Glass fragments highlight Islamic connections in late medieval Scotland

Discovered at Caerlaverock Castle, the glass fragments are believed to have been part of a vessel made in modern-day Syria, Iraq, or Egypt during the late medieval period.

A collaborative community project led by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has used 3D digital reconstruction techniques to shed light on the mysterious origins of three medieval Islamic glass fragments discovered during excavations in the late 1990s at Caerlaverock Castle, near Dumfries.

These glass fragments represent the first and only such finds ever made at an archaeological site in Scotland.

MATT CARTNEY Clara Molina Sanchez, Head of Applied Conservation at HES, examines one of pieces of Islamic glass found at Caerlaverock Castle. IMAGE: Historic Environment Scotland

It is thought that they once belonged to a single vessel – possibly a drinking beaker – made sometime around the 12th and 13th centuries in modern-day Syria, Iraq, or Egypt – important centres of Islamic glassmaking during the late medieval period.

They are decorated with an Arabic inscription that would have wrapped around the circumference of the vessel. The inscription includes part of the Arabic word for ‘eternal’ – likely used as one of the names of Allah – suggesting that it may be an extract from the Qur’an.

‘Discovering Islamic glass from the 13th century in a Scottish castle is an absolutely astounding find,’ said Stefan Sagrott, Archaeologist and Senior Cultural Resources Advisor at HES. ‘There wouldn’t be many vessels or objects made from glass, and if people did have them, they don’t tend to survive today. Glass degrades quickly when it’s in acidic soil, which is found a lot in Scotland.’

MATT CARTNEY The sherds underwent pXRF analysis, which revealed traces of red and gold enamel decoration, along with the white and blue that remains visible. IMAGE: Historic Environment Scotland

With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the HES launched ‘Eternal Connections’, a community project centring on the glass fragments aimed at exploring the links between Scottish and Islamic heritage.

The project involved submitting the fragments to portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) analysis. This revealed that the glass is a soda/lime/silica mix, very typical of what was being produced in the Middle East during the 13th century, and that the vessel would have had red and gold enamel decoration, along with the white and blue that is still visible.

Based on the analysis, as well as examples of contemporaneous medieval Islamic glass, Stirlingshire-based visual artist Alice Martin created a 3D-model digital reconstruction of what the vessel might have looked like originally.

Digital reconstruction of the drinking beaker. IMAGE: Historic Environment Scotland.

According to Martin, the vessel ‘may have come to Caerlaverock Castle through trade or could even have been brought back by returning crusaders.’

As part of the project, a series of workshops were delivered to community groups, including the Muslim Scouts in Edinburgh and the Glasgow-based AMINA – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, featuring talks about the analysis and digital reconstruction process, as well as creative activities in which participants painted Arabic and Gaelic scripts onto 3D prints of the beaker.

Aisha Qadar, Cub Section Leader for the 8th Braid Salaam Scouts in Edinburgh, praised the project, saying: ‘Our Cubs, Scouts and Venture Scouts thoroughly enjoyed learning about the connection between Scottish heritage and their Islamic identity.’

‘The fact there is a connection that goes back 800 years here in Scotland gives us a real sense of belonging.’

You can view a Sketchfab 3D model of the beaker here.