Roman glass bottle "Unguentaria"


Ancient Rome, c. 100AD to 300AD, private collection from Netherlands.

The magnificent Roman Empire is recognized for having built a great civilization, with renowed artistic and technological achievements. At its peak, Rome had conquered and controlled the entire area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

The Romans began and oversaw the industrialization of glass-making more than 2000 years ago. Glass was known to the Egyptians but the Greeks developed the making of glass. The word glass (Latin vitrum) developed in the Roman Empire possibly at Trier (Germany). Ancient Roman glass can be classified as soda-lime glass. It was made from silicon, sodium and calcium oxides, with the addition of potassium, magnesium and aluminium oxides. Silica is actually sand which is made of quartz. To make the silica melt at a lower temperature, the Romans used soda. The source of soda during this period was natron, a type of salt found in dry lakes. Lime was the primarily stabiliser and it was naturally present in beach sand. Glassmakers would also use colorants if they wanted the glass to have a specific color. Copper was used to make turquoise to light blue, green, or red colored glass. Cobalt made glass dark blue. Manganese and antimony were used to make the glass yellow, white, and purple. Iron was used to make a light blue, green, brown and black color. The wide array of colors were chosen to to mimic the colors of gemstones, such as lapis lazuli, amethyst, and turquoise.

Initially, ancient Roman glass was mainly used to make cups, vases, pitchers and other containers that held liquids. Glass was thick, heavily colored and not very translucent. It required a lot of polishing. Only wealthy people could afford to have cups made of glass. The 100AD saw a revolution in glass production technology with the introduction of glass blowing. Glassblowing was invented by Syrian craftsmen from Sidon and Babylon between 27BC an 14AD. The 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 intial thicker glass. Roman glass-makers (vitriarii) and glass-cutters (diatretarii) would also use the mold-blowing technique. Molten glass would be placed at the end of the blowpipe and then inflated to take 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 in an industrial scale. Glass vessels became commonplace throughout the empire and were exported to places as far as Scandinavia and the Far East. The people of Roman Empire used more glass than any other ancient civilization.

These often narrow long-necked bottles are called unguentaria (also referred to as Unguentarium, Balsamarium or Lacrimarium) and were probably used as a container for oils and lotions, though it is also suited for storing and dispensing other liquid and powdered substances. While unguentaria often appears among the grave goods, the purpose of their inclusion has not been derermined with centainty. Although the unguentaria seems often to been buried along with other objects associated with or treasured by the deceased or as a grave gift, they may have also have held substance, such as oil, wine, or powdered incense, for graveside ritual.

Beautiful narrow unguentarium are in moderate condition. Lip with missing piece. Beautiful patina and age-induced wear occur. The surface of the exterior and interior is calcified and encrusted with minerals over the years. Bottle has a stunning iridescent colour that varying from seafoam green to olive and golden green. Size approx. 16,1cm x 4,5cm. Weight c. 86g.

References, sources and citations:

Roman Glass, Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopedia, 05 August 2013.

Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change, Stuart J. Fleming, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1999.

Roman Glass: Reflections of Everyday Life, Stuart J. Fleming, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1997.

Roman Glass in Northern Britain, Dorothy Charlesworth, Archaeologia Aeliana, Series 4, Vol 37, pp. 33-58, 1959.

How glass was made in the ancient Roman world, Nora I. Moriarty & Debby Sneed, Department of Classics, Collage of Arts and Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder. Ancient Roman Glass

Ancient Roman Glass- The History/, Chrisy Bossie.