Interview: The Roman Glassmakers

7 mins read
CA editor Lisa Westcott is blown away by a demonstration of authentic Roman glassmaking.

The Roman Glassmakers opened shop in 1989, and ever since have specialised in researching the techniques involved in making Roman glass vessels  and in reproducing Roman glass (CA 186).  Now, they have expanded into English Medieval glass, complicated Roman luxury items, and other projects. What’s new?

Why did you move into working on English Medieval glass?

Believe it or not, Medieval glass is actually much more popular than Roman. We go to a lot of re enactment events and had been approached several times for authentic Medieval glass shapes. So, we started researching it and building up our library. Then, we were approached to do a lot of 12th century forms for Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven film, so it really took off from there. Interestingly, they came back to us for the new Robin Hood picture — they wanted glass vessels to make the Sheriff’s palace look more luxurious. We didn’t have enough Medieval stuff on hand, so they just took whatever we had. Look out for that, if you see the film — the glass might well be the wrong period.

What is the main difference between Roman and Medieval glass?

English Medieval glass is much simpler and less deco Also, not as much of it survives because it is easily weathered and destroyed. Studying it has led us to the work of John Ravenscroft in the 1670s, which is the beginning of the tradition of English lead crystal-making. We’re now very interested in 18th century drinking glasses and goblets.

So will you be changing your name from ‘Roman Glassmakers’ to ‘Medieval Glassmakers’?

No, not at all. The bulk of our work is still in Roman glass — there are so many different shapes. At the moment, it’s about finding unique shapes in books or exhibitions, and then figuring out how to reproduce them. Sometimes we are commissioned to reproduce something special, and this moves us in a new direction as far as research and production. For example, we are now focusing on luxury items like cameo glass and cage cups, as well as improving our techniques for producing mosaic glass. Each one of these would have been a very high-status item in the Roman world. Cage cups, especially, are amazingly intricate — David has been working very hard on them, and he reckons there are hundreds of hours needed to produce a single cup.

Additionally, we are working with ceramic mould-blown Roman glass. In the past we’ve used bronze moulds, but that’s not an authentic Roman technique. We’ve been studying the original vessels, trying to imagine what the moulds would have looked like or been made from, as there aren’t any surviving examples except stone or tile. Intricate designs like those on circus beakers would have to have been made in closedmoulds, where the glass fills the mould and stays inside. So we are deducing the mould shapes from the glass itself.

Do you have any follow-ups planned for the Roman Furnace Project?

We really enjoyed experimental archaeology — the process of building a Roman wood-fired glass furnace, and using it to try and understand the working conditions of ancient glassmakers. The project was very successful and we’re seeing the influence of the research now, with two or three books having been done on similar projects. There’s a museum in Zelzeke, Belgium, that has installed a working Roman furnace that is really drawing in the crowds.

We may decide to build another furnace, using a different design, which would be based on the finds coming from the recent London excavations (see p20). Everything they have found has been waste fragments of furnaces — mostly broken, and nothing in situ, so there’s no plan, but we can use this debris and look at similar ones from the Continent to get an idea what it would have looked like.

Have you ever cooked any food in your melting furnace?

Yes! We do a delicious ‘10 second toast’, and our jacket potatoes are legendary.

The Roman Furnace Project

In 2005, we constructed and ran two Roman wood-fired glass furnaces, based  on information from excavations of Roman furnaces and using a quantity of original  Roman bricks and tegulae (kindly supplied by archaeologists) and a clay daub. The firing was thoroughly recorded, with attention being paid to furnace construction, fuel  consumption, glass melting and working cycles, temperatures achieved, durability  and efficiency of the furnace superstructure and working practices developed by the team.

In order to preserve the glass vessels made, a wood-fired annealing oven was also built and operated. The tank furnace and annealing oven were partially dismantled at the end of the firing, so as to record the remains for comparison with excavated remains of Roman furnaces. The furnaces were then covered until the winter of 2007, when they were fully exposed to the elements. We will monitor their deterioration and gradual collapse in the years to come.

No experimental archaeological Roman glass project involving a furnace and workshop has ever been conducted in Britain over such an extended period, and we hope that the published results will prove useful to glass technicians, historians and archaeologists alike. Two articles on the Roman Furnace Project have been published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Volume 50 (2008).

Further information

Mark Taylor and David Hill, Roman Glassmakers

tel: 01264 889688

email: [email protected]

Mark and David produce and sell Roman glass from their workshop in Andover. Additionally, they offer a variety of glassblowing demonstrations and lessons. Details of the vessels available for sale, as well as the classes, can be found on their website.

Do you know someone we should interview? Let us know, write to [email protected]

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