GLASS IN ROMAN YORK
The following account is contributed by Dr. D. B. Harden; the accompanying drawings are by Mrs.
Marion Cox and Dudley Waterman; the photographs are the Commission's. The identity numbers prefixed by H. or H.G. refer to pieces in the Yorkshire Museum (Y.M.).
The story of glass in Roman York corresponds extraordinarily well with the historical development of
the fortress and town sketched in the Introduction (p. xxix). It reflects, in particular, first the period of
primarily military occupation from A.D. 71 to the closing years of the 2nd century; then two centuries or
more during which York's prosperity as a civilian and military centre was more or less unbroken and
during which the city twice became an imperial residence, first from 208 to 211 and secondly at the
beginning of the 4th century.
There is a distinct group of late 1st and 2nd-century material to represent the earlier, military phase, but
the great majority of the glass belongs to the 3rd and 4th centuries and is spread fairly evenly over that
period, though with a probable predominance of late over early pieces. Unfortunately the exact find-spots
of over half the material are no longer known and the problem has been further complicated since certain
non-local specimens have over the course of years been mixed up with the local ones in the Yorkshire
Museum and they can only now be sorted out with difficulty, and without great assurance, on a typological
basis. Most of the provenienced pieces come from the Railway Cemetery or from tombs on The Mount.
Late 1st and 2nd century
In the south of England in Claudian and Flavian times one
of the most prevalent shapes of glass appears to have been the
pillar-moulded bowl. Fragments of these bowls occur also in
some quantity at York, mainly in transparent green and dark
blue glass (see H.G. 176. Fig. 89). It is known that the type
died out about the turn of the 1st century. These York fragments, therefore, represent the earliest years of the fortress's
existence. There is no record of any of them being found in
graves, but one (H.G. 252) is from S. N. Miller's excavations
on the N.E. side of the fortress in 1925 (JRS, XV (1925), 182,
fig. 96, no. 5) and Raine speaks of pieces of them from 'under
the Exhibition Building, 1878' (YMH, 104, item j).
Only eight other fragments are certainly of 1st-century date
and none of them unfortunately has an exact find-spot. Two
are pieces of mosaic glass, one from a bowl (H.G. 203), the
other (H.G. 168) a piece of flat inlay of green and yellow, the
commonest and most long-lived variety of this fabric. A third
(H.G. 300) is a fragmentary flasklet (Fig. 89) of blue glass of a
type found frequently in 1st-century graves on the continent.
A fourth (H.G. 273) is a piece of a mould-blown beaker with a
pattern of almond-shaped knops alternating with dots (Fig.
88). It belongs to a family well represented at Pompeii and
was found by S. N. Miller in 1925. The remainder are all of
considerable interest. Two are handles of colourless glass (H.G.
222–3) from different cups of a type of fine ware that was probably cast in a mould and then finished by grinding the surface,
handles and all (Fig. 88). Another (H.G. 192) is a stemmed
base (Fig. 88) belonging to the same type as these handlefragments, it seems, when we compare a complete piece from
Canosa, Italy, in the British Museum. The type has been
dated to Hellenistic times and it certainly derives from
Hellenistic metal models, yet, if so, it must have been longlived, for besides these York examples there is a fine bowl of
the same general class in the Guildhall Museum, London, from
a Flavian pit near the Walbrook. The last 1st-century piece is a
fragment in the Museum (unnumbered) of a mould-blown
cylindrical cup of bluish-green glass belonging to a well-known
type of the Claudio-Flavian period depicting a chariot-race.
The fragment ((a) on Fig. 88) bears, in the main, part of a
four-horse chariot and a sevenfold ovarium on columns; the
inscription (above) is missing (YMH, 105). It belongs to a
group of nine specimens, all fragments, most if not all of
which are from the same mould. Of the others, five are from
Vindonissa (Switzerland) and one each from Rottweil
(Württemberg), Vézelay (Yonne) and Southwark.
Of fragments of 2nd-century date a rim (H.G. 218) of a
shallow bowl of colourless glass (Fig. 88) of Alexandrian
fabric of a type found frequently at the key site of Karanis in
the Fayum indicates long distance trade in glass. Other similar
fragments have turned up on villa sites in Britain, e.g. Ditchley,
Oxon., and Great Weldon, Northants., and there is a complete
bowl of similar ware with cut decoration from a Roman
grave at Girton near Cambridge. Another import from a
distance, though perhaps from Italy rather than Egypt, is a
fragment of a colourless beaker (H.G. 205.3) with fine, deep
facet-cutting of a type that seems to begin in the later 1st
century and continues well into the next (Fig. 88). There are
complete examples of the type from Locarno (Switzerland) and
Curium (Cyprus) and fragments have turned up on other
British sites, e.g. Wilderspool (Warrington) and Caerleon.
