Recreating a 1900-Year-Old Glass Fish

Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet
Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet / Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

In Begram, Afghanistan, a storeroom was found containing 180 ancient glass vessels. Archeologists date the collection to around 100 AD, due to similarities with Roman glass work of that time. But some of the pieces in the Begram collection are very odd, most notably a series of glass animals clearly produced by glassblowing (in which an artisan blows air through a tube into a blob of glass, inflating it), which was a brand new technique at the time. From the British Museum Blog:

However, some of the vessels found at Begram remain something of a mystery and these include as many as twenty-two which are in the shape of fish and other creatures. Three of these are shown in the exhibition. They were made by inflating the glass while it was hot and adding trails of glass to the body, and sometimes in a different colour, to create very distinctive fins. The composition of the glass resembles that of Roman glass made in Egypt yet there are no known parallels, either complete or fragmentary, for these vessels from the Roman world. ... ... the implication of the fish-shaped vessels from Begram is that some was fashioned into glass vessels by someone who had picked up the basics of glass-blowing and set up shop in a world where this was a complete novelty. It is not difficult to see how even the cheapest and most mass-produced types of Roman glassware were given exorbitant prices in places like India or Afghanistan in the first century but imagine the response when someone says they can make a vessel that looks like a fish, is unknown even in Rome and, to cap it all, rests perfectly on a table as its fins act as supports.

In other words, we can imagine that an enterprising glassblower picked up the basics of the technique in the Roman world, hit the road, and made some awesome fish in Afghanistan. 1,900 years later in 2011, the British Museum put them on display.

Glassblowing is a special form of art, requiring lots of practice, speed, confidence, and a really hot furnace (not to mention plenty of spare glass in various colors and a variety of hand tools). I have only personally seen glassblowers at work at Blenko, the famous West Virginia glass company (indeed, as I write this I'm drinking water from a blue Blenko pinch glass). Watching the video below, I recognize all of these techniques. It's just wild to think that some of the earliest blown-glass pieces ever created have managed to survive nearly two millennia.

In this video, Bill Gudenrath of the Corning Museum of Glass makes a rough replica of the Begram fish using modern glassblowing techniques, to demonstrate how a modern glassblower would make this kind of piece. While it's not all that difficult for a skilled glassblower today, imagine pulling this off 1,900 years ago -- and what you could charge for this kind of work.

Read a bit more from the British Museum Blog for the full story.

(Via The Kid Should See This.)