Tag Archives: archaeological artefacts

Looking through the Glass

Dave Parkhill, Assistant Collection Manager

Clear as Glass?

Glass was used throughout the Roman world, with various applications and methods of manufacturing, and with colours ranging from an almost clear, pale green to vivid blues or other bright colours.

This rare core-formed alabastron (circa 3rd to 4th C BCE) is so named as earlier forms were made of alabaster. This bottle would have been used to hold perfume and the two small lugs were probably used for attaching a stopper in the neck. (© Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington)

A Dubious Origin Story

Glass objects, mainly in the form of simple glass beads have been dated to approximately the 3rd millenium BCE, but it was not until approximately a thousand years later that the first glass vessels emerged in Syria and Mesopotamia, an area that now makes up Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey and Iran.  One historical, albeit fanciful, explanation as to the origin of glass was recounted by Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian from the first century CE. In book 36 of his Natural History, Pliny gives a somewhat serendipitous account of how a Phoenician trading vessel, loaded with nitre, or potassium nitrate, was moored on the banks of the Belus River. The merchants were preparing their evening meal on the beach, and, not having any rocks to support their cooking pots, they turned to using large pieces of their cargo.  The nitre melted and fused with the beach sand and as the entire concoction cooled and hardened, glass was formed.  This theory has been generally discounted as the high temperatures needed to create glass would not be supplied by a simple cooking fire. 

Used for holding perfumed oils for anointing the body, this double balsarium (circa 3rd – 4th century CE) still has its looped handle intact – a rarity due to its fragile nature. (© Queensland Museum Peter Waddington)

Delicate glass bangles (circa 2nd cent CE) such as this indicate a life of relative ease and luxury. (© Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington)

Three Methods of Manufacture

Prior to the 1st century BCE discovery of glass blowing, there were basically two methods of manufacturing glass vessels: slumping and core formed. 

Slumping involved heating a piece of glass, roughly cut to size, over a mould and as the glass softened it would “slump” or drop into the mould. This was used to produce plates or bowls or other open containers.  The resulting product had both a rough exterior and interior, which was then polished smooth; it was at this point that a design could be cut or etched into the glass.  

Core formed glass requires forming a core of clay, or sometimes even animal manure and sand, around a steel rod and then dipping it into molten glass.  Strings of glass could be laid onto, and wrapped around the core.  The outer surface of the vessel was smoothed against a stone while still soft, and if needed, handles or feet could be added at this point.  Once cool, the object, such as this core formed alabastron (image a), was snapped free of the rod and the core removed. 

The third approach to making glass vessels was glass-blowing. The development of glass blowing is generally considered to have occurred sometime towards the end of the first century BCE in Syria, which at that time was a province of Rome.  The Romans came to excel at glass blowing, a technology that allowed them to create objects with far thinner walls, thereby making the product more translucent and allowing for a greater range of designs.  This method was also quicker and less expensive, which in turn gave rise to an increase in productivity, and glassware became more common as everyday items.  To create blown glass, molten glass, known as a “gob” is attached to the end of a blow pipe and air is blown through the pipe by the artisan. As the gob inflates it is shaped and formed by rolling or swinging the blowpipe.  While the glass is still soft, a rod, or pontil, is attached to the base of the object so that it can be held as the blowpipe is removed, and the mouth of the vessel is smoothed and shaped. Items such as this double balsarium (image b) were formed by glass blowing then folding the tube in half and pinching the fold to close each side.  In this example, a glass trail was then added to the upper half and a handle attached.  The chalky white encrustations on the balsarium are the results of the glass deteriorating due to the environment of the soil in which it was buried prior to its archaeological excavation.  

Beautifully blown glass dishes similar to this (circa 4th century CE), were used to serve meats, the well in the base providing a space for marinating oils. (© Queensland Museum Peter Waddington)

Beauty and Function

Glass was not only functional but could also be decorative, as in the case of tesserae for use in mosaics for pavements as well as for walls or ceilings, but also for personal adornment such as bangles (image e) and pendants (image f).  . With the discovery of new techniques, combined with greater skills of the glass makers, Roman glass became more accessible and served a wider range of uses. The advent of glass blowing, made for a thinner walled vessel, increasing its beauty and decreasing its cost.

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This delicate amber glass bottle (circa 1st – 3rd century CE) is decorated with a fine a glass trail which spirals its way from the base to the top of the neck. (© Queensland Museum Peter Waddington)

Setting the Table: Archaeology and Food

Marc Cheeseman, Archaeologist/Master’s Student, UQ

In every culture large proportions of time are dedicated to food-related activities, but how can archaeologists investigate this relationship? And what can this information tell us about the development of modern Australia?


