Roman Glass and Jerusalem Trade

By Daniel Ramazzotto

Jerusalem is a rich archeological site for various reasons.  It is an old city: the first archeological evidence of human settlement dates to before 2000 BCE.[1]  More importantly, the city has been settled and conquered by many different kingdoms and empires, each of which has left its own ruins. The Egyptians, Israelites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Suljuks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Jordanians, and Israelis all held Jerusalem under their rule at some point in time.  During their reigns, these powers left behind their legacy in tangible, material ways, such as large public works, monumental buildings, and religious sites.  But they also left behind more mundane artifacts that are by no means less important.  Consumer goods used by common inhabitants of Jerusalem reveal much about the culture of Jerusalem and its place in the world.  Large projects may indicate the priorities of rulers, religious authorities, and other elites, but they do not capture what it meant to be an average inhabitant of Jerusalem.  Consumer goods are used in the daily lives of the people, and the logistics of producing such goods can provide a window into another aspect of  Jerusalem’s history.


Figure 1: Roman Candlestick Unguentarium

This small glass container (Figure 1), housed at Fordham’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art, is a Roman unguentarium, a simple container that implies much about the city under Roman rule.  An unguentarium is a container used for storing powders and liquids, typically used for cosmetic purposes.[2] 

Many unguentaria have been found at cemeteries, also suggesting that they must have served a religious or ritual purpose as well.[3]  It is thought that unguentaria were suspended by ropes, as no evidence of stoppers have emerged.[4]  Various materials were used, such as ceramic and glass, but Roman unguentaria were predominantly glass.[5]  Glass unguentarium come in different colors, a result of the metallic oxides added to the glass by the artisan.[6]  Two shapes of unguentarium are commonly encountered, fusiform and piriform. Fusiform, or spindle shape, have a conical base.[7]  Piriform are pear shaped, and have a flat base.  Another common shape of unguentaria is the candlestick shape, so called because its long neck resembles a candlestick.  The pictured unguentarium is an example of a candlestick unguentarium.

This particular unguentarium has some fairly common qualities that indicate it is mass produced.  Although it has corroded, it appears to have originally been a light blue translucent color.  This was a popular color for Roman glassware, and was achieved by adding varying amounts of cobalt oxide and copper oxide to the sand used in glass making.[8]  The base is half of a sphere, and the foot is flat, allowing it to rest without the support of ropes like other unguentaria.  The neck is long and slender, but slightly askew.  That is to say that the neck is not exactly perpendicular to the base.  The mouth has a circular rim that juts out past the neck, though it is not an equal thickness throughout.  From mouth to base the unguentarium stands just over eight inches tall.

With these qualities in mind, the provenance of this unguentarium may be ascertained.  Given that this unguentarium is the common aqua blue and has imperfections in its shape, it is safe to assume that this unguentarium was part of a mass production.  This being so we can assume several possibilities about the unguentarium’s origin.  According to Pliny, the source for raw materials used in the majority of Roman glassware came from two locations in Egypt, Wadi Natrun and el-Barnugi, with the material from el-Barnugi being superior.[9]  Given this piece’s common qualities, the glass used could have come from either site, though it is impossible to say without a chemical analysis.  Raw materials here would be manufactured into glass in bulk; this process is referred to as primary glass working.  These massive slabs of glass would be broken up and shipped to a location that worked the glass into usable vessels.[10] 

There is no way of knowing where this vessel was shaped but Diocletin’s price edict is illuminating.  In the edict, Diocletien fixes prices for various goods, including glass.  Interestingly, the price between “Judean plain glass cups and vessels” and “Alexandrian plain glass cups and vessels” is different: Judean is listed as 20 denarii and Alexandrian as 30 denarii.[11]  This price difference suggests that there were sites in Judea that worked glass into vessels.  Unfortunately, there is virtually no extant evidence of glass working workshops in the Roman Empire, so it is difficult to say where exactly this piece may have been made.  Another possibility is that Judea itself contained primary glass working facilities. If there were different primary sites, the quality of glass would have been different than the Egyptian glass due to the different raw materials used to make the glass. Inferiority in Judean raw materials would explain the difference in price between Judean and Alexandrian glass, though this is uncertain due to lack of archeological evidence of the Roman glass industry in general.[12]

All of this begs the question, what is a vessel of Roman design, made of Egyptian materials, doing in Jerusalem?

The question of the provenance of the unguentarium provides a lens into  Jerusalem’s place within the vast trade network that made up the Roman Empire.  The unguentarium’s construction was possible due to trade between various entities: the sites that made glass from raw materials, those that shipped this raw glass, and those that fashioned the glass into usable goods. This is a sophisticated process, indicating a highly organized trade structure.  Though the Peutinger map is not contemporaneous with the Roman Empire, the map details the cities and road networks that made up the empire.[13]  The map shows hundreds of cities, including Jerusalem, labeled as Aelia Capitolina.  Jerusalem is connected to this network by three roads, one of which leads to the major commercial hub of Antioch.  Additionally, the major cities of Alexandria and Constantinople are relatively close to Jerusalem.  All of this indicates that Jerusalem had access to a large amount of goods, such as this unguentarium, from all across the empire.


Figure 2: Section of Peutinger Map showing Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina)

This unguentarium speaks to what the average person may have had access to, as it is most likely a cheap, mass produced item. This line of reasoning may hold true for a number of new goods under Roman rule of the city, much like modern international trade enabling unprecedented access to goods on a global scale.  Aside from the commercial aspects of the unguentaria, there is the fact that they were commonly used in funeral rituals.  Prior to Roman rule, this would have been an impossibility, as Jerusalem would not have access to these vessels beforehand.  This indicates that Roman religious practices may have affected local practices.  All of this forces us to examine what legacy – not only military but also commercial – the Romans left on Jerusalem.

