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Object of the Month #11
Roman, Reproduction, Forgery
Possible Roman Glass Unguentarium (2013.01.240)
November 2015

This glass vase might be almost 2,000 years old.

Or a reproduction.

Or a fake.


Found on a shelf in the archives without accompanying information, there’s no definitive answer. It could be almost two millennia old, but there’s nothing conclusive. And there’s the rub.

A Roman form called an unguentarium, this type of vase was sometimes used for storing perfume or cosmetics.[1] It is 18 cm tall (approximately 7”), completely intact without chips or breaks, transparent pale green, with a flared and flattened rim, and a tall, cylindrical neck above a bell-shaped body with a constriction where the neck and body join. The unguentarium was handblown, and there is a raised ring called a pontil mark on the underside indicating where the vase was once attached to the blowpipe.

The first time I saw this vase in the NMH Archives I was so surprised I nearly fell over.[2] Before working in the archives I was an archaeologist and one of my areas of specialization was the eastern Roman Empire, with a focus on glass production and trade. More specifically, I excavated in Petra, Jordan and cataloged what was largely a Romano-Byzantine glass corpus.[3] I’ve examined and recorded thousands of pieces of ancient glass, but never have I pulled an intact vessel, such as this, directly from the ground. To say I was excited to see this vase would be an understatement. But then I began to wonder, could this unguentarium really be “real,” or was it too good to be true?

What we do know is that this and other objects representing several centuries of Anatolian history were donated to the NMH Archives in 2011 by the grandson of Frank L. Duley.[4] Duley was the unguentarium’s original owner, and a graduate of Mount Hermon in 1893. He later taught at both Mount Hermon and Northfield before becoming the interim principal of the Northfield School for Girls in 1925. Before returning to teach, he lived and worked in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).[5]

That Duley lived in Turkey is suggestive, and it is almost certain he acquired the unguentarium during his time there. It is of a style and shape that, if it were ancient, I would date to the 1st-3rd c. CE, maybe toward the latter half of that range. The vase would not have been out of place in Roman Anatolia.

So, having confirmed that: (a) the unguentarium is a recognizable Roman form, and (b) that Duley probably acquired it from an area where it could have originated, why do I hesitate to formally recognize it as Roman? The short answer is because it lacks context.[6] In archaeology, “context” refers to the relationship between an artifact and its physical find spot, and its relationship to other objects. Context can be invaluable for dating both artifacts and entire sites, as well as determining function. Ancient glass is immune to archaeometric dating methods such as radiocarbon dating, due to its low carbon content, and as a result benefits greatly when context is available.

When context is erased from an artifact, as it has been from this unguentarium, it becomes difficult if not impossible to discuss specifics. Not only don’t we know where this vase was found within the stratigraphy of an archaeological site, we don’t even know the location of the site (if it even came from one). We are left with a plausibly Roman glass form, and some intriguing hunches, but little in the way of definitive answers.[7]

Moving on from context for the moment, let’s run down some of the pros and cons for the three possibilities: Roman, reproduction, forgery. The lack of context is disappointing, but neither does it prove that the unguentarium isn’t Roman. To me, the greatest strike against it being authentic is how intact and relatively clean the vase is. Ancient glass is often some combination of friable, pitted, dirty, worn, broken, flaking, dull, and iridescent.[8] Aside from being ever so slightly iridescent, none of these features are represented by the NMH vase. Not only isn’t the vase particularly weathered, the pontil mark on the bottom is still sharp enough to cut. Staggeringly pristine pieces of ancient glass do exist, however, such as a 2nd c. CE bowl in the Israel Museum, so although the unguentarium’s excellent condition doesn’t rule out a Roman date, it does raise some red flags.

The important distinction between a fraud and a reproduction is that the former is intended to deceive, while the latter is put forward honestly. I don’t believe this unguentarium is a forgery, mostly because I just can’t imagine that someone attempting to defraud would pass up the chance to make it look at least a little more aged. If I wanted to make a modern vase look old, I’d fake at least a few of the weathering characteristics mentioned above; dirt at a bare minimum. This vase is so clean, that in fact, it’s the basis of much of my doubt about its age.

There are several good arguments in favor of it being a reproduction. As a reproduction, it would be acceptable, even desirable, for the vase to be perfectly clean and intact. The sharp pontil mark is no longer of concern if it’s a reproduction. You could imagine a modern glass artisan scrupulously reproducing an old Roman form. Its relatively small size would make it tourist-friendly as well.

And yet the unguentarium just seems so believably, authentically Roman. The light green color is accurate for the period, and the form and size ring true.[9] I have gone back and forth so many times about whether I think it’s more likely authentic, or a reproduction, that depending on what time of the day you ask me about it I might give you a different answer. Right now I’m leaning toward it being a reproduction; as an archaeologist it would be irresponsible to definitively call it authentic without much better evidence.

Mostly what this unguentarium teaches us is that context and documentation are paramount. Without it all we’re left with are educated guesses. It is possible to appreciate the vase and the skill of the glassblower, whether that glassblower was working a century ago or two millennia ago. It certainly deserves a place in the NMH Archives, not only because of its possible antiquity, but also because of its connection to Duley, an important and influential figure in the school’s history.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist

***

[1] Auth, Susan H. 1976. Ancient Glass at the Newark Museum. Newark, New Jersey: The Newark Museum, p. 114.

[2] This vase is actually one of a pair of unguentaria. The two are nearly identical, although the other one is a bit shorter.

[3] If you’re interested in hearing more about my archaeological research in Jordan or other places, I’m always happy to talk about it. Send me an email at sreid.

[4] Anatolia roughly corresponds to modern-day Turkey.

[5] Weis, Peter. "To Constantinople and Back." NMH Magazine 15.1 (2013): 16-17.

[6] It also lacks provenance, but that’s another column.

[7] Don’t loot, kids.

[8] Yes, glass can be both dull and iridescent at the same time. A lot depends on soil chemistry.

[9] Part of my research hinged on the change over time of glass color between the Roman and Byzantine periods, so I’m making a great effort here not to drown this post in details, but I will add that in order to make the glass anything but light green would take effort; this is just a default color, as it were.

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