Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Roman Glass Vessel from Autun, France

Last year French archaeologists were excavating in a Christian necropolis near Autun in central France when they made an amazing discovery.  In one of the stone sarcophagi, dating to the 4th century, they found a complete glass vessel.

One of the sarcophagi at the site.

Shroud pins made of amber and jet.

The vessel has now been reassembled by German experts and it looks like this. The reassembly took five months. This style of glassware is called "reticulated," and only ten complete specimens are known. The raised letters spell out VIVAS FELICITER, live in happiness. This kind of glass was a new development of the late empire, unknown before around 300 AD.

The vessel measures 4.7 inches high and 6.3 inches in diameter (11.9 x 16 cm). You can see the remarkable clarity of the glass, something Roman glassmakers had learned to do during the flowering of glass manufacture that took place in that period.

Almost as interesting as the vessel itself was what chemical analysis showed about its contents. It seemed to be a perfume or balm that contained plant oils, flower extracts, and ambergris. Ambergris is an extremely valuable substance that whales vomit up from time to time, and that even more rarely washes up on the shore. It was known to the ancient Egyptians and to their satellites in Judah and Israel, used in an expensive perfume called Spikenard. Spikenard appears several times in the Bible, but it was hardly mentioned at all by the Greeks and Romans of the classical period. The first European scholar who wrote about ambergris is believed to be Byzantine Greek physician Aëtius of Amida, some time in the late 5th or early 6th century AD. Spikenard is what Mary, sister of Lazarus, poured on Jesus' feet, so it really was an extravagant gesture and maybe Judas wasn't off base to question the cost.

Anyway from being completely unknown in the classical period ambergris came to be a much more widely mentioned luxury under the Byzantine and Carolingian Empires, which is an interesting historical footnote on the influence of Christianity.

French original at INRAP, English at The History Blog.

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