Roman Glass Perfume Containers

Cosmetics in ancient Rome

Cosmetics, first used in ancient Rome for ritual purposes, [1] were part of daily life. Some fashionable cosmetics, such as those imported from Germany, Gaul and China, were so expensive that the Lex Oppia tried to limit their use in 189 BCE. [2] These "designer brands" spawned cheap knock-offs that were sold to poorer women. [3] Working-class women could afford the cheaper varieties, but may not have had the time (or slaves) to apply the makeup [4] as the use of makeup was a time-consuming affair because cosmetics needed to be reapplied several times a day due to weather conditions and poor composition. [5]

Cosmetics were applied in private, usually in a small room where men did not enter. Cosmetae, female slaves that adorned their mistresses, were especially praised for their skills. [6] They would beautify their mistresses with cultus, the Latin word encompassing makeup, perfume and jewelry. [7]

Scent was also an important factor of beauty. Women who smelled good were presumed to be healthy. Due to the stench of many of the ingredients used in cosmetics at the time, women often drenched themselves in copious amounts of perfume. [8]

Christian women tended to avoid cosmetics with the belief that they should praise what God gave them. [9] Some men, especially cross-dressers, did use cosmetics, although it was viewed as effeminate and improper. [10]

All cosmetic ingredients were also used as medicines to treat various ailments. Lead, although known to be poisonous, was still widely used. [7]

The Ancient History Of Perfume

If you're a perfume aficionado, you probably know the basics of the modern history of perfume. You know how Guerlain and Coty were the first big companies to mass-produce perfume, you know that Chanel No 5 smashed sales records and made perfume history, and you understand how scents marketed by famous women from Elizabeth Taylor to Katy Perry have defined the perfume market for decades. But the slick glass bottles and perfectly airbrushed celeb campaigns of today's perfume counters belie a frankly strange history that stretches back thousands of years — and involves chemicals derived from the butts of dead cats, the Crusades, "god sweat," scented feet, the Plague and whale vomit.

The history of perfume is more than just the history of human beings trying to smell nice — it's a history filled with much strife and innovation. The ingredients that are used to create scents have historically been hugely important for trade routes high-class scents have always been used as a method of distinguishing nobility from the peasantry (Elizabeth I wore a perfume made of musk and rose-water, while Napoleon ordered 50 bottles of cologne a month), and fragrance has been tied to expressions of religious devotion, health precautions and cleanliness efforts for most of the history of human civilization.

Here are some of the ancient origins of perfume. Take them in, and then look at your bathroom cabinet with relief.

Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians were huge fans of perfume, and used it for both ceremonial and beautification purposes: fragrance was thought to be the sweat of the sun-god Ra. They even had a god of perfume, Nefertum, who wore a head dress made of water lilies (one of the biggest perfume ingredients of the time). Archaeologists have also uncovered many Egyptian recipes and elaborate prescriptions for perfume-making. If you were a king or other person of high status in Egyptian society, perfume of some sort was going to be part of your everyday life, smeared on you in the form of scented oil to keep you fragrant. (In the modern world, alcohol is the base material on which perfumes are built, but in ancient times, perfumes were made with an oil base.) In fact, the University of Bonn is currently trying to recreate a pharaoh's perfume from 1479 BC, based off its dessicated remains found in a flagon. Chances are it'll be sticky and smell heavily of river botanicals and incense. (And no, poor people didn't get to wear any perfume.)

Egyptians imported huge amounts of perfume ingredients from Punt, a region of Africa which specialized in aromatic woods and myrrh — so much so that the perfume trade was a big part of international relations for both of the regions. It was basically the equivalent of the U.S. and China striking a million-dollar trade deal for sandalwood.

Ancient Persia

The ancient Persian royal class was also seriously invested in perfume — so much so that it was common for kings to be pictured with perfume bottles in Persian art. The legendary rulers Darius and Xerxes are shown in one relief sitting comfortably with their perfume bottles and holding perfume flowers in their hands. It was the ancient equivalent of Prince William having a Burberry fragrance contract.

The Persians dominated the perfume trade for hundreds of years, and many believe that they invented the distillation process that led to the discovery of base alcohol. One thing we do know for sure is that Avicenna, the Persian doctor, chemist and philosopher, experimented extensively with distillation to try and make better scents, and was the first to figure out the chemistry behind perfumes that weren't oil-based.

Ancient Rome

So many ancient Roman and Greek perfume recipes have survived (including those inked carefully by people like Pliny the Elder in his Natural History) that we are actually able to recreate ancient perfumes in our modern era. The ancient Greeks and Romans carefully documented their perfume-making processes. In fact, there's even a mural in a perfume-maker's house in Pompeii documenting the process of making Greco-Roman perfumes: first, oil was made by pressing olives then ingredients like plants and woods were added to the oil using meticulous scale measurements from a recipe finally, they were left to "steep" — that is, the ingredients were left in the oil so that the oil could take on its scent — before being sold.

The world's oldest perfume factory was unearthed in Cyprus in 2007 — the mythological home of Aphrodite, goddess of love. But this probably wasn't a coincidence. The cult of Aphrodite's strong cultural link to perfume meant that this perfume factory was probably supplying scents for the temples and worshippers. Perfume was often used in ancient societies to bring believers closer to the gods. But scent wasn't just for religious purposes: it was everywhere. By a rough guess, by 100 AD Romans were using 2800 tons of frankincense a year , and perfume was used in beauty products, public baths and even on the soles of feet.

Ironically, Pliny's meticulously kept recipe records were actually part of a condemnation of perfumes. In James I. Porter's Constructions of The Classical Body , he points out that excessive use of perfumes were actually seen as un-Roman by some Pliny approvingly recounts how an aristocrat's hiding place was discovered by the scent of his perfume. Some people definitely thought pretty scents should stay confined to the temples.

Ancient China

The ancient Chinese relationship with scent didn't really focus on the body: rather than wearing perfume, ancient Chinese culture utilized scent by burning incense and fragrant material in special spaces. Histories of the use of scent in Chinese society tend to emphasize that perfumes weren't originally considered a cosmetic there rather, they were used for disinfection and purity, as it was believed that they could eliminate disease from rooms. While scented flowers were a part of traditional gardens, and mandarin oranges were once used by noblewomen to scent their hands, it seems that for centuries, wearing perfumes on your body wasn't necessarily the "in thing" in China.

But even though there's a myth today that there was no perfume used on bodies in ancient China, it's nonsense. According to Chinese chemistry historians, the period between the Sui and the Song dynasties was rife with personal perfumes, with nobles competing for the best scents and importing ingredients via the Silk Road. By the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the emperor seems to have carried a "perfume pouch" year-round, an adaptation of the traditional pocket pouch that brought good luck — except that his was stuffed with fragrant herbs.

The big difference between this and other perfume traditions, though? A lot of Chinese perfume ingredients were also used for many other purposes, like food and medicine.

Medieval Europe

If you were anybody in Europe from the 1200s to about the 1600s, you carried a pomander — a ball of scented materials, kept inside a lovely open case, and used to ward off infection and keep the air around you clean. Since the medieval Europeans literally thought that bad air could make you sick (it's called the theory of the miasma, which postulated that diseases were thought to be suspended in badly scented, unhealthy air), these little baubles were seen as life-savers as well as charming accessories.

