Monday, March 28, 2011

Grave Goods and Rituals

I had to attend a family funeral last week, and as I attended the various services and family functions, I was reminded how the rituals involved with funeral practices in modern times have parallels in early history.

In the pre-Christian era, it was customary to place worldly goods alongside the body of the deceased as he or she was buried. This practice extends back to Egyptian pharoahs and ancient times, as well as into the Medieval period. Sending your loved one from this earthly world into the next (whatever place your belief system thought that might be) without that individual's belongings was unthinkable. A warrior needed his weapons, the deceased must have clothing and their items of personal adornment to be presentable in the next life, and everyone had to have valuables and coin to pay Charon for the trip. It's because of these types of burials that we have some of the artifacts from the earliest periods of history.

For example, look at this picture of grave goods found in a late Roman burial in Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, Wessex. Two glass vessels were found among the objects in the grave, and they are intact. Much more recently, a Roman mosaic bowl was found, not intact, but entirely restorable with all its pieces. In the Merovingian culture, burial with goods was common, and we see glass vessels placed at the feet of the deceased, sometimes with food or liquids inside. In fact, the Merovingians were notorious for rich collections of grave goods, and many of the burial sites included glass vessels. Historians are thrilled to be able to find intact glass objects in this manner. Later-period people did not have so much focus on interring goods with the deceased, and so even though glass became more common and its use more widespread over the centuries, we have far fewer intact or whole examples. Glass breaks!

Of course, in addition to vessels, people were buried with other glass objects, most commonly glass beads. As in this find, often the number and type of glass beads is stunning.

The Pagan Lady's Necklace circa 950AD
found on the Isle of Man in 1984
glass and stone beads

Most of what we know about early glass use is because of burial sites unearthed in modern times. I always find it interesting as to what was chosen to be placed with a society's dead.

As I recall the funeral I just attended, in which photographs, a rosary, some jewelry, and other items of personal significance were placed in the casket of my family member, I think about why we still do that in this day and age. These days, in my family, we don't really believe that coins are needed to pay Charon, or that my beloved uncle will use the rosary or need his wedding ring or look at the photographs, but we do it because we want to acknowledge the significance of his life. I believe that people throughout history wanted to make that acknowledgement for their dead as well, which is why we find so many interesting things among the deceased members of ancient societies. It helps us feel as though we are 'doing something' in the face of a terrible event -- and that desire is basic human nature, no matter the century.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Aldrevandin Beaker

In the British Museum collection, there is a beautiful vessel from the end of the 13th century called the 'Aldrevandini Beaker'.
photo: British Museum

It's a blown glass beaker with enameled decoration, and an inscription that tells us who the maker was, a master called Aldrevandin. The enameled inscription on the vessel reads: "MAGISTER ALDREVANDIN ME FECI", and translates to "Master Aldrevandin Made Me". It's not often that a glass item is actually 'signed' by it's maker!

What's really interesting about this piece is that the enameling is done both inside and outside the vessel, as opposed to just the outside. There was discussion among historians, too, as to its origin, seeing as how many Syrian and Islamic vessels are also enameled very richly, and this one was found in Europe. Ultimately, three points allowed historians to determine that the vessel was made in Venice -- the shape is not the same as Syrian or Islamic beakers, this being more straight-sided than those typically made in the medieval Islamic world, the enameling is done on interior and exterior surfaces, as opposed to just the exterior, and the enamels used included yellow, instead of gold, enamel. Syrian and Islamic vessels were enameled with gold, only on exterior surfaces, and were typically shaped with a taper from the base to the rim.

Additional fragments of vessels such as this one were found in Europe, which allowed historians to conclude that this vessel was most likely not made in the Islamic region, but in Venice. At the time of this vessel, the Venetians did possess the knowledge and skill to make beakers such as this one.

In a future post, I'll write about what I've learned about how this vessel was likely made.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

University links

For those of you who were not able to attend my classes at the recent University of Atlantia, here are the links to the presentations on Google Docs.

This is the link to 'Early Medieval Glass Vessels'.

And this is where you will find 'Standing On The Sea of Glass: Late Medieval Glass Vessels'.

For a look at the bibliography and references list, go here.


So, it's been a while since I posted here. But now that my family has grown some and the kids are a little but more independent (and I can actually sleep all night!), I think it's time to revamp this blog a little and move forward with it.

Some goals....

Focus on the medieval period, from about the 4th or 5th century up to the 16th century. I reserve the ability to occasionally make a foray into the glass of the Renaissance, though! ;)
ETA: Also the occasional foray into the Roman period. I love Roman glass!

I am planning on at least a post per week, and the focus will be on introducing a piece of medieval glass, and discussing what is known about it. I'll likely also fill in with some opinions of my own, based on my research.

I've already redesigned the look of the site a little bit, and that will probably go on for the foreseeable future. I don't like things to look the same all the time.

The plan is to also make available some of my documentation and writing on the subject of medieval glass, as soon as I figure out the best method for posting links to things.

So that's it for the time being. I'd recommend subscribing to the page, with by becoming a follower and starting a Blogger account for yourself, or by adding this site to your news feed on whatever reader you like. (I use Google Reader, myself)

Stay tuned!