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Roman Glass: Reflections of Cultural Change

Dates: September 11, 1999–January 9, 2000


Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change is a traveling exhibition organized by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that illustrates how the craft of glassmaking was influenced by historical events and changing social values in the Roman World.

Glass, a material developed in the eastern Mediterranean region, largely came to Rome with its makers, Syrian and Judaean craftsmen, many of whom were slaves.

Between the mid-first century BC and the early seventh century AD, Roman glassmaking was influenced not only by the changing values and tastes of the Roman world, but also by historical events. Many new techniques of glassmaking were introduced along the way. Each glass vessel, in its shape and decoration, is therefore a record of the times in which it was made.


The exhibition breaks with the tradition of treating Roman glassware as an exceptional art form. Instead, it addresses how glass, in its mass production and mimicry of luxury items, held a relatively lowly position in the hierarchy of Roman material goods. As the glassmaking industry developed, glass—like pottery—came to be used in everyday life for all manner of domestic storage vessels and tableware, and for the small bottles that held the medicines, perfumes, and spices which were so much a part of the Roman affluent life.

The exhibition features over 200 glass vessels—bowls, cups, jugs, and unguent bottles—dating from the second century BC to the early seventh century AD.

The objects in this exhibition are drawn from the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s large Hellenistic and Roman collections, and most have never been publicly displayed or published. They come from various sites throughout the Roman Empire, including the University of Pennsylvania’s excavations at Beth Shean in Israel and Ayios Ermonyenis in Cyprus. Collectively, they illustrate a remarkable range of forms and decorative elements.

Following are some representative pieces from the exhibition, in their chronological order.

Also included in the exhibition are several related items in pottery and bronze, together with illustrated text panels and supplementary maps. These materials help explain how each vessel is a record of the technical and artistic impact of changing connections between cultures and crafts of the ancient world.

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