The whole idea of this portable perfume seems to have popped up in the Middle Ages after Crusaders, returning from holy wars in Arabia, also brought back their enemies' perfume-making secrets. Even though the idea of personal oil-based perfumes didn't catch on, they discovered that civet, castor, musk, ambergris and other animal-based products made great bases for scents, and carried scent bags or sachets to perfume their clothes. But the first alcohol-based perfume was created in this period, too: it was known as Hungary Water, because it was believed to have been created for the Queen of Hungary during the 14th century, and involved distilled alcohol and herbs (probably rosemary and mint).

And in case you were wondering what those animal-based ingredients were, I hope you have a strong stomach. Musk is a secretion from the "musk pod" of the male musk deer, an organ used for marking territory civet is a liquid from the anal glands of civet cats castor is made from the scent glands of beavers and ambergris is a grey oily lump found in the digestive systems of sperm whales, probably a byproduct of trying to digest squid. Yep. Glamorous.

1400-1500s Italy

A serious breakthrough in perfume production came in medieval Italy, when they discovered how to create aqua mirabilis, a clear substance made of 95 percent alcohol and imbued with strong scent. And thus, the liquid perfume was born. After this invention, Italy — Venice in particular — became the center of the world perfume trade for several hundred years.

If there's one person who definitely brought Italian perfume to France and the rest of the world, it was Catherine de Medici, who as an Italian bride wed to the French king had her own perfume made up for her by her Italian parfumier, Rene le Florentin (Rene the Florentine) – a scented water with bergamot and orange blossom. He also created musk and civet-scented gloves for her, which were a sensation. Given that Catherine's been accused of murdering people with gloves daubed with poison, this is actually pretty poetic.

From there, things accelerated: after a brief dip in perfume popularity in repressed Victorian England, synthetic compounds began to be discovered in the late 1800s, and the modern perfume industry was born. So next time you daub on some of your Miss Dior, enjoy — and be thankful you're not carrying around beaver-butt liquid.


The term unguentarium is functional rather than descriptive that is, it refers to the purpose for which this relatively small vessel is thought to have been used and is not typological by shape. [7] In its early development, the shape was modeled in miniature after larger amphoras, which would have been the original bulk shipping containers for products sold in the ungentaria. [8] An unguentarium is not always distinguished in the scholarly literature from an ampulla, [9] a term from antiquity that may refer to these as well as other small vessels. In scholarship of the modern era, an unguentarium is sometimes called a lacrimarium ("tear-container") or balsamarium ("balsam-container"). All three terms reflect modern usage based on assumptions about their use, and no single word is found in ancient sources for the vessels. [10]

Small vessels of two shapes, usually but not always without handles, are referred to as unguentaria:

  • Fusiform – The fusiform shape (example here [11] ) is characteristic of Hellenistic unguentaria: a heavy ovoid body resting usually on a small distinct ring foot, with a long tubular neck or cylindrical stem. The shape is comparable to a spindle (Latin fusus, "spindle"). [12] These ovoid unguentaria first appear in Cyprus around the turn of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. [13] and may have been Near Eastern in origin or influence. [14] Early examples are similar in shape to the amphoriskos. They are believed to develop functionally from the lekythos, which they replace by the end of the 4th century BC. [15] The fusiform unguentarium was in use for several centuries and the form shows many variations, including later examples with very slender profiles. [16]
  • Piriform – The unguentarium with a footless body that is rounded or pear-shaped (Latin pirus, "pear") began to appear in the second half of the 1st century BC and is characteristic of the Roman era, particularly the early Principate. [17] These are regularly associated with graves in the 1st century. [18] The piriform unguentarium was in use for a limited period of about a hundred years and did not replace the fusiform. [19] An exception to this chronology is the squat rounded unguentarium with painted bands found on the northeast coast of Spain and in other Iberian cemeteries, dated as early as the 5th century BC. [20]

The word bulbous is used rather confusingly in the scholarship to describe both forms. "Bulbous" appears as a synonym for "piriform", but is applied descriptively to the fusiform to distinguish certain examples from more slender profiles.

Thin blown-glass bottles began to appear in Cyprus after the middle of the 1st century BC. [21] The use of the new medium for unguentaria resulted in variations of form, including the thin, "test-tube" type. Glass unguentaria made in Thessaly, for example, often have a distinctive conical body, flared like the bell of a trumpet, or are squat and rounded with a very long neck they come in a range of colors including aquamarine, pale green, and yellowish green, or may be colorless. [22] This shape was popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and is also characteristic of Thrace and Cyprus. [23]

Glass bird-shaped containers for cosmetics found at various Roman sites from Herculaneum to Spain have also been called unguentaria. In these examples, dating from the period of the piriform type, the neck has become a spout, and the profile is no longer vertical. As with other unguentaria, no clear distinction can be made between the use of these vessels for grooming in daily life, and their inclusion in tombs. [24]

In her typology of Hellenistic vessels at Athens used to contain and pour oil, Susan I. Rotroff classes unguentaria with plastic askoi as used for perfumed oil in bathing and grooming, but notes the diversity of craft tradition associated with them. [25] Most unguentaria from the Athenian agora were probably intended for secular use, as they are found in household dumps the pattern of deposition in some wells, however, suggests votive offerings. [26]

It has been suggested that products shipped in bulk containers were dispensed for sale in these smaller vessels. [27] Perfumed oils, ointments, balsam, jasmine, kohl, honey, mastic, incense, scent powders [28] and cosmetic preparations are among the contents proposed by scholars or evidenced by archaeology. [29] With their long slender necks, the vessels were most suited for dispensing liquids, oils, and powders. Roman examples of bulbous unguentaria have been found with traces of olive oil. [30] A sharp distinction should not be made between cosmetics and medicaments, as ingredients for these preparations often overlap. [31] Chemical analysis of red and pink substances in two glass unguentaria from the Ebro valley in Spain showed that they were likely cosmetics, but similar ingredients are found in therapeutic recipes. [32] The name "unguentarium" may be misleading, as solid unguents, or ointments, would be difficult to remove through the narrow neck. [33] There is little or no evidence of how the contents were prevented from spilling, as no corks, wax or clay seals, or lead stoppers have been found with unguentaria as they have with other vessels. [34]

The manufacture of unguentaria seems to occur in conjunction with the marketing of products. [35] Roman glass unguentaria often have markings or lettering, usually on the base, that could indicate the manufacturer of the vessel or the supplier or dealer of the product inside. [36] Nabataean piriform wheel-thrown unguentaria show creative variations by potters, perhaps to establish brand identity for the product they contained. These vessels include some of the larger unguentaria and may have been used for shipping as part of the Nabataeans' active perfume trade. [37]

Mass production of Roman blown-glass unguentaria is indicated by their frequent asymmetry, which results from speed and timing in shearing the neck from the blow-pipe. Recycled glass, as from a large, heavy broken bottle, could have been used to make many of the smaller unguentaria. [38]

