Glass Reflections: Understanding the Complexity of Glass in the Roman Empire and Beyond

Organisers: Tatiana Ivleva (Newcastle University) and Elizabeth Foulds (Northern Archaeological Associates)

Few would argue the importance of glass and glass objects to understand past social processes. Given the high level of circulation, exchange, and consumption of glass objects in the Roman world, glass plays an important part in our understanding of past trade links, cultural contacts, and craft specialisation. The focus of contemporary glass studies lies, thus, primarily on the origin of the material, specific workshops, questions of importation, or the impact/occurrence of recycled material. However, the overemphasis on these aspects, obscures the importance and meaning these artefacts played in negotiating complex political, social, and economic networks, as well as various types of identities in the Roman Empire and the far reaches of their influence. The session, therefore, foregrounds more explicit engagement with glass and glass artefacts beyond their representational value as trappings and objects made of recycled material. Any type of glass object, whether they are vessels, window glass, bangles, counters, or beads, will be studied in this panel. In so doing, we aim to emphasise the complexity of the roles these various objects played in Roman period societies, in a similar way of Dominic Ingemark’s study of glass use to (re)negotiate power in Iron Age Scotland or Birgitta Hoffmann’s research on glass vessels and objects as an embodiment of divergent frontier identities at a frontier post Newstead.

This goal will be achieved by embracing current theoretical frameworks positing the transformative and adaptable nature of material culture, by which an object’s meaning at its creation fades or mutates once the object changes ownership or moves from its native region (Hahn and Weiss 2013). This projects onto how glass and glass objects were used for different purposes, thus not only in a practical sense as drinking cups or dress adornment, but also as active participants in establishing or destabilising, cementing or enhancing networks, power relations, and cultural traditions. Relational agency stands thus at the heart of the session (Hodder 2012; Latour 2005; van Oyen 2015).

We are concerned too with life histories of objects by embracing theory of ‘cultural biographies’ to chart re-contextualisation of glass artefacts within and outside the Roman world (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986). While not diminishing the significance of the context in which objects were found during excavation, the session is interested in exploring the genealogy of specific glass objects or types of glass objects. This will lead to a more refined understanding of how similar glass objects were perceived and redefined through the lens of multifarious communities that made up Roman provinces and beyond.


Appadurai, A. 1986. ‘Introduction: commodities and the politics of value’, in A. Appadurai (ed.) The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1-63.

Hahn, H.P. and Weiss, H. (ed.) 2013. Mobility, Meaning and Transformation of Things: Shifting Contexts of Material Culture Through Time and Space. Oxford, Oxbow.

Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled. An Archaeology of the Relationship between Humans and Things. Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.

Hoffmann, B. 2009. ‘Defining identity: analysing the glass objects from the Roman fort of Newstead, Scotland,’ in A. Morillo, N. Hanel and E. Martín (eds.) LIMES XX: Estudios sobre la frontera Romana/Roman Frontier Studies. Madrid, Polifermo, 1183-1190.

Ingemark, D. 2014. Glass, Alcohol and Power in Roman Iron Age Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland.

Kopytoff, I. 1986. ‘Cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’, in A. Appadurai (ed.). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 64-91.

Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

van Oyen, A. 2015. ‘Actor-Network Theory’s take on archaeological types: becoming, material agency, and historical explanation,’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal 25(1), 63-78.

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