, UK.