Digging for history: Ancient glass in the collection

Archaeology work might not be glamorous, but it yields some incredible finds. Intern Meera Munoz Pandya takes us behind the scenes in the museum's glass collection.

When I was six years old, I decided that I wanted to be an archaeologist. I grew up with a highly romanticized idea of the profession. I imagined unearthing great temples while the sun set on an endless Egyptian desert, or living the life of Indiana Jones. Now that I've done some work in the field, I know that actual archaeology bears little resemblance to the magical picture in my head. It is highly tedious, detail-oriented, often painstaking work, but the rewards can be amazing, especially when you uncover the history of a powerful object.

Brushing the ground clean at the end of a day of excavating in Spain. I would be overjoyed every time I found a small sherd of pottery, or was able to match two pieces of a bowl together.
Brushing the ground clean at the end of a day of excavating in Spain. I was overjoyed every time I found a small sherd of pottery, or was able to match two pieces of a bowl together.

I was intrigued by a collection of glass hiding in the back of a storage room here at the museum. The content is very ancient, and most of the objects are probably archaeological material that was acquired by private collectors before making their way to the museum’s shelves. Given that I would have been ecstatic if I had found even one of the simplest little glass vials on a dig, the amount of ancient glass here is astounding.

The scope of the collection is wide, from funeral urns from the Roman Empire to rows and rows of unbelievably delicate, tissue-thin vials and toilet bottles used by ancient Egypt women to store perfume and makeup. There are quite a few date flasks, which were fashioned to look wrinkly like the skin of a date. I also found beautiful strings of beads that were so well-made they look like they could have been crafted in the last decade. These artifacts come from civilizations that were advanced enough to make chemically-treated glass vessels thousands of years before the United States even came into existence.

Why would an American history museum have a collection of Middle Eastern glass? When this museum opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology, curators where particularly interested in tracing the entire history of various technologies, such as glassmaking. Ancient glass was displayed in the Glass Hall with labels pointing out that most of the production and decorative techniques of modern glassmaking were known to Middle Eastern craftsmen as early as 100 B.C.

An Egypto-Roman string of beads, a Sidonian perfume bottle, and a Sidonian date flask. All are from the 1st century AD.
An Egypto-Roman string of beads, a Sidonian perfume bottle, and a Sidonian date flask. All are from the 1st century AD.

It was the tear vials that really affected me. They are seemingly unremarkable when compared to the rest of the artifacts—they look like a test tube or sometimes like two test tubes that have been glued together. In a collection full of small bottles, vials don't really stand out. But in the corner of a box was a small note explaining what they were used for—mourners in funeral processions would catch their tears as they cried, and the vials would be buried with the dead. These vials feel to me like the most significant thing in the collection. They held tears; they represented someone's sorrow at the loss of a loved one.

 

A double balsamarium, resembling a tear vial, from the Roman Empire during the 3rd-4th centuries AD
A double balsamarium, resembling a tear vial, from the Roman Empire during the 3rd-4th centuries AD

I have been able to piece together the interesting journey of one of these tear vials. It was donated by Elizabeth Stillman, who gave hundreds of objects to multiple museums when she died. These included archaeological items, anthropological artifacts, and some biological samples. Stillman traveled all around Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, collecting huge numbers of artifacts. In the records as "Miss Elizabeth Stillman," it is noteworthy that an unmarried woman did such extensive traveling in this era. She bought this vial in a market in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1901.

 

Two ancient Phoenician tear vials purchased by Miss Elizabeth Stillman in Beirut in 1901
Two ancient Phoenician tear vials purchased by Miss Elizabeth Stillman in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1901

The object started its life in an ancient glassmaker's workshop, before finding its way to a mourner. An ancient Phoenician, heartbroken at the death of a loved one (or paid to cry to add drama to a funeral), caught his tears in it and buried it with the deceased. Centuries later, the tear vial was unearthed, likely by an archaeologist.

I know how exciting that find must have been to the archaeologist who uncovered the tear vial. Because of his or her effort, I had the opportunity to study this fascinating object.

Meera Munoz Pandya is an intern working on the glass collection in the Department of Home and Community Life. Follow in Meera’s footsteps and explore internship opportunities at the museum.

 

Posted at 7:45 am EDT in From the Collections,Intern Perspectives