While unguentaria often appear among grave goods, the purpose of their inclusion has not been determined with certainty or may vary by site. Unguentaria found in burials range in size from miniatures (4–5 cm.) to large examples 20 to 30 cm. high. [39] The presence of the vessel in Hellenistic graves may indicate a revival of an earlier practice, attested in the 6th century by aryballoi and in some 5th- and early 4th-century burials by small lekythoi, which involved the deposit of a small container of perfume or oil with the dead. [40] By the 3rd century, the black-figure lekythos with palmettes or Dionysiac scenes has been completely replaced as a standard grave good by the undecorated, "cruder" unguentarium, indicating a shift in burial practice that is characteristic of the period. [41]

Although the unguentaria seem often to have been buried along with other objects associated with or treasured by the deceased or as grave gifts, they may have also have held a substance — such as oil, wine, or powdered incense — for a graveside ritual. The design of many unguentaria would not permit them to stand without support, but no stands have been found. Late Hellenistic gravestones depict unguentaria resting in a support, but they would also fit well in the palm of the hand, as shown in this Egyptian mummy portrait. [42] Ritual dispensing, rather than long-term storage, might explain both the lack of durability needed for use in daily life and the absence of stands, stoppers or seals. [43]

There is no standard assemblage of grave goods for which an unguentarium was required. Unguentaria often appear among articles for personal grooming in one example, with a stone cosmetics pallet, strigils, tweezers and a pyxis, [44] and in another, with a pyxis, mirror, bronze scissors and tongs. [45] Gravestones from Anatolia depict the deceased with a similar group of objects, including mirror, comb, boxes and cistai, wool basket, and unguentaria. [46] One Athenian burial produced five bulbous unguentaria along with five knucklebones and a bronze needle another, of a female child, contained an unguentarium, earrings, a blue glass pendant, and six knucklebones. [47] Gold leaves and unguentaria were the grave gifts in a burial chamber at Kourion in Cyprus. [48]

At Amisos (modern Samsun) in the Black Sea region of Turkey, the grave goods in the early Hellenistic tomb of a wealthy family were exceptionally rich and of outstanding workmanship, but the unguentaria were plain and made of clay. One of the bodies was adorned with gold earrings in the shape of Nike, ten gold appliqués of Thetis riding a hippocamp, snake bracelets and bracelets with lion-head terminals, and other gold items on the right side of the skull was placed a single clay unguentarium. [49]

Some graves contain multiple unguentaria, in one case numbering 31 of the fusiform type, while others hold a single example. [50] Grave gifts sometimes consisted of nothing but unguentaria. [51] Neither the piriform unguentaria nor thin blown-glass vessels occur in burials before the Augustan period. [52] In Mainz, unguentaria are the most common grave gifts made of glass during the first half of the 1st century in Gaul and Britain, glass unguentaria appear as containers for scented oils in both cremations and inhumations in this period and continuing into the 3rd century, but disappear by the 4th. [53]

Rock-cut tombs at Labraunda, investigated in 2005, contained unguentaria. [ citation needed ]

The grave goods of Jewish ossuaries at Jericho in the Second Temple period often include unguentaria along with bowls, lamps, and various vessels ordinarily encountered in daily life. [54]

Unguentaria have also been found in Athens in ritual pyres along with the burnt bones of animal sacrifice and smashed pottery. [55] A single unguentarium was buried with a dog, possibly a pet, in an industrial district in Athens. [56]

The many unguentaria at the Latin town of Aricia reflect the growth of commerce to support ritual activities at the famous sanctuary of Diana there. [57]

Most ceramic unguentaria either lack surface decoration or have simple horizontal lines around the neck or body consisting most often of three narrow bands of white paint. [58]

Glass unguentaria vary widely in quality and show a range of colors. The Judean desert caves, for instance, yielded unguentaria of aquamarine glass with large bubbles. [59] A striking example of a glass fusiform unguentarium from 1st-century Syria, a little over six inches tall, has a white spiral curling around the cerulean body. The base comes to an elongated, rounded point, and the lip is well-formed and prominent. [60] Techniques of "marbling," intended to emulate fashionably extravagant vessels made of sardonyx during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, were used for unguentaria as well as bowls. [61]

An exceptionally elaborate unguentarium was found in a cremation burial at Stobi in North Macedonia. Made of milky glass, the vessel has a globular body decorated with an egg-and-dart motif around the top and festoons and vine clusters around the bottom. The middle had six panels illustrating various vessels, with two examples each of the hydria, oenochoe and crater. [62]

The use of the term "lacrimarium" or "lacrimatorium" (also "lacrymatory" or "lachrymatory") for unguentaria persisted because the small vessels were believed to have been used to collect the tears (lacrimae) of mourners to accompany the beloved in the grave. This belief was supported by a scriptural reference (Psalm 56.8) translated in the King James Bible as "put thou my tears into thy bottle." [63] Shakespeare refers to the practice in Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra chides the Roman for shedding few tears over the death of his wife: "Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill / With sorrowful water?" [64]

The minor Victorian poet Charles Tennyson Turner, brother of the more famous Tennyson, wrote a sonnet called "The Lachrymatory," elaborating the idea of "the phial of his kinsman’s tears." Since the early 20th century, the use of a vessel to collect tears of grief has been regarded as more poetic than plausible. [65]

In January 1896, The Atlantic Monthly published a poem by Frank Dempster Sherman (1860-1916) called "A Tear Bottle." which reference Greek Girl Tears, alluding to the role that the tear bottle played during Greek times [66]

Anderson-Stojanovic, Virginia R. "The Chronology and Function of Ceramic Unguentaria." American Journal of Archaeology 91 (1987) 105–122.

Khairy, Nabil I. "Nabataean Piriform Unguentaria." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 240 (1980) 85–91.

Robinson, Henry S. "Pottery of the Roman Period: Chronology." In The Athenian Agora, vol. 5. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1959.

Pérez-Arantegui, Josefina, with Juan Ángel Paz-Peralta and Esperanza Ortiz-Palomar. "Analysis of the Products Contained in Two Roman Glass unguentaria from the Colony of Celsa (Spain)." Journal of Archaeological Science 23 (1996) 649–655.

Rotroff, Susan I. "Hellenistic Pottery: Athenian and Imported Wheelmade Table Ware and Related Material," part 1: text. The Athenian Agora 29 (1997) iii–575. 0-87661-229-X (full text online).

Rotroff, Susan I. "Fusiform Unguentaria." In "Hellenistic Pottery: The Plain Wares." The Athenian Agora 33 (2006), pp. 137–160. 0-87661-233-8 (full text online).

Thompson, Homer A. "Two Centuries of Hellenistic Pottery." Hesperia 4 (1934) 311–476. Edited by Susan I. Rotroff and reprinted with other essays in Hellenistic Pottery and Terracottas (American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1987). 0-87661-944-8


Despite the growth of glass working in the Hellenistic World and the growing place of glass in material culture, at the beginning of the 1st century AD there was still no Latin word for it in the Roman world. [1] However, glass was being produced in Roman contexts using primarily Hellenistic techniques and styles (see glass, history) by the late Republican period. The majority of manufacturing techniques were time-consuming, and the initial product was a thick-walled vessel which required considerable finishing. This, combined with the cost of importing natron for the production of raw glass, contributed to the limited use of glass and its position as an expensive and high-status material.

