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21.09.14 Broadley, The Glass Vessels of Anglo-Saxon England

21.09.14 Broadley, The Glass Vessels of Anglo-Saxon England

The title of this well researched volume delimits the matter and chronological scope of the study: vessel glass (not window glass or jewelry) that has survived in some quantity--2847 pieces to be exact--from the seventh to the eleventh centuries in England. The reader is well instructed on the chemical types of glass (soda glass versus the less durable wood ash [potash]), on the predominant vessel typologies (cone, claw, funnel and globular beakers; palm cups; bowls; the odd inkwell) and on the sites of their discovery (usually riverine, in emporia and ecclesiastical sites). Extant sherds come from refuse deposits at settlements (funerary glass vessels are excluded) and they become increasingly rare toward the end of that period, possibly due to their having been made with potash. Whether the vessels were produced domestically or abroad and how they were traded are persistent research questions for which Broadley provides comprehensive data and superlative engagement with prior scholarship.

As all archaeologists know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and Broadley is keenly aware of the excavation bias of the extant record. Within England, eastern vessel glass can be distinguished from western (or Atlantic) glass, and whereas eastern glass is found in the west, there is no evidence of glass going the other way (15). Broadley concentrates on eastern, continent-facing glass. Her main research contribution comes from the systematic correspondence analysis (see the 81 graphs in chapter 3) of all the characteristics of each sherd in their 24 assemblages: color, thickness, curvature, rim or base type, mode of decoration, and provenance. The context of discovery is critical for determining date (the presence of coins, e.g., or of objects that can be radio carbon dated) and the location is obviously significant. Over half of the extant sherds come from Southampton (Hamwic); Ipswich (Gippeswic), Brandon (also in Suffolk), London (Lundenwic; see Fig. 4.18) and York (Eoforwic) also yield significant numbers. Other notable statistics are that 72 percent of the sites with vessel glass also have window glass and 36 percent of such sites also yield styli that presumably indicate record keeping and mercantile activity (107). There is evidence of glass production at Glastonbury, Barking, and perhaps Lyminge: melted blobs, and in the case of Glastonbury a raw ingot of imported glass (1). Bede mentions both window glaziers and vessel artificers from Gaul at Monkwearmouth in 675, and in 763 Cuthbert asks Bishop Lul of Mainz to send skilled glassblowers (2). Analogous objects (skeuomorphs) in wood, pottery, metal, and leather can also yield clues. Broadley often points to the future promise of compositional analysis to determine the origins of any piece of glass, but given the medium's (but not the individual object's) durability, the fact that glass was recycled--sometimes with Roman glass--and that vessels of all types could be repurposed over time and place, the who, what, where and why of any given sherd resist definite conclusions.

For these reasons Broadley refrains from necessarily differentiating secular from ecclesiastical sites and vessels, and she proposes an "emerging third category of middle-ranking rural centers" as places where we may hypothesize vessel glass users and perhaps producers (131). Only three gold foil decorated Ipswich sherds are "definitely... imported into the English emporia" (133; see plates 4, 5, 6). International trade must have existed but the direction and quantities are difficult to establish. Scholarly opinion is divided on the subject, and Broadley remains admirably cautious. The identity of producers and users is thus obscure, but Broadley generalizes that globular beakers with flat bases are usually ecclesiastical and corporate, and funnel beakers and palm cups that must be held align with more secular and individual uses (Fig. 3.82). Even so, monks like to dine and drink as much as nobles do, members of the same family could belong to either group, and over time monastic and secular sites overlap. There is some evidence of glass chalices (21, citing the 1996 Oxford thesis of M. Stiff), but oddly, church sites yield hardly any evidence of vessel glass (129, 144).

The ears of literature scholars will prick up at the mention of the "dipping hole" of a glass inkwell thus suggesting a sign of manuscript production, but no drawings or pictures are given (23; antler inkwells are also attested [82]; to be fair Broadley concentrates on dining ware). The 59 color plates are good quality and bring the sherds to vivid life. There are occasional cross-references in the text back to these plates, but--unhelpfully--not the other way around. The pages are large-format, with text in double columns. The picture of the intact globular beaker on the front cover is beautiful; a trip to the cited website hosted by the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm reveals that it was found on the island of Björkö and dates from Viking times. It is presumably chosen because of its reticella decoration: "cables made from two colours melted together and usually twisted," a feature that is indeed found on many Anglo-Saxon pieces (24; and see Fig. 1.1.10). A desideratum is a glossary of technical terms (reticella, cullet, natron, incalmo, marveling, etc.) given that even specialists do not have infallible recall, and definitions differ. Likewise, an index would make the volume more useful for researchers seeking their way into a mass of data.

There are, alas, no intact examples of non-funerary Anglo-Saxon glass vessels. Not surprisingly, glass diningware would be used until it broke. Broadley has taken a deep dive into a neglected body of evidence, away from the high-status studies that privilege aristocrats and toward the ever-elusive craftspeople, traders, and consumers of the medieval era. The book teaches even sceptics that useful insights can be derived from fragments.