How was glass made in antiquity?
This is the question that drove a team from The Corning Museum of Glass and the University of Missouri to undertake the first focused scientific excavation of a Roman-period glass workshop at the site of Jalame el-Asafna in the 1960s. The resulting Jalame excavations, and what we have learned since are now the focus of the special exhibition, Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop, which opened to the public on May 13, 2023, and will close on January 7, 2024.
We especially developed Dig Deeper to be an intergenerational space that can be enjoyed by visitors of all ages, with opportunities to touch ancient glass and glassmaking tools, peer at glass under a microscope, create your own archaeological story, explore the science of glass composition, and consider the ethics of museum collection of ancient objects.
Jalame el-Asafna is located about 10 miles southeast of the city of Haifa at the foot of Mount Carmel in modern Israel. While it is now known to archaeologists and glass specialists as a late-4th century glass workshop, in the late Ottoman and British Mandate period it shared a name with a nearby village whose Palestinian residents were forced to leave when Israel was founded in 1948.
The Corning-Missouri team, which set out in November 1963 to find a likely location to excavate an ancient workshop, was motivated by the same questions that many visitors to our galleries have today: How was glass made? What did the furnace look like? How do you know how old these things are? What was glass made from? At the time Jalame was excavated, little was known about the way glass was made and shaped in the ancient Mediterranean world. That all began to change with the Jalame project.
In three seasons of excavation during the 1960s, the Corning-Missouri team—led by Dr. Gladys Davidson Weinberg, Dr. Robert Brill, and Paul Perrot—found thousands of fragments of glass production debris, raw glass, and pieces of vessels. They also found abundant material from a glass furnace. Most of the finds related to the workshop came from two areas: a dump off the southwest edge of the hill, and a single room with burnt red soil, indicating exposure to high heat. This “Red Room” is now thought to be the remains of a tank furnace used to melt raw ingredients of sand and natron to form glass. Yet it is also clear that glassblowing took place at the site, thanks to the presence of objects such as moils—circles of glass from where the vessel was to the blowpipe as it was formed.
Careful study of the moils and other waste from Jalame led to a number of discoveries about ancient glass manufacture. Weinberg connected with Dominick Labino, a major figure in the early Studio Glass movement, to understand the various forms of waste. They realized that the glassblowers must have had iron blowpipes due to the flakes of iron scale left behind on many of the moils. Some of the moils were crackled, indicating that they had been dunked into water while still hot—a common practice in glassblowing even today.
Early in the exhibition planning, we realized that this show was going to be a bit different than many of the other exhibitions the Museum has mounted over the years. The core objects would be real archaeological materials found in the excavations, not the intact museum objects most visitors are used to seeing. We recognized that this exhibition provided an opportunity to focus on all three pillars of the Museum’s mission: art, history, and science. This would not just be an exhibition about what we know about ancient glass, but also how we know what we know. In so doing, we wanted to invite visitors into the process and excitement of archaeological discovery.
To fulfill that goal, the Museum’s Digital Media team custom built a digital game that brings the excitement of archaeological discovery to life. Visitors pick up an “Archaeology Team” Access Pass at the exhibition entrance to activate the experience and track their progress. At the four stations positioned in the exhibition, they can earn badges by excavating an artifact from the site, analyzing its composition, learning how it was made, and more.
Another captivating element of the exhibition is a series of videos filmed in September 2022 at a replica ancient wood-fueled furnace built by the Museum’s Hot Glass Team, following blueprints provided by Mark Taylor and David Hill (known as “The Glassmakers”—specialists in recreating ancient Roman glass), captured and edited by our Video team. These videos show glassblowing at the furnace and how various types of discarded debris would have been formed and discarded at the site. The Hot Glass Team had to learn how to work in this small, intimate setting without the use of familiar tools like the bench and shears. The original furnace, built from a mixture of refired ceramic and straw, will be on display in the Innovations Gallery exhibition Get Stoked! Fueling Furnaces from Wood to Wind. The public can also experience the wood-fired furnace in a series of demonstrations over the summer.
Dig Deeper has many other hands-on and interactive opportunities to explore ancient glass and spark insight into archaeological discovery, which you’ll have to visit the Museum before January 7 to experience! Can’t make it to the Museum this year? Join us for Hot Glass Livestreams on June 15, July 6, and July 20, and the 61st Annual Seminar on Glass on October 19 and 20.