Roman rule of Jerusalem ushered Jerusalem into a pan-Mediterranean trade network; the city would eventually transition to trade in the East.  Jerusalem is often considered for its religious importance. But there are many references in historical literature to Jerusalem’s centrality in trade, too.  Jerusalem had a significant commercial importance as early as the Iron Age, as the rise of the Assyrians led to increased trade in the region.[14]  But this trade mainly benefited the elite, as very few imported goods like pottery have been discovered.[15]  It is thought that trade routes were limited due to the difficult topography around Jerusalem.[16]  Trade networks significantly expanded during the Roman period, in part because of the vast road system that the empire built. 

Perhaps the most famous reference to Jerusalem mercantilism is the episode of Jesus chasing out the money changers, which appears in all four canonical gospels.[17]  The narrative details Jesus expelling currency exchangers out of the Second Temple.  The fact that there are multiple currencies to be exchanged show that Jerusalem has garnished a reputation for a city of international trade; such a profession would not be necessary if goods were all purchased with a single currency.  Rather, currency from different sources show that traders from different regions would come to Jerusalem to purchase things.  Another reference to Jerusalem as a great trading city is found in Al-Muqaddasi’s The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions.  In his praise of Jerusalem, Al-Muqaddasi mentions that many amenities from around the world are available in Jerusalem’s market, and he says that this is one of the reasons why Jerusalem is one of the best cities in the world.[18]  Al-Muqaddasi composed his text in the tenth century, when Jerusalem was under Abbasid  rule, well after Roman rule of the city. This indicates that Jerusalem maintained its commercial status after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.[19]

This Roman unguentarium found near Jerusalem allows us to infer many things about the status of trade in Jerusalem during and after Roman rule of the city.  The production of the unguentarium was enabled by the vast trade network of the Roman Empire.  The glass industry was able to utilize raw materials for production in distant areas, and allowed for transport of final goods for sale in far-reaching regions.  While Jerusalem gained the status of a commercial city under the Romans, this status endured through the medieval period.  The world’s foremost religious city was a worldly city as well.

Daniel Ramazzotto is a senior from New Jersey studying Biology. He enjoys reading, running, and history.

This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; the Mahzor and this essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library. 

Notes:

[1] Dorell, “Jerusalem has History.”

[2] Telli, “Unguentarium As A Ceramic Vessel,” 1.

[3] Telli, “Unguentarium As A Ceramic Vessel,” 1

[4] Telli, “Unguentarium As A Ceramic Vessel,” 21

[5] Telli, “Unguentarium As A Ceramic Vessel,” 20

[6] “How Glass Was Made in the Ancient Roman World.”

[7] Telli, “Unguentarium As A Ceramic Vessel,” 20

[8] “How Glass Was Made in the Ancient Roman World.”

[9] Jackson, et al, “Glassmaking Using Natron.”

[10] Jackson, et al, “Glassmaking Using Natron.”

[11] Barag, “Alexandrian and Judaean Glass in the Price Edict of Diocletian,” 184.

[12] Zeitzer, “The Roman Glass Industry,” 25.

[13] “Explore Peutinger’s Roman Map”: https://isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/space/tpeut.html

[14] Tebes, “Was Jerusalem a Trade Center.”

[15] Tebes, “Was Jerusalem a Trade Center.”

[16] Tebes, “Was Jerusalem a Trade Center.”

[17] Matthew 21; Mark 11; Luke 19; John 2.

[18] Al-Muqaddasi, The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions, 251

[19] Trade in medieval Jerusalem is also explore in Boehm and Holcomb, Jerusalem, 1000-1400, 9-26.

Bibliography:

Barag, Dan. “Alexandrian and Judaean Glass in the Price Edict of Diocletian.” Journal of Glass Studies 47 (2005): 184-186.

Boehm, Barbara Drake and Melanie Holcomb, Jerusalem, 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016).

Dorell, Oren. “Jerusalem has history of many conquests, surrenders.” USA Today. 6 December 2017. Accessed December 9, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/12/05/jerusalem-history-israel-capital/923651001/

Explore Peutinger’s Roman Map. (n.d.). Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/space/tpeut.html

“How Glass Was Made in the Ancient Roman World.” Department of Classics. July 26, 2019. Accessed December 09, 2020. https://www.colorado.edu/classics/2018/10/11/how-glass-was-made-ancient-roman-world#:~:text=The ancient Roman glass industry,the raw materials were available.

Jackson, C.M., Paynter, S., Nenna, M.D. et al. “Glassmaking Using Natron from el-Barnugi (Egypt): Pliny and the Roman Glass Industry.” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 10 (2018): 1179–1191. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-016-0447-4

Muqaddasi, Muhammad Ibn Aohmad. The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions: Translation of Ahsan Al-taqasim Fi Marifat Al-aqalim. Translated by Basil Anthony Collins. Doha: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, 1994.

Tebes, Juan Manuel. “Was Jerusalem a Trade Center in the Late Iron Age?” 2020. Accessed December 09, 2020, from https://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/wtc2357913.shtml

Telli, Elçin. “Unguentarium As A Ceramic Vessel.” Conference Paper delivered at the 1st International Aromatic Plants & Cosmetics Symposium, 2019.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338984815_Unguentarium_As_A_Ceramic_Vessel

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Zeitzer, Ryan. “The Roman Glass Industry: An Analysis of Roman Era Glass Production and the Lives of Glassblowers.” Master’s thesis, Brandeis University, 2018.