The glass industry was therefore a relatively minor craft during the Republican period although, during the early decades of the 1st century AD the quantity and diversity of glass vessels available increased dramatically. [1] This was a direct result of the massive growth of the Roman influence at the end of the Republican period, the Pax Romana that followed the decades of civil war, [4] and the stabilisation of the state that occurred under Augustus' rule. [1] Still, Roman glasswares were already making their way from Western Asia (i.e. the Parthian Empire) to the Kushan Empire in Afghanistan and India and as far as the Han Empire of China. The first Roman glass found in China came from an early 1st-century BC tomb at Guangzhou, ostensibly via the South China Sea. [5] [6]

In addition to this a major new technique in glass production had been introduced during the 1st century AD. [7] Glassblowing allowed glass workers to produce vessels with considerably thinner walls, decreasing the amount of glass needed for each vessel. Glass blowing was also considerably quicker than other techniques, and vessels required considerably less finishing, representing a further saving in time, raw material and equipment. Although earlier techniques dominated during the early Augustan and Julio-Claudian periods, [8] by the middle to late 1st century AD earlier techniques had been largely abandoned in favour of blowing. [1]

As a result of these factors, the cost of production was reduced and glass became available for a wider section of society in a growing variety of forms. By the mid-1st century AD this meant that glass vessels had moved from a valuable, high-status commodity, to a material commonly available: "a [glass] drinking cup could be bought for a copper coin" (Strabo, Geographica XVI.2). This growth also saw the production of the first glass tesserae for mosaics, and the first window glass, [1] as furnace technology improved allowing molten glass to be produced for the first time. [9] At the same time, the expansion of the empire also brought an influx of people and an expansion of cultural influences that resulted in the adoption of eastern decorative styles. [1] The changes that took place in the Roman glass industry during this period can therefore be seen as a result of three primary influences: historical events, technical innovation and contemporary fashions. [1] They are also linked to the fashions and technologies developed in the ceramic trade, from which a number of forms and techniques were drawn. [1]

Glass making reached its peak at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, with glass objects in domestic contexts of every kind. [1] The primary production techniques of blowing, and to a lesser extent casting, remained in use for the rest of the Roman period, with changes in vessel types but little change in technology. [1] From the 2nd century onwards styles became increasingly regionalised, [1] and evidence indicates that bottles and closed vessels such as unguentaria moved as a by-product of the trade in their contents, and many appear to have matched the Roman scale of liquid measurement. [1] The use of coloured glass as a decorative addition to pale and colourless glasses also increased, and metal vessels continued to influence the shape of glass vessels. [1] After the conversion of Constantine, glass works began to move more quickly from depicting Pagan religious imagery towards Christian religious imagery. The movement of the capital to Constantinople rejuvenated the Eastern glass industry, and the presence of the Roman military in the western provinces did much to prevent any downturn there. [1] By the mid-4th century mould-blowing was in use only sporadically. [1]

Composition Edit

Roman glass production relied on the application of heat to fuse two primary ingredients: silica and soda. [7] Technical studies of archaeological glasses divide the ingredients of glass as formers, fluxes, stabilisers, as well as possible opacifiers or colourants.

  • Former: The major component of the glass is silica, which during the Roman period was sand (quartz), which contains some alumina (typically 2.5%) and nearly 8% lime. [4] Alumina contents vary, peaking around 3% in glasses from the western Empire, and remaining notably lower in glasses from the Middle East. [4]
  • Flux: This ingredient was used to lower the melting point of the silica to form glass. Analysis of Roman glass has shown that soda (sodium carbonate) was used exclusively in glass production. [10] During this period, the primary source of soda was natron, a naturally occurring salt found in dry lake beds. The main source of natron during the Roman period was Wadi El Natrun, Egypt, although there may have been a source in Italy.
  • Stabiliser: Glasses formed of silica and soda are naturally soluble, and require the addition of a stabiliser such as lime or magnesia. Lime was the primary stabiliser in use during the Roman period, entering the glass through calcareous particles in the beach sand, rather than as a separate component. [11]

Roman glass has also been shown to contain around 1% to 2% chlorine, in contrast to later glasses. [10] This is thought to have originated either in the addition of salt (NaCl) to reduce the melting temperature and viscosity of the glass, or as a contaminant in the natron.

Glass making Edit

Archaeological evidence for glass making during the Roman period is scarce, but by drawing comparisons with the later Islamic and Byzantine periods, it is clear that glass making was a significant industry. By the end of the Roman period glass was being produced in large quantities contained in tanks situated inside highly specialised furnaces, as the 8-tonne glass slab recovered from Bet She'arim illustrates. [11] These workshops could produce many tonnes of raw glass in a single furnace firing, and although this firing might have taken weeks, a single primary workshop could potentially supply multiple secondary glass working sites. It is therefore thought that raw glass production was centred around a relatively small number of workshops, [11] where glass was produced on a large scale and then broken into chunks. [12] There is only limited evidence for local glass making, and only in context of window glass. [13] The development of this large-scale industry is not fully understood, but Pliny's Natural History (36, 194), in addition to evidence for the first use of molten glass in the mid-1st century AD, [9] indicates that furnace technologies experienced marked development during the early-to-mid-1st century AD, in tandem with the expansion of glass production.

The siting of glass-making workshops was governed by three primary factors: the availability of fuel which was needed in large quantities, sources of sand which represented the major constituent of the glass, and natron to act as a flux. Roman glass relied on natron from Wadi El Natrun, and as a result it is thought that glass-making workshops during the Roman period may have been confined to near-coastal regions of the eastern Mediterranean. [11] This facilitated the trade in the raw colourless or naturally coloured glass which they produced, which reached glass-working sites across the Roman empire. [11]

The scarcity of archaeological evidence for Roman glass-making facilities has resulted in the use of chemical compositions as evidence for production models, [14] as the division of production indicates that any variation is related to differences in raw glass making. [11] However, the Roman reliance on natron from Wadi El Natrun as a flux, [13] has resulted in a largely homogenous composition in the majority of Roman glasses. [13] [15] Despite the publication of major analyses, [16] comparisons of chemical analyses produced by different analytical methods have only recently been attempted, [14] [17] and although there is some variation in Roman glass compositions, meaningful compositional groups have been difficult to establish for this period. [11]

Recycling Edit

The Roman writers Statius and Martial both indicate that recycling broken glass was an important part of the glass industry, and this seems to be supported by the fact that only rarely are glass fragments of any size recovered from domestic sites of this period. [7] In the western empire there is evidence that recycling of broken glass was frequent and extensive, [13] [15] and that quantities of broken glassware were concentrated at local sites prior to melting back into raw glass. [13] Compositionally, repeated recycling is visible via elevated levels of those metals used as colourants. [18]

Melting does not appear to have taken place in crucibles rather, cooking pots appear to have been used for small scale operations. For larger work, large tanks or tank-like ceramic containers were utilised. In the largest cases, large furnaces were built to surround these tanks.

