Ficta Vitro Lapis: glass imitations of stone in roman Hispania (HAR2015-64142-P) (MINECO/FEDER, UE)

Fragment of rim of moulded ribbed bowl. Blue mosaic glass decorated with dark blue and white patterns. Isings form 3b Chronology: First half of first century A.D. MHCB-42146. Photo: ©Enric Gracia-MUHBA
Three fragments (rim, wall and base) of blue translucent glass with outer surface covered in white irregular-sized dots. Possibly corresponding to Isings form 1 Chronology: First century A.D. MHCB-34640. Photo: ©Enric Gracia-MUHBA
Fragment of rim of cup. Mosaic glass with millefiori decoration, blue background with green, white and purple patterns Chronology: First century A.D. MHCB-34669. Photo: ©Enric Gracia-MUHBA






PARTICIPATING BODIES: Universidad de Cantabria, Universidad de Zaragoza, Université de Bordeaux Montaigne, Università IUAV di Venezia and La Sapienza Università di Roma, Museo Nacional de Arte Romano de Mérida, Museo de Zaragoza Museu d’Història de Barcelona and Ayuntamiento de Zaragoza.

The main purpose of this project is to identify imitations of ornamental and (semi)precious stones made in glass in the period when this phenomenon reached its peak: the Roman Empire (from Augustus to the fourth century).

References to murrhina, mostly Latin, are considerable and of various relevance, often linked to glass. Classical authors describing these objects claim that they were imitated in glass. These stone vessels were used for drinking, mainly wine, though the adjective murrheus (from myrrh, yellowish, murrha, in a broad sense) applies to pieces used both for eating and drinking. The term, however, meant any stone object and is therefore interpreted broadly and generically as relating to ornamental stone (what Romans called marmora) and to semiprecious stones, extending to materials of organic origin such as jet, amongst others, which had the appearance of stone.

Similarly, the use of stone of high aesthetic value played a major role in architecture. The relevance of these materials does not only become apparent in their widespread use as revetments in the shape of panels but also their use as the basic material in opera sectilia, where the combination of crustae made of different materials and shapes produced highly visual geometric or figurative compositions. The use of marmora originating in distant lands, either because of their peculiar appearance or because of some kind of symbolism attached to them, did unquestionably add to the value of these revetments. Together with the overwhelming predominance of stone for making crustae for opera sectilia, other instances of glass crustae exist. These are much less frequent and quite often, as in the case of tesserae for mosaics, were manufactured in order to create a specific colour or tone otherwise not found in nature (that is, in stone). In the case of opera sectilia, they are mostly used in figurative creations, as in the renowned wall panels from the Basilica de Giunio Basso (Rome), dating from the first half of the fourth century. A great deal is as yet unknown with regard to these types of elements, mostly relating to those found in Hispania.

Bibliography makes sporadic, isolated and unspecific allusions to stone imitations in glass, making research in this field innovative.

Skeuomorphism consists of making a material resemble another. This phenomenon, extensive in ancient cultures in general, is persistent throughout history. In the Greek and Roman periods objects made of prized or even precious materials, reserved only for those wealthy enough within the upper classes, were imitated using cheaper materials of great visual similarity. As a result, models became widespread: gold objects were copied in bronze, pewter imitated silver, rock crystal and hard rock objects were imitated in silver or glass and gold, silver and bronze objects were copied in ceramic. In the Early Empire, this role must have been played by glass, especially once the technology had been mastered and vessels were made imitating eastern-Mediterranean tableware, some shapes resembling silver tableware and Aretinian ceramic from the late first century B.C. and early first century A.D. In this sense, opera sectilia or crustae tableware and revetments might constitute suitable indications of the wealth and status of their owner, as the materials aptly reflected the owner’s financial position.

The geographical area under analysis here focuses on Hispania, particularly on the sites of Caesar Augusta, Augusta Emerita, Colonia Celsa and Barcino, which have yielded remarkable stratigraphies, especially from the first century A.D. The items found there are mostly, though not exclusively, housed in the participating museums, as well as in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional de Madrid, with particularly significant collections of these types of productions:

