Online Review: Book

Serçe Limani. Vol. 2, The Glass of an Eleventh-Century Shipwreck

Sylvia Fünfschilling


By George F. Bass, Robert H. Brill, Bera Lledó, and Sheila D. Matthews. Pp. xiv + 519, figs. 220, color pls. 44, maps 3. Texas A&M University Press, College Station 2009. $150. ISBN 978-1-60344-064-6 (cloth).

This book about the glass finds from a ship that sank off Bodrum on the Turkish coast in the 11th century C.E. may be considered a milestone in the history of Early Islamic glass. Its date, secured by ceramic finds, stamped-glass weights, and coins, renders the rich assemblage a veritable treasure trove for scientific research.

The large cargo of glass that was being transported on the ship—some three metric tons in total—included a small number of complete vessels, cullet from one or more workshops, a small amount of window glass, wasters, workshop waste (e.g., moils, drops), and raw glass. The complete vessels were obviously intended for personal use by members of the ship’s crew; some of them, however, may also have been intended for sale. Much information can be gained about how and what types of glass were traded, the problems posed by recycling, and the apparent function of the cullet as ballast.

The huge number of glass fragments were meticulously sorted and glued back together, and a catalogue was then compiled. The procedures used in the study are easily understandable and comprehensively discussed. Difficulties encountered while working with such large amounts of glass are raised, as are the conditions that prevailed during the recovery of the finds. The reasons given for the interpretation of the fragmented glass as cullet, which was being transported to a location for melting down, are plausible.

The introductory chapters leave nothing to be desired. These are followed by the classification of the glass vessels into groups and shapes with a catalogue and illustrations, followed by a treatment of the raw glass and workshop waste. The selection process of the samples and the results of the analyses are explained in a user-friendly manner. The book ends with a summary that reiterates many of the statements made in the introduction and gives a final evaluation of the assemblage in an attempt to put it in the context of Levantine glass production at the time, which is where the ship most likely originated, based on the analysis of all the available information.

The glass groupings are more or less plau-sible; however, one must ask why cat. no. BK 91 is among the beakers (67–8) and not among the cylindrical bowls (fig. 10.2), or why the handled jars with threaded rims are counted among the "storage vessels" (353–54). Moldblown decorations are presented distinctly—they are illustrated and discussed irrespective of the shapes on which they occur.

Each type is presented—its decoration, glass quality, and colors described—and in some cases, a final evaluation is given. Both the entries in the catalogue and the general sections contain much detail, which is justified, given the uniqueness of the assemblage. A certain degree of conformity was aspired to in the approach to the finds but not achieved in every case. Given the large number of finds, tables would have been advantageous in some instances, where information such as the total number of individual vessels, the distribution of colors, and glass qualities could have been accessed easily and quickly. In some cases, more illustrations of the various subtypes would have been desirable, since information becomes more apparent in a drawing, and verbose explanations can be avoided.

An overview of the colors and glass qualities in the form of a table, in addition to the color illustrations, would have been of great assistance. The various techniques used in cutting glass should also have been depicted in close-ups, as the technique is an important element in the evaluation of a fragment of cut glass. The same applies to the moldblown decorations, where details also would have been desirable. The drawings of the vessels are all well executed. However, blackened profiles often disguise certain technical details, such as folded feet: cat. no. CP19 (fig. 5.2), for example, probably has a folded and not an applied foot.

The comparisons and references to Roman shapes and decorations, given in various cases, are nearly all obsolete, particularly with regard to the beakers (ch. 4). Unfortunately, it is not possible here to outline the counterarguments in detail. While Roman cylindrical beakers did exist, the straight-sided variants without offset rims and usually straight bases of Serçe Limani beakers are hardly ever represented in Roman assemblages. In comparing 11th-century glass with earlier shapes, Late Roman/Byzantine shapes may at best be considered, but even then, the chronological difference is significant. Many techniques such as moldblowing were practiced throughout the entire Roman period and also in post-Roman times; they were elements of a craftsman’s traditional skills and wealth of experience and need not be documented by individual examples. Simple shapes such as hemispherical bowls were produced in all periods in various materials and do not require an explanation of their origins. It is not permissible to compare cut decorations on the insides of beakers from the shipwreck with linear-cut bowls showing interior cut decorations from the Early Imperial period, since these were of a completely different shape and technique (46). Conical beakers in particular, but also other shapes such as flat-bottomed bowls and basket bowls, exhibit a clearly different stylistic vocabulary than Late Roman/Byzantine vessels and were designed in that manner for the first time in the Islamic period. Actually, it is the very fact that they had no predecessors that makes them interesting.

A plate with an overview of the most important forms found on the shipwreck would have been useful. This would have facilitated the comparison of this important body of finds with contemporary or roughly contemporary assemblages despite the low number of publications on the subject. To summarize, there is a lack of pinched and pressed decorations, of luster painting and of diamond-scratched decorations. Moldblown and cut decorations are abundant, while slip trailing and ribbed bodies are quite rare. That the glass shapes from the ship find their best parallels in the Levant—a link that was also shown by the analyses—might have been more strongly emphasized from a formal point of view, as this is an important statement. Given the significance of the assemblage, the authors should have been asked to review and perhaps revise their manuscripts, which had been completed a long time ago, and to update their bibliographical references.

The book is indispensable for students of Islamic glass, and, based on the firmly supported date of the assemblage, it may also serve as a general dating tool for the evaluation of other assemblages containing similar glass finds. In general, it is clearly laid out, the descriptions are sound, and it is well documented, despite minor suggestions for improvement. The introduction and summary also are quite informative about trade and shipping at the time.

Sylvia Fünfschilling
Augusta Raurica
4302 Augst


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