Glass working Edit

In comparison to glass making, there is evidence for glass working in many locations across the empire. Unlike the making process, the working of glass required significantly lower temperatures and substantially less fuel. As a result of this and the expansion of the Empire, glass working sites developed in Rome, Campania and the Po Valley [7] by the end of the 1st century BC, producing the new blown vessels alongside cast vessels. Italy is known to have been a centre for the working and export of brightly coloured vessels at this time, [19] with production peaking during the mid-1st century AD. [7]

By the early-to-mid-1st century AD, the growth of the Empire saw the establishment of glass working sites at locations along trade routes, with Cologne and other Rhineland centres becoming important glass working sites from the Imperial period, [7] and Syrian glass being exported as far as Italy. [20] During this period vessel forms varied between workshops, with areas such as the Rhineland and northern France producing distinctive forms which are not seen further south. [7] Growth in the industry continued into the 3rd century AD, when sites at the Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis appear to have experienced significant expansion, [21] and by the 3rd and early 4th centuries producers north of the Alps were exporting down to the north of Italy and the transalpine regions. [20]

Glass working sites such as those at Aquileia also had an important role in the spread of glassworking traditions [21] and the trade in materials that used hollow glasswares as containers. [20] However, by the 4th [21] and 5th centuries [20] Italian glass workshops predominate.

Styles Edit

The earliest Roman glass follows Hellenistic traditions and uses strongly coloured and 'mosaic' patterned glass. During the late Republican period new highly coloured striped wares with a fusion of dozens of monochrome and lace-work strips were introduced. [1] During this period there is some evidence that styles of glass varied geographically, with the translucent coloured fine wares of the early 1st century notably 'western' in origin, whilst the later colourless fine wares are more 'international'. [8] These objects also represent the first with a distinctly Roman style unrelated to the Hellenistic casting traditions on which they are based, and are characterised by novel rich colours. [1] 'Emerald' green, dark or cobalt blue, a deep blue-green and Persian or 'peacock' blue are most commonly associated with this period, and other colours are very rare. [8] Of these, Emerald green and peacock blue were new colours introduced by the Romano-Italian industry and almost exclusively associated with the production of fine wares. [8]

However, during the last thirty years of the 1st century AD there was a marked change in style, with strong colours disappearing rapidly, replaced by 'aqua' and true colourless glasses. [7] Colourless and 'aqua' glasses had been in use for vessels and some mosaic designs prior to this, but start to dominate the blown glass market at this time. [7] The use of strong colours in cast glass died out during this period, with colourless or 'aqua' glasses dominating the last class of cast vessels to be produced in quantity, as mould and free-blowing took over during the 1st century AD. [8]

From around 70 AD colourless glass becomes the predominant material for fine wares, and the cheaper glasses move towards pale shades of blue, green, and yellow. [8] Debate continues whether this change in fashion indicates a change in attitude that placed glass as individual material of merit no longer required to imitate precious stones, ceramics, or metal, [7] or whether the shift to colourless glass indicated an attempt to mimic highly prized rock crystal. [1] Pliny's Natural History states that "the most highly valued glass is colourless and transparent, as closely as possible resembling rock crystal" (36, 192), which is thought to support this last position, as is evidence for the persistence of casting as a production technique, which produced the thickly walled vessels necessary to take the pressure of extensive cutting and polishing associated with crystal working. [1]

Core and rod formed vessels Edit

Artisans used a mass of mud and straw fixed around a metal rod to form a core, and built up a vessel by either dipping the core in liquified glass, or by trailing liquid glass over the core. [7] The core was removed after the glass had cooled, and handles, rims and bases were then added. These vessels are characterised by relatively thick walls, bright colours and zigzagging patterns of contrasting colours, and were limited in size to small unguent or scent containers. [7] This early technique continued in popularity during the 1st century BC, [1] despite the earlier introduction of slumped and cast vessels.

Cold-cut vessels Edit

This technique is related to the origin of glass as a substitute for gemstones. By borrowing techniques for stone and carved gems, artisans were able to produce a variety of small containers from blocks of raw glass or thick moulded blanks, [7] including cameo glass in two or more colours, and cage cups (still thought by most scholars to have been decorated by cutting, despite some debate).

Glass blowing: free and mould blown vessels Edit

These techniques, which were to dominate the Roman glass working industry after the late 1st century AD, are discussed in detail on the glass blowing page. Mould-blown glass appears in the second quarter of the 1st century AD. [19]

Other production techniques Edit

A number of other techniques were in use during the Roman period:

Cast glass patterns Edit

The glass sheets used for slumping could be produced of plain or multicoloured glass, or even formed of 'mosaic' pieces. The production of these objects later developed into the modern caneworking and millefiori techniques, but is noticeably different. Six primary patterns of 'mosaic' glass have been identified: [7]

  • Floral (millefiori) and spiral patterns: This was produced by binding rods of coloured glass together and heating and fusing them into a single piece. These were then cut in cross-section, and the resulting discs could be fused together to create complex patterns. Alternately, two strips of contrasting-coloured glass could be fused together, and then wound round a glass rod whilst still hot to produce a spiral pattern. [7] Cross-sections of this were also cut, and could be fused together to form a plate or fused to plain glass.
  • Marbled and dappled patterns: Some of these patterns are clearly formed through the distortion of the original pattern during the slumping of the glass plate during melting. [7] However, by using spiral and circular patterns of alternating colours producers were also able to deliberately imitate the appearance of natural stones such as sardonyx. [1] This occurs most often on pillar-moulded bowls, which are one of the commonest glass finds on 1st century sites. [7]
  • Lace patterns: Strips of coloured glass were twisted with a contrasting coloured thread of glass before being fused together. This was a popular method in the early period, but appears to have gone out of fashion by the mid-1st century AD. [7]
  • Striped patterns: Lengths of monochrome and lacework glass were fused together to create vivid striped designs, a technique that developed from the lace pattern technique during the last decades of the 1st century AD. [1]

The production of multicoloured vessels declined after the mid-1st century, but remained in use for some time after. [7]

Gold glass Edit

Gold sandwich glass or gold glass was a technique for fixing a layer of gold leaf with a design between two fused layers of glass, developed in Hellenistic glass and revived in the 3rd century. There are a very fewer larger designs, but the great majority of the around 500 survivals are roundels that are the cut-off bottoms of wine cups or glasses used to mark and decorate graves in the Catacombs of Rome by pressing them into the mortar. The great majority are 4th century, extending into the 5th century. Most are Christian, but many pagan and a few Jewish their iconography has been much studied, although artistically they are relatively unsophisticated. In contrast, a much smaller group of 3rd century portrait levels are superbly executed, with pigment painted on top of the gold. The same technique began to be used for gold tesserae for mosaics in the mid-1st century in Rome, and by the 5th century these had become the standard background for religious mosaics. [23]

Other decorative techniques Edit

A number of other techniques were in use during the Roman period, including enamelled glass and engraved glass.

Shards of broken glass or glass rods were being used in mosaics from the Augustan period onwards, but by the beginning of the 1st century small glass tiles, known as tesserae, were being produced specifically for use in mosaics. [1] These were usually in shades of yellow, blue or green, and were predominantly used in mosaics laid under fountains or as highlights.