  • Colonia Caesar Augusta (modern Zaragoza, capital) was founded by Caesar Augustus around the year 14 B.C. Systematic excavations have exposed levels corresponding to the Julio-Claudian period with stratigraphies revealing a chronological evolution of glass vessels from Augustus to Nero. Given that the city has been uninterruptedly inhabited up to the present day, stratigraphy levels have also been detected between the first and fifth centuries which reflect the evolution of this type of tableware throughout the empire in the Ebro valley.
  • Colonia Celsa (modern Velilla de Ebro, Zaragoza) was founded by Lepidus in the year 44 B. C. and abandoned in the period of Nero, around 68-70 AD. Short as the occupation period was, remarkable well-dated stratigraphy levels have been uncovered with plenty of glass pieces. This site and the nearby one of Colonia Caesar Augusta, complement each other perfectly in terms of contributing chronology and facilitating the comparison of vessels and tableware. The date of its abandonment contributes to greater chronological accuracy. Existing instances include vessels Isings 1, 18 variant and 22 featuring opaque orange-coloured red-veined glass patently similar to some of the chromatic varieties of marmor Numidicum; others feature a repeated pattern of spirals or “occhio di pavone or partridge eye” reproducing fossil limestones—lumachelle—also known as “occhio di pavone” in marble-work jargon or the fragment of a glass plate for a wall revetment in the manner of marmor Carystium.
  • Colonia Augusta Emerita (modern Merida) was founded by Caesar Augustus in 25 B.C. Its Museo Nacional de Arte Romano houses a large number of vessels plus others from continuous excavations carried out for over a century. Already from the middle of the first century A.D. onwards glass workshops operated in Emerita which contributes to confirming, amongst other aspects, the existence of local varieties of vessels for everyday use. Glass pieces originating in foreign workshops, mostly Italic, Campanian and Aquilesian,  are also conspicuous. The collection of “mosaic glass”, “murrina” vessels etc. housed from antiquity at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano has recently incorporated remarkable additions of extraordinary relevance originating in recent digs carried out on the site of Emerita. In this sense, the beautiful gadrooned bowl of mosaic glass found in a female burial plot from the first century A.D. is quite a remarkable piece as well as the bowl decorated with wide yellow, white, blue and ochre strips also dating from the first century A.D. Special reference should be made, because of its rarity, to the dish where the technique of mosaic glass is combined with inlaid glass filaments; it belongs to an incineration burial and dates from the reign of Claudius. As for pieces resembling hard stones, jewels combining gold and glass imitating precious stones are also present, especially in the form of rings.

Colonia Iulia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino (Barcelona) was founded ex novo in the Augustan period around the year 10 B.C., with the purpose of articulating a highly productive ager already working in the Republican period. This territory was appropriately planned by means of a centuriation in order to control the economic activity carried out in the area which consisted mostly of  vineyards and cereal production, mining and fishing as well as trading operations and port activity at the mouth of the river Llobregat. Excavations have yielded data about public buildings, such as the Forum, with a temple devoted to the imperial cult and the curia, and about insulae of various sizes. While the colony dates from the Augustan period, archaeological testimonies from this period are scarce and very fragmented. Most of the known domus date from the late first century A.D. – early second century A.D., though earlier elements could be detected in some of them. Outside the walls, production areas, baths in the port, suburban villae and habitat structures were located which indicate high activity in the suburbium closest to the wall. Several types of settlements can be found throughout the ager Barcinonensis, on the one hand large villas (Can Cortada, Pedralbes, la Sagrera) and on the other hand small rural settlements such as those found in Montjuïc. They are close to Roman roads and follow the axes laid out by the centuriation network revealing spatial organization and a complex use of the soil in the territorium of Barcino. It was a prosperous and dynamic city in the fourth century A.D, with clear continuity both in public and private spaces and steady building activity noticeable in the construction of new and rich domus. Few levels from the imperial period are well documented within the walls of Barcino: the city’s dynamic nature already in the Late Empire and during Late Antiquity has yielded few full stratigraphies of the early stages of the Colony. One of the leading instances can be found in the levels corresponding to the refuse sites located outside the walls, such as the one in calle Avinyó. The quantity and quality of the material recovered: ceramic, glass, bronze, stone productions, etc. is extremely useful to the understanding of daily life and trade in the Colony’s earliest period. Good examples of this are the glass pieces with decoration imitating marble found in the strata dating from the first half of the first century A.D. some of them within a slightly later context in the second half of the second century and the first half of the third century A.D.

The analysis revolves around these main points:
-  Simultaneous and cross-investigation of: Archaeology (Stones/Glass) – Classical texts –Archaeometry (Glass).
-  Space-time contextualization of the phenomenon of skeuomorphism.
- Global historical analysis: chronology, functions, trade, dissemination, value, meanings of use, technological interferences, etc.
-  Diversified and adapted social dissemination of the outcome of the investigation with a view towards future expansion onto other materials.