From the 19th century to World War I, minerals (mostly gold) made up roughly one third of yearly Australian exports. During this time, as the economy expanded with the spread of pastoralism, agriculture, and various gold rushes, large-scale immigration became necessary to satisfy the increasing demand for workers. Spurred on by these economic opportunities people arrived from many European countries, as well as America, and the southern provinces of China, all living and working together at various mining settlements in what must have been thoroughly difficult conditions. Despite this, most archaeological interest in gold mining sites, particularly in Queensland, has focussed on equipment and industrial activities, rather than the people who used that equipment. Recent excavations at Ravenswood, a gold mining town in northern Queensland that boomed in the 1860s/1870s and just prior to World War I, allow us to explore social aspects of an important period in the development of modern Queensland and Australia by looking at archaeological food remains; in this case animal bones.

Food and Identity?

So, how does food reflect culture and identity? And more importantly, for our purposes, how can we look at food archaeologically? Every individual needs the same basic nutrients: carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins and minerals. Across time and space, however, human societies have developed an impressively wide variety of approaches in order to fulfil these basic biological needs, and in utilising these approaches people have developed certain food preferences. To save time let’s call a given society’s food preferences, which are selected from a narrow range of available materials constrained by geography and historical circumstances, that society’s ‘cuisine’. Unfortunately there is still more to it. For a long time anthropologists have considered food to have very deep cultural significance; it is much more than a simple biological necessity. For a few brief examples, food emphasises certain times of the year by helping mark holidays and special occasions. Even our weekly (and daily!) routines are frequently punctuated by discussions within individual households, and/or larger social groups, that focus almost exclusively on the consumption of food (broadly defined to include alcoholic beverages). There is a reason that the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ holds so much meaning.

Food and Identity? …And Archaeology?

Notably, it is the repeated nature of these ‘food practices’ (behaviours associated with preparing and consuming food) that makes them archaeologically visible. People persistently create characteristic waste associated with their specific food preferences, or cuisine, and we can (sometimes) locate this rich deposit of decomposing data in order to help us understand the daily lives of people from past societies. Geography and history, however, are not the only influences that shape how an individual interacts with their society’s cuisine (there’s still more to it!). Other considerations need to be taken into account, such as an individual’s social class, gender, ethnicity, and age, among others. A rural farmer, for example, does not eat the same food as a wealthy merchant from the same society and region. Even if they are consuming the same animals and vegetables (their range of choices is somewhat limited by geography and history, of course), they would likely be eating different cuts of meat, and/or have different preparation methods. Nevertheless, there are ways of utilising this archaeological food waste to help us understand social differentiation (or ‘group identity’) in the past.

So How Is It Done?

For historical sites such as Ravenswood this involves bringing together a wide array of historical documents (advertisements and articles in newspapers, personal journals, photographs, etc.) and combining that information with the evidence taken directly from the ground: the bones. Other associated archaeological material, such as ceramics and bottles, can help paint a picture of the wider consumption patterns of sauces, drinks and preserved foods—they can also provide crucial information about when the material was used and subsequently thrown away.

For the bones themselves, many previous studies across the world have shown that analysing archaeological food remains can provide much more than a short list of animals that people were eating. For example, identifying which species appear in the skeletal evidence, and then comparing this group with the list of available species for the settlement (taken from historical documents), can tell us about dietary choices and how the people in the town were expressing their societal and group identity. Similarly, identifying which body parts of each species appear in the skeletal evidence (the complete skeleton, or only one leg, etc.) can tell us about the town’s butchering practices. This information can of course tell us about cuisine and social formation, but it can also provide economic and social information about how transport and infrastructure (government funded railways, bridges, etc.) impacted daily life. Additionally, identifying ‘age at death’ patterns for each species can offer insight into whether an animal population was raised mainly for their primary product (i.e. meat), or their secondary product (e.g. wool or milk).

Bringing Home the Bacon

Taken together, this kind of information can start to paint a more personal picture of what daily life was like for the people of Ravenswood, the majority of whom are almost completely absent from the historical records of the period. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the stories that come out of Ravenswood feed into the much larger and ongoing story of the development of modern Australia. Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Historical archaeology at sites like Ravenswood can help answer these questions. There’s more than gold in them thar hills.

Further reading:

Lawrence, S. 2000 Dolly’s Creek : an archaeology of a Victorian goldfields community. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press

Orser, C.E. 2014 A primer on modern-world archaeology. Clinton Corners, New York: Eliot Werner Publications, Inc.

Pilcher, J.M. 2017 Food in world history (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Twiss, K. 2019 The archaeology of food: identity, politics, and ideology in the prehistoric and historic past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The ‘bric-a-brac’ of war

Australia recently celebrated National Archaeology Week. During this time, Queensland Museum Curator of Archaeology, Dr Brit Asmussen participated in some Meet the Curator sessions with a focus on discovering the stories of authentic and faux archaeological artefacts collected by servicemen stationed in Egypt in the First World War.

Continue reading The ‘bric-a-brac’ of war