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Glassware and Glassworking in Thessaloniki: 1st Century BC–6th Century AD

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

Glassware and Glassworking in Thessaloniki: 1st Century BC–6th Century AD

By Anastassios Antonaras (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 27). Pp. viii + 383. Archaeopress, Oxford 2017. £55. ISBN 978-1-78491-679-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume, revised and translated by the author from the original Greek text published in 2009 (Ρωμαϊκή και Παλαιοχριστιανική Υαλουργία: 1ος αι. π.Χ.–6ος αι. μ.Χ. Παραγωγή και Προϊόντα. Τα αγγεία από τη Θεσσαλονίκη και την περιοχή της [Athens]), provides an extensive typology and catalogue of glass vessels found in Thessaloniki from the early 20th century until 2002. While the text has been only minimally updated, the increased accessibility of the language and publisher will make it an essential reference work for Roman glass, especially for archaeologists and historians working in Greece and the Balkans. Chapters 1, 3, and 6 will be most valuable for those interested in an overview of the contributions of glass to broader questions of workshop organization and production, trade in raw materials, cost of glass, status of craftsmen, and uses of glass in the Roman world, while chapters 2, 4, 5, 8, and 9 explicitly address the nature of the finds from Thessaloniki. Chapter 7 bridges these two lines of inquiry in summarizing the shifting role of glass as Thessaloniki expanded and thrived under Roman rule. A glossary of technical terms and typological tables further facilitate use of the book as a reference volume.

In chapter 1, Antonaras provides an overview of glassworking in antiquity. The distinction between primary glassmaking (making raw glass from sand and natron or plant ash) and secondary glassworking (shaping raw glass into vessels and other objects) is succinctly described, with excellent illustrations and summaries of archaeological, pictorial, and literary evidence. Then follows discussion of major glass forming and decorating methods present in the Thessaloniki assemblage. Antonaras ascribes to the rotary-pressing model of glass manufacture first suggested by Rosemary Lierke and subsequently adopted by Marianne Stern (“Glass Production,” in J.P. Oleson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World [Oxford 2008] 520–47). Those who are not glass specialists and are using this volume for general reference should be aware that these methods are not universally accepted. Other archaeologists, such as those conducting experiments as part of the Villa Borg Furnace Project, have proposed alternative glassworking.

At least four sites indicate the presence of secondary glass workshops in Late Roman Thessaloniki. These are described in chapter 2, accompanied by extensive photography that should be very informative for field archaeologists. The glass furnace excavated at No. 45 Vassileos Irakleiou Street, dated to the late sixth century, may be added to the short but growing list of glass furnaces known from antiquity. Thessaloniki followed the pattern of many Late Antique eastern cities, in which glassworkers moved into abandoned public spaces such as baths (27). Antonaras also argues for the presence of a first-century C.E. glass workshop in Thessaloniki, based on large numbers of globe- and bird-shaped unguentaria, though no workshop debris from this period has yet been identified.

Chapter 3 addresses many critical questions about the social and economic positions of glass and glassworkers in the Roman world. As craftsmen, glassworkers are thought to have had low social status and are rarely referenced in surviving texts. Still, epigraphic and papyrological evidence suggests glassworkers did have a distinct identity, as expressed by areas of cities named for them and their organization into guilds. The only substantive document from antiquity on the cost of glass is Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices, in which the cost of raw and vessel glass is determined by weight. Calculating the approximate price of glass in Thessaloniki based on the weight of surviving vessels, Antonaras concludes that glass tableware and perfume vessels cost the equivalent of a worker’s daily food ration (5–10 denarii) and so would have been “a cheap, utilitarian object that almost anyone could easily acquire” (49). For glass workshops, minimizing waste of raw material was critical for economic success and would have encouraged recycling. Updated references for this section would have been helpful, since scientific analysis in the last 10 years has shed increasing light on the nature of glass recycling in the Roman world (I.C. Freestone, “The Recycling and Reuse of Roman Glass: Analytical Approaches,” JGS 57 [2015] 29–40).

The core of the book is the catalogue of 149 types (ch. 4) and 754 catalogue entries (ch. 8). The typology is based on shape and size of vessels, considered by Antonaras to be the best proxies for function. This organization is not immediately apparent, however; related forms, such as the crimped rim bowls of Forms 3b and 11, are often nonsequential. The reader must refer to the introduction for a description of the methodology and summary of the data (3). Just under three-quarters of the catalogued vessels came from cemeteries, although Antonaras also studied settlement finds extensively. A particular contribution of this volume is Antonaras’ explicit discussion of glass vessels in burial contexts, since there are no glass forms specifically developed for funerary use (186–87).

Antonaras’ description of various decorations to be found in the Thessaloniki glass assemblage (ch. 5), grouped by technique and pattern and cross-referenced with the typology, would also be quite effective for archaeologists identifying fragments of decorated glass in the field. Motifs like applied threads and incised grooves are used on multiple forms and are not necessarily chronologically diagnostic, while figural engraving and dark blue “blobs” are much more limited.

In chapter 7, Antonaras traces the shifting fortunes of Thessaloniki in the Roman sphere of influence in relationship to the glass assemblage. Benefiting from its establishment as a free city in 42 B.C.E. and the Italian settlement of negotiatores in the Augustan period, Thessaloniki saw the import of many glasswares from Italy in the first century C.E. There seems to have been a lapse in glass use from the mid second to mid third century, despite the continued growth of the city. This apparent hiatus in glass can be seen elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean and may reflect a lack of diagnostic types, a general decrease in glass use, or an accident of preservation due to glass recycling in the following centuries. Beginning in the mid third century C.E. and continuing through the fourth and fifth, glass was much more prominent in Thessaloniki. While connections to Italy continued in the form of engraved vessels, the city’s glass imports shifted to the east, especially Syro-Palestine. It is worth reiterating that during the Late Antique period, most glass was probably made locally by one of several workshops in the city.

Regrettably, numerous typographical errors, including misspellings, repeated and missing words, and improper punctuation, distract from the overall legibility of the text, especially in chapter 1. Still, this book is an important reference on Roman glass manufacture and typology in a part of the world where glass has been relatively understudied, and those excavating Roman period sites in Greece, the Balkans, and the Aegean will find use for it in their libraries. By bringing together evidence from burial, workshop, domestic, and fill contexts from an entire city with several centuries of occupation, Antonaras has created a robust typology and chronology of glass in a Roman city with sustained connections to the east and west. It is hoped that this volume will bring greater visibility to this important class of finds so that we may continue to learn more about the role of glass in the social and economic systems of Roman and Late Antique Greece.

Katherine Larson
Corning Museum of Glass

Book Review of Glassware and Glassworking in Thessaloniki: 1st Century BC–6th Century AD, by Anastassios Antonaras 

Reviewed by Katherine Larson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.larson

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