This piece was found 'in or outside the city walls' during the
Railway excavations (Y.M., Cook MS., 142, no. 17).
Much of the other early glass at York consists of fragments
of cinerary vessels and of the green unguent flasks that so often
accompany them in cremation deposits. The only complete
cinerary vessels are the bottle (H.G. 53) which contained the
ashes of Corellia Optata, aged 13, found on The Mount in
1861 (see Burials, IV Region, (l), Burial vii. Plate 66), and
an ovoid jar with cover (Y.M. 1948.3.1) from Clifton, outside
Bootham Bar, 1871, containing cremated bones (ibid., III
Region, (f). Fig. 89). Among unguent bottles we may note
one (H.G. 48) found on The Mount in 1814 'with fragments of a
cinerary urn in which it appeared to be enclosed' and several
from the Railway Station Cemetery just outside the walls,
e.g., H.G. 14 found in 1872 in a stone coffin, H.G. 32 in 1873
(see Burials, IV Region, (f), iii. Fig. 89), H.G. 231 in 1881
(ibid., (c), v. Fig. 89), H.G. 49 in 1874 (Fig. 89), and H.G.
36.1 and 2 in 1872 (Plate 66). These cinerary deposits belong
to the later 1st and 2nd centuries, any closer dating than that
being very difficult to assess. The types lasted for a hundred
years or more with little change.
Sometimes these unguent bottles had inscriptions on the
base. One such (Fig. 89) from the Railway Station Cemetery,
from near the arches through the City Wall, is inscribed
PATRIMONI (H.G. 217; Y.M., Cook MS., 141, figs. 7–8;
YMH, 103, item l). Many examples with this same inscription
are known, four from Rome, two from Gaul and one from
Cologne; in Britain examples come from Lincoln, Chester,
Densworth (Sussex) and Bath. Another inscribed piece from
York without exact provenience (H.G. 16) bears a winged
victory and a V (Fig. 89). These inscriptions and devices on
unguent bottles probably refer to the manufacturer of their
contents and do not indicate the maker of the glass itself.
For the rest, the 1st and 2nd-century glass consists mainly of
fragments of prismatic or cylindrical bottles. One nearly
complete four-sided jug with a moulded inscription S/L on its
base was found in a grave in the Trentholme Drive cemetery
in 1951–2 (Burials, IV Region, (o)), and a small hexagonal
jug (H. 34c) was an accessory vessel in a burial found in the
Railway Cemetery in 1874 (ibid., IV Region, (i), 2nd Group.
Plates 30, 67. Fig. 88). Though the jug itself is most unlikely to
have been made later than the 2nd century, the cinerary urn
and colour-coated motto beaker found with it are unlikely to
be earlier than A.D. 250, so that the glass must have been quite
old when buried (YMH, 148, item n). While all this is
thoroughly typical, so far as it goes, of glass of the period found
on other sites in Britain, it is less plentiful than we might
expect, perhaps because many fragments found in 19th-century
diggings were not kept. One would, however, have expected
the cemeteries to yield more cinerary urns, especially ovoid
jars, and one would also have expected some good early jugs
and rectangular and cylindrical bottles.
3rd and 4th century
It is convenient to divide this material into two groups: first,
glass which almost certainly belongs to the first half of the
3rd century, if not partly to the last quarter of the 2nd; and
second, material more probably belonging to the later 3rd and
The first group is represented only by fragmentary specimens, but they are important since they indicate, as we should
expect, that examples of some of the best Rhineland glass of
the period—the heyday of the Cologne glass-houses—was
reaching York in some quantity.
We look first at some pieces with faceted and linear cutting:
the 3rd-century Rhenish descendants of the fine Mediterranean
facet-work of the 1st and 2nd centuries. Three examples (Fig.
88) come from the Railway Station Cemetery, H.G. 162,
205.1, 211 (Y.M., Cook MS., 142, figs. 15, 18, 19); all are
typical colourless Rhineland ware such as is found in quantity
on numerous western sites. The best piece, however, which is
perhaps the finest example of Rhenish crystal yet known from
Britain, is a vertical-sided bowl (H.G. 210) with flat base, the
sides and base being completely covered with geometrical
patterns of grooves and facets (Fig. 88). Unfortunately we
do not know its exact provenience in York; but its date and
fabric are clear, though it is more cylindrical than is normal for
this Rhenish crystal, and it deserves a prominent place in any
discussion of glass from Britain.