Around the same time the first window panes are thought to have been produced. [1] The earliest panes were rough cast into a wooden frame on top of a layer of sand or stone, [1] but from the late 3rd century onwards window glass was made by the muff process, where a blown cylinder was cut laterally and flattened out to produce a sheet. [24]

Colourant Content Comments Furnace Conditions
'Aqua' Iron(II) oxide
'Aqua', a pale blue-green colour, is the common natural colour of untreated glass. Many early Roman vessels are this colour. [7]
Colourless Iron(III) oxide
Colourless glass was produced in the Roman period by adding either antimony or manganese oxide. [1] This oxidised the iron (II) oxide to iron (III) oxide, which although yellow, is a much weaker colourant, allowing the glass to appear colourless. The use of manganese as a decolourant was a Roman invention first noted in the Imperial period prior to this, antimony-rich minerals were used. [1] However, antimony acts as a stronger decolourant than manganese, producing a more truly colourless glass in Italy and northern Europe antimony or a mixture of antimony and manganese continued to be used well into the 3rd century. [25]
Amber Iron-sulfur compounds 0.2%-1.4% S [1]
0.3% Fe
Sulfur is likely to have entered the glass as a contaminant of natron, producing a green tinge. Formation of iron-sulfur compounds produces an amber colour. Reducing
Purple Manganese
(such as pyrolusite)
Around 3% [1] Oxidising [1]
Blue and green Copper 2%–13% [1] The natural 'aqua' shade can be intensified with the addition of copper. During the Roman period this was derived from the recovery of oxide scale from scrap copper when heated, to avoid the contaminants present in copper minerals. [1] Copper produced a translucent blue moving towards a darker and denser green. Oxidising [1]
Dark green Lead By adding lead, the green colour produced by copper could be darkened. [1]
Royal blue to navy Cobalt 0.1% [1] Intense colouration
Powder blue Egyptian blue [1]
Opaque red to brown (Pliny's Haematinum) Copper
>10% Cu
1% – 20% Pb [1]
Under strongly reducing conditions, copper present in the glass will precipitate inside the matrix as cuprous oxide, making the glass appear brown to blood red. Lead encourages precipitation and brilliance. The red is a rare find, but is known to have been in production during the 4th, 5th and later centuries on the continent. [26] Strongly reducing
White Antimony
(such as stibnite)
1–10% [1] Antimony reacts with the lime in the glass matrix to precipitate calcium antimonite crystals creating a white with high opacity. [1] Oxidising
Yellow Antimony and lead
(such as bindheimite). [1]
Precipitation of lead pyroantimonate creates an opaque yellow. Yellow rarely appears alone in Roman glass, but was used for the mosaic and polychrome pieces. [1]

These colours formed the basis of all Roman glass, and although some of them required high technical ability and knowledge, a degree of uniformity was achieved. [1]

Roman Glass

The Romans all but ignored glass as a material until the 1st century BC when blown glass was invented. There was not even a Latin word for it until about 65 BC. Yet scarcely a century later glass vessels could be found in virtually every Roman house. The glassworking craft had been transformed into an industry, with perhaps as many as 100 million vessels being made every year--everything from delicate perfume bottles to heavy storage jars, and all kinds of tableware.

The first glass workers in Italy were slaves, Syrian and Judaean craftsmen shipped over as spoils of war around 10 BC. They brought with them the crafts of mold-casting and free-blowing that were essential for the glassworking industry's success. Their descendants, as freedmen, most likely ran the workshops that sprang up close to every provincial city and military camp throughout the empire. By the early 1st century AD, all of the aesthetic techniques of our modern glass industry--among them mold-blowing, lathe-cutting, and faceting--were standard in the Roman glassworking repertoire.

Mold-blown glass made sturdy vessels suitable for short- and medium-range shipments of marketplace goods. Wine and olive oil, preserved fruits and cooking sauces, dried herbs and medicines were common contents. Compared with massive pottery amphoras, glass bottles figured little in long-range trade. Nevertheless, they often traveled far from where they were made. Filled and refilled, bottles were carted from town to town until they rested finally as storage vessels in some distant provincial kitchen. Glassware could travel long distances swiftly, however, if it was part of a military legion's transfer to a new trouble spot.

The invention of glassblowing, around 70 BC and its industrial-scale use around the time of Christ made glassware affordable for all Romans. The wealthy stored their cosmetics and medicinal lotions in silver and bronze. Poorer folk could now use both pottery and glass. Bottles called unguentaria were used to store oils or lotions. At first small and crudely finished, their shapes became greatly refined over the centuries. Various other kinds of glass juglets and jars stored herbal ingredients and oils so that lotions could be prepared fresh each morning.

(From "Guide to the Etruscan and Roman Worlds at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology" 2002)

Roman Glass Perfume Containers - History

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

A mid-first century A.D. wall painting from Oplontis,
near Pompeii, depicts a glass bowl filled with fruit.
(Courtesy of the Superintendent for Archaeology, Naples)

The peoples of the Roman Empire used more glass than any other ancient civilization. Thanks to the discovery of glassblowing in the Syro-Palestinian region during the first century B.C., glass vessels became commonplace throughout the empire by the first century A.D. and from time to time were exported to places as far afield as Scandinavia and the Far East. An exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia presents more than 200 glass vessels from the museum's collection that were made between the first century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. Unlike most presentations of ancient glass, which focus on the finest or rarest objects and treat them as works of art, this exhibition is as much about people as it is about things. "We should never lose sight of the fact that each of these objects was once handled by someone like you or me," says Stuart Fleming, the show's curator.

Titled Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change, the exhibition has two principal themes: the development of the Roman glass industry and the many uses of glass in daily life. The development of the industry, the show suggests, was influenced by technical innovations, historical events, and changes in taste. The most far-reaching technical innovation was the discovery of glassblowing--arguably the most important discovery in the entire preindustrial history of glassmaking after that of glass itself. Before this discovery, glass vessels were made by labor-intensive techniques such as the creation of shapes by casting or slumping in molds and the finishing of surfaces by grinding and polishing, or by the formation of shapes around a removable core of lightly baked clay. The processes of casting and polishing were relatively slow, restricting the scale of production. Coreforming limited the size and shape of what could be made. Glassblowing provided a solution to all of these problems. Shaping a mass of molten glass by attaching it to a blow pipe and inflating it was faster than casting, and glassblowers soon learned that the biggest limitation on the size of an object was the strength of their arms.

Opalescence on this four-sided juglet (left) [LARGER IMAGE] was caused by centuries of exposure to moisture. Produced in the eastern provinces, this pitcher (right) [LARGER IMAGE] was modeled on Roman silverware. (University of Pennsylvania Museum)

The exhibition suggests that the historical events that gave glassworkers the opportunity to exploit the new technology were the victory of the future emperor, Augustus, at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., and its aftermath. The battle effectively ended a civil war, after which Rome became the capital of an empire that included most of the eastern Mediterranean. Augustan Rome was a rich city with a population that probably approached one million. Italy had other large cities, too, and the demand for manufactured items, including glass, was enormous. Glassmaking quickly became established, and blowing came into its own as the only technique that made large-scale glass production practicable.

