Last week, The Corning Museum of Glass announced Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop, a major exhibition that will reveal new insights into ancient glassblowing and glassmaking. Presenting artifacts from a 4th Century CE glass workshop discovered in Jalame, Israel, the exhibition will also allow visitors to experience ancient glassblowing in immersive and experiential new ways. Organized by Katherine A. Larson, Curator of Ancient Glass, the show will run from May 13, 2023, through January 7, 2024.
The excavations at Jalame, co-organized by The Corning Museum of Glass and the University of Missouri, Columbia, were conducted between 1963 and 1971. Objects found at the site revealed that the glass workshop at Jalame made both raw glass and finished glass vessels in the same location—a notable exception to the norm. Typically throughout the first millennium CE, raw glass was made in the coastal areas of modern Lebanon and Israel and then was sold and traded throughout the Roman Empire, where glassblowing workshops transformed it into vessels for sale to neighboring people.
“Jalame is a significant ancient glass workshop because glassmaking—the act of combining sand and mineral soda in a furnace reaching more than 2000 degrees Fahrenheit—and glassblowing—the act of making vessels and other objects—happened in the same place,” said Larson. “Jalame set a standard for understanding what an ancient glass workshop looks like archaeologically. So much of what we now know about ancient glass production is thanks to the excavations at Jalame and the pioneering work of the Corning-Missouri team.”
Artifacts on view from the excavation will include chunks of raw glass, parts of the glassmaking furnace, glassblowing debris, dozens of fragments from utilitarian glass vessels, and coins. These will be displayed alongside intact vessels of the types made at Jalame and other nearby workshops in the late 4th century. The Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri, Columbia will loan archival photographs, notes, and other documents, along with glass and coins.
“Since the Jalame excavations in the 1960s, archaeologists have discovered dozens of ancient glass workshops in coastal Israel, spanning hundreds of years of history,” shared Larson. “Some were located in the heart of towns, and others—like Jalame—were in less populated rural areas. Each of these workshops seems to have only operated for a short time before the glass workers packed up and moved a short distance away, perhaps following the expendable fuel sources. The vessels they made were utilitarian tableware—bowls, plates, beakers, pitchers, and perfume containers—for the middle-class residents of nearby towns and villages. Many of these objects broke and were discarded or recycled, but others were buried intact as grave goods. These abundant finds attest to the prominence of glass in the everyday lives of everyday people, who lived in a period of political transition and cultural continuity from the late Roman to early Byzantine empires.”
“We are grateful to the University of Missouri, Columbia for their 50-year collaboration and their support now in realizing this groundbreaking exhibition,” said Karol Wight, President and Executive Director of The Corning Museum of Glass. “Revisiting these objects in the context of new discoveries from similar archeological sites and using new scientific techniques developed in the ensuing 50 years has significantly deepened our understanding of ancient glassblowing at sites like Jalame.”
After the Corning-Missouri team—under the direction of Dr. Gladys Weinberg (1909–2002)—completed excavation of the site in 1971, the project team studied the finds for decades. Dr. Robert Brill (1929–2021), Research Scientist at The Corning Museum of Glass, conducted extensive scientific analysis on glass found at the site and verified that the glass at Jalame was very likely made from sands from the nearby Belus River (now known as the Na’aman River), just as the ancient Roman author Pliny reported almost 2,000 years ago. Weinberg also worked closely with Dominick Labino (1910–1987), a pioneer in the Studio Glass Movement with an affinity for ancient glass, to better understand glassmaking techniques at Jalame.
The Corning Museum of Glass Hot Glass Team is continuing this investigation in 2022. In preparation for the exhibition and using available archaeological evidence, they have built a wood-fired glassblowing furnace from daub. This combination of refired clay and straw insulates well and does not require any supplemental heat source or bellows to achieve temperatures hot enough to blow glass. The Museum’s team of expert glassblowers has been studying objects made at Jalame and experimenting with recreating them without the benefit of modern tools, like the glassblower’s bench and shears. A series of videos filmed at the wood-fired furnace will be available in the galleries, showing processes such as bringing the furnace up to temperatures necessary to blow glass and techniques and tools used by ancient glass blowers. The working furnace itself will be featured in a series of weekly demonstrations for Museum visitors during summer 2023.
To accompany the exhibition, Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop, The Corning Museum of Glass will release a 36-page comic-book-style publication exploring many of the themes and objects in the exhibition. Co-authored by exhibition curator Katherine Larson and UK-based archaeological illustrator John Swogger, the comic will: examine the history of the excavation of Jalame and its importance to the study of ancient glass; illustrate how furnaces for glass making and glass working operated; and feature new discoveries made about the site and in the region. Illustrated by Swogger, the comic will delight younger readers as their first introduction to archaeology and ancient glass, but also serve as an accessible reference for students, professionals, and researchers.
The exhibition will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), the world’s largest practice dedicated to the planning and design of museums and narrative environments. RAA uses physical space as a medium for communication and dialogue and the tools of storytelling, design, theater, media, and interactive technology, as well as the narrative power of architecture, to communicate big ideas.
Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop opens on May 13, 2023.