Another shape of Rhenish colourless glass which is particularly common on early 3rd-century sites is a cylindrical bowl
with a raised ring or rings on the bottom and often a raised
trail on the side as well. Bases of this type are readily recognisable and many exist from York, all unfortunately without
provenience, and rims (not so readily recognisable) also occur.
The complete shape (Fig. 88, combining base H.G. 202.6 and
an unnumbered rim, b) is best exemplified in this country by one
from Airlie in Angus, now in the National Museum of
Antiquities, Edinburgh. The colourless jugs of like date and
fabric from Cologne are represented by an interesting handle
(H.G. 197) made of two vertical trails nipped together at
intervals 'from the [old] Railway Station' (Y.M., Cook MS.,
142, no. 21). Of the famous Cologne snake-thread polychrome
glasses York has yielded only one fragment of a beaker (H.G.
153) with opaque blue trail (Fig. 88). But this is paralleled by
two other fragments of fine Cologne glass with coloured
trails, namely a two-handled jug-neck with a blue trail, from
Toft Green (H.G. 184; YMH, 103, item e. Fig. 88) and a tiny
bird (H.G. 208; YMH, 103, item e. Fig. 88) in opaque white
glass with opaque light blue beak, eyes and wings, which perhaps comes from one of the elaborate Cologne open-work
vases with birds sitting in the holes (Fig. 88, lowest right). (fn. 1) All
these indicate that the very best Cologne glasses could find
their way hither, perhaps to the Severan court itself.
The group of glasses from York belonging to the later 3rd
and 4th centuries is larger and much more varied in its composition than any earlier group. It comprises far more than
half of the total of glass preserved from York sites and is as
representative a selection of late Roman glasses as can be seen
anywhere in Britain. A few important and common western
types of the period are missing, e.g. mould-blown barrelshaped jugs stamped by Frontinus and others, mould-blown
flasks with bodies in the form of human heads, and bowls with
late figured cutting, but most of the well-recognised types are
represented by fragments, at least, if not by complete examples.
One reason for the quantity found is that by the middle of the
3rd century inhumation had superseded cremation throughout
the western empire and this gave the funerary goods a greater
chance of survival, especially when coffins were used.
Fig. 88. Half actual size.
Fig. 89. Half actual size.
Though the older form of unguent bottle with long neck
and triangular body survived in part, it was usually replaced
by new shapes. Two of pipette shape are representative of a
group of half-a-dozen or more from York graves; the larger
one (H.G. 7; YMH, 103, item c) was found with a black
pottery vessel in a lead coffin in the Railway Cemetery in 1875
(see Burials, IV Region, (d), Burial x) and the smaller (H.G. 6)
comes from The Mount (Fig. 89). This type is frequent both
in the west and in Syria during the 4th century A.D. Another
late form with four depressions in the body is also found
frequently at York; one (H.G. 9. Fig. 89) is from the Railway
Cemetery, 1872 (YMH, 104, item o), and another (H. 324.5.
Fig. 88), from which the rim is missing, was found in 1874 in a
woman's grave with a bottle (H. 324.6) with ring-shaped body
(Fig. 88), a rare type anywhere, and the remains of a bronzemounted casket containing jet pins (now missing) and bangles
(see Burials, IV Region, (e), Burial vi). The rim of the ringbottle and most of its two little handles, which were of the
delphiniform type, are missing. Of two stone coffins found on
The Mount in 1872 (ibid., IV, (n), v), one produced the beaker
(H.G. 144; YMH, 103, item k) which, with its wheel-incisions
and unworked rim, is a typical late 4th-century piece (Plate
66), as found frequently, for instance, in the cemetery at
Mayen in the Eifel, while the other yielded a colourless beaker
with indented sides (H.G. 180) which, though of poorish
material, is perhaps 3rd rather than 4th-century (Plate 66),
and an unguent bottle (H.G. 154) of the long-lived variety with
triangular body (Plate 66) (YMH, 102, item f; Y.M., Cook
MS., 140, 2, 3). Another colourless beaker (H.G. 127), which
has lime accretion on one side, indicating that it lay in a
coffin or cist, most probably may be the one from the Railway
Cemetery, 1873–4, which Raine (YMH, 25, 147, f) called a
perfect drinking vessel of glass (see Burials, IV Region, (c),
vi. Plate 66). A tiny jar (H.G. 2) found in a stone coffin in the
same cemetery in 1873 belongs to another long-lived Roman
type (Fig. 89).
Glass Bottles (Burial, IV Region, (b) ii). Half actual size.
