Reflections on Roman Glass

16 Nov 2023

By Lib Fox, Projects and Development Lead

* Click on the photos below to visit our Collections Online database and discover more. *

OK, full disclosure, I’m not an expert in Roman glass. In fact, I’m not an expert in Roman anything. My role at the museum involves various administrative things and occasionally monitoring our social media. You quickly learn the sorts of objects that get the most likes and comments, and Roman glass is particularly popular. People are amazed at how modern a piece looks or how it has survived for so long, while others want to know how a vessel was made or what it was used for. Some objects look a little… unusual, which leads to weird and wonderful guesses on what they might be.

I shared these responses with my curatorial colleagues and was quickly roped into helping improve some of our Roman glass object records. We now have a shiny, new online collection that reveals the wide variety of ways glass was used (and reused).

Here are a few favourites for me and our social media followers…


The one that looks like a…

A colour photograph showing a glass phial. It has a slightly triangular shaped body and a long thinner neck. There is brownish residue inside.

Romans used and reused glass for all sorts of things, from jewellery to containers of different shapes and sizes. On social media this piece is often compared to something you’d smoke from, but I’m assured it’s a simple glass phial.


The one that’s jinxed!

I first heard about this Roman bowl when it was off display and being reconstructed by our conservators. It had been broken four times before, so staff were beginning to think it was cursed! This step-by-step thread on X reveals how the team pieced together the incredible glass jigsaw.


The one that’s beautiful

A colour photograph showing a rounded glass bottle with a long thin neck and handles on either side connecting the tody of the body with the neck. The bottle is made from green glass, which appears darker where the glass is thicker.

So many pieces are stunning but, judging by Twitter, people are most drawn to jugs like this. I love how the glass appears darker where it’s thicker, creating different tones.

Glass is made from sand. I recently learnt that blue/green glass occurs naturally thanks to the iron that’s in sand and different shades are created when the glass is heated. If our Roman maker wanted to produce something in a different colour, or that was completely clear, then they had extra work to do.


The one that’s not just a bottle

A composite image. On the left is a colour photograph of a hexagonal glass bottle containing cremated remains. It is made from blue glass and has a cylindrical neck and right angled handle. On the right is a colour photograph of a display from the Decoding the Roman Dead exhibition in Colchester Castle. There are two large display cases featuring different creation vessels and their contents, including the blue bottle.


If you visited our 2021 Decoding the Roman Dead exhibition you may have seen several large, glass vessels that had been repurposed as cremation urns. Ground-breaking scientific techniques were used to reveal previously unknown facts about the lives of some of Colchester’s earliest inhabitants, including where they might have grown up. Shameless plug, but you can discover more about the theory and practice of osteoarchaeology via our online course: Dead Interesting.


The one that’s a souvenir

A colour photograph showing a blue green glass beaker. In releif around the outside is a design showing two gladiators fighting

And finally we have this beauty, a Gladiator ‘sports cup’, which can be found in our current exhibition Gladiators: A Day At The Roman Games. Molten glass would have been blown inside a mould creating the raised design around the outside. The cup features scenes of gladiators fighting, and it’s possible they represent real (or legendary) people! As the mould-blowing process meant sports cups could be mass produced, it’s also possible it was a more general souvenir for Roman arena fans.

You can discover more objects in our Roman Glass collection online.


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