At the same time, glass became fashionable. Although lacking the intrinsic value of rock crystal and precious metal, it is attractive and, while some looked down on glass because it was cheap, others admired it. Thus, one emperor, Gallienus (reigned A.D. 260-268), refused to drink from a glass "because nothing was more common," but another, Tacitus (reigned A.D. 275-276), "took great pleasure in the diversity and elaborate workmanship of glass." The Romans' ambivalence about glass is neatly summed up in Petronius' Satyricon, where Trimalchio, the quintessential parvenu, remarks to his guests at dinner, "You will excuse me for what I am about to say: I prefer glass vessels. Certainly, they don't smell and, if they weren't so fragile, I would prefer them to gold. These days, however, they are cheap." Glass had several practical advantages over other materials. As Trimalchio observed, glass vessels do not impart a taste or smell to substances they contain, and for this reason they were frequently used for food, perfumes, and medicines indeed, the physician Scribonius Largus (active about A.D. 50) insisted that certain medical preparations should only be kept in glass containers.

Glass was used at all stages in the preparation and consumption of food. Although the very rich would eat from gold and silver plates, many more used glass vessels for serving food, for drinking, and for washing hands between courses. Indeed, Propertius (died ca. 2 B.C.) reported that glass services were used instead of metal ones for drinking or dining in summer, and Seneca (died ca. A.D. 65) maintained that fruit appears more beautiful when it is in a glass vessel. At his absurdly lavish dinner party, Trimalchio served rare, vintage wines in glass amphorae. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, various foods and condiments, such as garum, a popular fish sauce, were stored in glass bottles and jars. In his treatise on agriculture (written ca. A.D. 60-65), Columella recommended using glass jars for preserving pickles. The jars should have vertical sides, he wrote, so that the contents can be compressed. Glass containers not only preserved the flavor, but also had the advantage (in a society with a high level of illiteracy) of allowing one to see the contents without removing the cover.

The use of glass extended from daily life to the grave. In times and places where cremation was customary, mourners would pour libations and sprinkle perfumes on the pyre. Excavators of Roman cemeteries occasionally find the distorted, fire-damaged remains of glass bottles used in the these rituals. Sometimes the ashes of the deceased were collected in glass urns. These might be special cinerary urns, occasionally with a perforated, funnel-shaped lid that allowed one to pour libations over the ashes but often a large storage jar was used for the purpose. Many people in the Roman world believed in a conscious existence after death and useful objects, including glass vessels and their contents, frequently accompanied the deceased to their tombs. In fact, tombs are the source of the great majority of the Roman glass objects that have survived intact.

This glass bottle, left, would have been used for perishables such as olive oil and the popular fish sauce garum. [LARGER IMAGE] Jars, such as the one to the right, were used for storing salt and favored spices--pepper, rue, and cumin. [LARGER IMAGE]
(University of Pennsylvania Museum)

The wide availability of glass and its association with so many different activities suggest an impressive level of production and distribution. In some (perhaps many) parts of the Roman world, a clear distinction existed between the glassmaker, who melted the raw materials, and the glassworker, who acquired chunks of glass in much the same way that a coppersmith might acquire ingots of copper, remelt it, and fashion it into objects. In the Syro-Palestinian region, excavations have shown that late Roman glassmakers were able to produce several tons of glass (sufficient to make tens of thousands of small to medium-size vessels!) in a single operation, and archaeologists have begun to question how widely the raw glass was marketed. Most glassworkers, on the other hand, probably made their vessels in small workshops that supplied local consumers, who included both the general public and vendors of merchandise that was traded in small quantities. At this local level, recycling may have provided glassworkers with a useful supplement to the unworked material acquired from glassmakers. Both Statius (died ca. A.D. 96) and Martial (died ca. A.D. 104) described street traders bartering sulfur for broken glass, and the most likely explanation for the demand for broken glass is that glassworkers recycled it, just as coppersmiths recycled scrap metal.

Clearly, glass was an integral part of the economic, social, and cultural life of the Roman world, and this exhibition, open through November 1998, provides us with fascinating glimpses of how, when, and why it was used so widely.

Ancient Roman Glass Rare Mold-blown techinque perfume flask. Decoration in relief. Important glass. 9,2 cm H.

PROVENANCE: Collection B.G., Paris. Acquired in the parisian art market 1980's.

CONDITION: Intact, no repairs or fissures, nice iridescence.

DOCUMENTS: Provided of export license issued by the Ministy of Culture.

This is a rare glass perfume bottle done with the mold-blowing technique with small net pattern decoration.

The technique of mold-blowing is a very old method used to make glass containers and objects. A molten glass parison (bubble) on the end of a blow pipe is blown into a mold to give shape and decoration to the vessel. It may be further inflated and worked after removal from the mold.

Glass articles were highly in favor with the Romans who acquired them through trade with Egyptians and Phoenicians. But already from the beginning of the Roman Empire they produced their own glassware in the metropolis and outside it, using glass vessels in the same manner as did the Egyptians and Phoenicians while refining their forms to produce objects of great variety and elegance.

Just about all Roman burials contain clear or greenish glass vessels covered with an iridescent patina due to the action of humidity and air. These flasks, when made in narrow forms, are often called unguentaria or lacrimaria by collectors, but were only used to contain oils and perfumes in the tombs, not to be containers for tears.

The Romans also perfected the art of working figures in relief on the glass vessels with the addition of another layer of glass of a different color, or one of enamel, along with molding, cutting and engraving of the glass, with the result that the surfaces of the containers looked like worked cameos.

- ARVEILLER-DULONG, Véronique. NENNA, Marie-Dominique. Les verres antiques au museé du Louvre. Tomo II. Museé du Louvre. 2006.
- FLEMING, Stuart J. Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 1999.

The seller guarantees that he acquired this piece according to all national and international laws related to the ownership of cultural property. Provenance statement seen by Catawiki.
The piece includes authenticity certificate.
The piece includes Spanish Export License (Passport for European Union) - If the piece is destined outside the European Union a substitution of the export permit should be requested. This process could take between 1 and 2 months.

Debunking the Myth of 19th-Century ‘Tear Catchers’

“Tear catchers” on display alongside other Victorian-era ephemera. Katie Kierstead/Roses & Rue Antiques

The Victorians were experts in the art of mourning: They wore black for extended periods, wove human hair into elaborate wreaths, and wept, it is said, into delicate glass bottles called “tear catchers.” Victorian ephemera is hot these days, as is death, oddly enough—see the rise of the #deathpositive movement—so mourning artifacts are in high demand. Vintage tear catchers, also called “lachrymatory bottles,” can be found in online auctions and marketplaces, as well as through estate sales and antique stores. During the 19th century, and especially in America during and after the Civil War, supposedly, tear catchers were used as a measure of grieving time. Once the tears cried into them had evaporated, the mourning period was over. It’s a good story—too good. In truth, both science and history agree, there’s really no such thing as a tear catcher. Caveat emptor.