When the N. Midland Railway was building in 1840 a very
interesting burial was found 'outside Barwalls' in a lead
sarcophagus which, besides a skeleton, contained a lead
ossuary with an infant's cremation (see Burials, IV Region,
(b), ii). Four glass bottles (Plate 67. Figs. 63, 90), two with
hole-mouths, two necked, lay in the coffin in pairs, lip to lip
as reported and sketched by C. Roach Smith (Collectanea
Antiqua, VII (1880), fig. 175) though it is not apparent whether
this position had any special significance. All are of the same
colourless fabric with very similar decoration of horizontal
wheel-incisions in groups; the necked pieces (H.G. 146. 3–4)
are a pair in size, the others (H.G. 146.1–2) are not (YMH, 102,
item b, 146, item b). Among a number of other examples of
the necked variety from York graves we may mention especially H. 13 (Fig. 89), which was found in a woman's grave
in the Railway Station Cemetery, 1874, with a coin of Crispus
(A.D. 317–26) and various items of bone and bronze (YMH,
133, item b), thus indicating a sure 4th-century date for the
type (see Burials, IV Region, (i), 1st group). The holemouthed variety is much rarer everywhere and no others are
known from York. Another burial in a lead coffin found in
Walmgate in 1892 (ibid., I Region, (c), i) produced two similar
cylindrical bottles (H. 321.7–8) but smaller and of much poorer
greenish-colourless glass, full of bubbles, streaks and black
specks (Plate 67), which seem very like imitations of the
better variety from the other burial. H.G. 109 (Plate 67),
of green glass, from the Railway Station Cemetery, with its
very small opening at the base of the neck, is a dropper of a
type which occurs with snake-thread decoration both in the
east and west, often with indented sides. (fn. 2)
A stone coffin in Clementhorpe outside the S.E. angle of the
mediaeval walls, and so probably of the colonia, produced a
glass jug (H.G. 44) and a late colour-coated pottery beaker with
rouletting (see Burials, V Region, (b), Burial ii. Plate 67).
The glass is of poor green metal full of bubbles and impurities
and a typical late piece. A better-made jug (H. 12), also of the
4th century, is the well-known dark blue one (Plate 67. Fig.
58) from the famous burial in a stone coffin in Sycamore
Terrace (ibid., III Region, (b), v), found in 1901, with bone
and jet bracelets, a mirror-glass (H. 11) and an openwork bone
fillet inscribed SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO. The glass jug,
with its ring-fold at the top of the handle, is a very frequent
Rhineland type of the late 3rd or 4th century, no doubt from
the Cologne glass-houses. The mirror-glass (Fig. 58), which
might well be passed by, by the unwary, as a mere fragment
of a vessel, belongs to a well-known late Roman type of small
mirror, originally mounted in a plaster or wooden frame, and,
no doubt, carried in the owner's satchel.
A number of other varieties of flask or bottle also occur,
mostly, unfortunately, without recorded provenience. A very
common late type in the west is the cylindrical bottle with two
small delphiniform handles at the base of the neck. One such is
H.G. 182 (Fig. 89) which, as it has lost its neck and rim, may
be the 'small bottle, slightly imperfect, with miniature
handles' which Raine (YMH, 102, d) cites from the Railway
Station Cemetery, 1872 (see Burials, IV Region, (f), iv). Fragments of the other delphiniform-handled type of flask, with
spherical body, also occurred at York, e.g. H.G. 227 (Fig. 88).
A tiny unguent flask (H. 103.1), mainly green, but with a
colourless streak, of poor, late metal (Fig. 89), came from a
female burial in a stone coffin found on the site of the Station
Hotel, 1874 (ibid., IV Region, (c), iv). Of greater interest are
two flasks without provenience, both typical of the 4th century
in the west. The first (H.G. 33) is a colourless spherical vessel
with cylindrical neck, constricted at the base, which has bands
of horizontal wheel-incisions on neck and body (Plate 67).
The second (H. 2059.2) has a squat globular body and a funnel
neck and it, too, has bands of horizontal wheel-incisions (Plate
67). Both are types which are very frequent in Gaul and the
Most of this 3rd to 4th-century glass was undoubtedly made
in the Rhineland or north France, though the shapes are in
many instances derived from eastern prototypes. The reason
for the predominance of eastern shapes and designs in western
glass-houses is that they were largely run by eastern workers
who were recruited, generation after generation, so it seems,
from the Syrian and Alexandrian industrial centres.
There is no evidence that any of this glass was made at York,
or even in Britain, though we know that glass-working existed
at Colchester, Caistor-by-Norwich and Wilderspool (Warrington) and it may be that some of it, such as the two poorly
made Walmgate bottles (see above, H. 321.7–8), are British
products. They are so poor that one would not expect them
to be accepted by a self-respecting Rhenish druggist as containers for his toilet preparations.
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