“People ask to buy them all of the time. At least a few people a week,” says Christian Harding, owner of The Belfry, an oddities and collectibles store in Seattle. Harding then must explain that the bottles most are looking for—blown, usually clear, glass decorated with patterns, gilding, and colorful enamel—are throwaway perfume bottles. But the “tear catcher” term has stuck, through a combination of historical accident and deceptive, yet effective, marketing.

An illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1850, of a woman crying. Internet Archive/Public Domain

The myth likely began with archaeologists and an oddly chosen term. Small glass bottles were often found in Greek and Roman tombs, and “early scholars romantically dubbed [them] lachrymatories or tear bottles,” writes Grace Elizabeth Arnone Hummel, who runs the perfume website Cleopatra’s Boudoir. Those glass bottles held perfume and unguents, not tears, Hummel explains. “Scientists have performed chemical tests on these flasks and they disproved the romantic theory.” But stories sometimes acquire their own momentum.

Nathan Graves, owner of Cemetery Gates in Portland, Oregon, first stumbled across tear catchers while researching mourning jewelry. He was suspicious immediately, because the bottles look identical to ones he’d seen in antique shops, flea markets, and yard sales for as long as he could remember. “Always thought of them as grandma’s perfume sample collection,” he says. “The idea that people were collecting tears in them seemed like folklore.” The terms “Victorian” and “mourning” in general, Graves continues, have become catchalls for anything old, sentimental, or made of black materials. “I think some people have the tendency to romanticize objects and their history.”

“It’s a beautiful idea but no one really [cried into the bottles],” Harding agrees. “Through the years, after reading many different articles and speaking with other collectors, I realized that the stories were, in fact, just myth.” When asked about tear catchers by collectors eager to add Victorian curiosities to their wunderkammers, Harding explains the true uses of the decorative bottles, but many customers don’t want to believe it—and some just don’t care.

A glass tear catcher, also known as a perfume bottle. Katie Kierstead/Roses & Rue Antiques

“I have probably sold dozens at this point,” says Katie Kierstead, owner of an online Victorian antique shop. She “fell in love with the poetical conceit as much as anyone else,” she says. She did her research and regularly stocks them—in the perfume section. “They are worth the same amount to a perfume bottle collector as to someone interested in mourning,” she says.

Not every seller is so transparent, which helps the tear catcher tale persist. Much of the online information that still links the bottles to the mourning story can be traced back to Tear Catcher Gifts, a company that sells modern tear bottles intended to be given as gifts at special occasions. The startlingly uncritical “tear catcher” article on Wikipedia, at the time this story appears, lists only two sources: the website of Tear Catcher Gifts, and another registered to a Tear Catcher email address.

Victoria mourning fashion from Harper’s Bazaar, 1891. Lisby/CC BY 2.0

According to a 2004 article in Belgrade News, the owners of the largest wholesale distributor of Tear Catcher Gifts’ modern bottles, Timeless Traditions, were inspired by the 1996 bestselling novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, in which a character gives her mother a lachrymatory. “I looked everywhere [for them],” coowner Jacqueline Bean told Belgrade News. “[I] found no bottles but I did find all these women who had read the book and were looking for them too. … Our goal was to saturate the market as quickly as we could to keep competition at bay.” The bottles are available at dozens of stores, both online and off, and several “informative” sites appear to exist entirely to drive customers to purchase them.

“That’s why I think it’s important for academics to engage in public discourse,” says Nuri McBride, a perfume collector and researcher who writes about the intersections of fragrance and death rituals at Death/Scent. “The Internet is, in a lot of ways, its own folklore-creating machine,” she says. “If a unit of data gets shared enough times it is considered true.

Various designs of tear catchers. Katie Kierstead/Roses & Rue Antiques

“A cosmetic historian or a Victorian glass expert could have told a customer in 30 seconds [that] those bottles are not lachrymatories and the colorful eBay descriptions of Civil War brides were spurious at best,” she continues. “But we need to be in a position to interact with each other for that to happen.”

Harding, owner of the Seattle oddities store, hopes that such interactions will happen more often as more people become interested in collecting Victoriana. “Over the five years [my store] has been open, it seems like the situation gets worse,” he says. He continues educating customers, as do Graves and Kierstead. One of the Tear Catcher Gifts sites takes a more untroubled approach to facts: It states that the scientific truth will be uncovered eventually (it already has), “but until then, each of us can choose our own belief.”

Ancient Roman Glass

As they cooked a pot of soup over some natron bricks, they noticed the sand and the natron melting and fusing into a liquid beneath the fire. Although the story is likely a mythical legend, it may bear a grain of truth, since sand from the coast in the area of the Belus river was considered ideal for making glass.

The invention of glass occurred as early as the late 16 th century BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Sand, soda, and lime heated together in a furnace produce a thick fluid which hardens when cooled. Originally glass was used to form solid beads and pendants, but eventually, glassmakers realized that they could wrap molten glass around a vessel-shaped core, which they removed once the glass hardened. Later, glassmakers poured molten glass into molds to form vessels.

During the first century BC, the technique of Roman glass blowing emerged. The Roman glassmaker would dip the end of a hollow metal pipe into molten glass, gathering a gob of the material on the end of the pipe. He then would blow air through the pipe to create a bubble. Tongs were used to pinch and form the vessel as well as to add handles and decorations. A heavy metal rod, known as a pontil, was used to separate the vessel from the blowpipe.

Two of the earliest known workshops that employed the technique were located in Jerusalem and in the region of Galilee. Glassblowing enabled glassmakers to produce large quantities of glass vessels quickly. It also facilitated the production of a wider variety of vessels. With the invention of glassblowing, Roman glass vessels became widely popular. Vessel types from the end of the first century BC and the first century AD include bowls, beakers, jugs, bottles, and perfume flasks.

Roman glass vessels were produced in a variety of colors based on the local materials available. Most vessels produced in the Holy Land are pale blue or green, although purple and clear vessels also exist. Early sources suggest that clear glass was considered to be more valuable than tinted glass. Occasionally cobalt blue vessels come to light in archaeological excavations, but these are almost certainly imported vessels and not locally made.

In addition to the color of the glass, Vessels typically feature an iridescent coating, which reflects a variety of colors. This coating, known as a patina, is the result of mineral buildup that occurred over the centuries.

Tear bottles are a unique vessel type with a corresponding tradition. It is said that every time a young woman cried, she would collect her tears in a bottle. Over time, the tears would accumulate in the bottle. As part of her wedding ceremony, the young woman would present her bottle of tears to her new husband, entrusting him with the safekeeping of her emotions. The tradition of collecting tears goes back to first temple times. The psalmist, David, wrote,

You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.

Glass in the Roman period had many uses in the first century that we can also read about in the New Testament. Here in Gethsemane, Jesus asks God the Father "Would you take this cup away from me".

Jars, vases, flasks, anointment bottles and other home-wares had multiple uses by the rich in the Roman period.

Items such as tear bottles that were used to collect tears for memories, was tradition among the Patricians of the Roman empire.

Roman glass for sale to a collectible that is increasing in value as time passes and makes a wonderful heirloom. This beautiful glass was made 2000 years ago and comes with a certificate of authenticity from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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